Dry Tortugas National Park is a group of seven islands, located about 70 miles southwest of Key West in Florida. It is a beautiful gem in the Gulf of Mexico.
Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it) due to its remote location, your options for visiting these beautiful islands are very limited.
Here’s how to get to Dry Tortugas, as well as a few tips on what you can expect – a rough guide to Dry Tortugas.
How to get to Dry Tortugas National Park
There are three options that you can choose if you want to visit Dry Tortugas National Park:
- Yankee Freedom III ferryboat
- Key West Seaplane Adventures
- Private boat.
Yankee Freedom III Ferry
The great majority of visitors will arrive on the National Park Service approved ferry, Yankee Freedom III. Yankee Freedom III operates a daily trip, year round except on Christmas Day, to Dry Tortugas National Park from the Key West Ferry Terminal.
Arrive at the check in desk by 7am for registration and departure, and you will be back at the Key West pier around 5:30pm.
It’s a 2.5 hour boat ride each way, and you will end up spending around 4 hours on the Dry Tortugas.
As of Summer 2018, the Dry Tortugas Ferry is $180 for adults, and a reduced price ($125-$170) for children, students, seniors, or active US military personnel.
Check the official Yankee Freedom rates and reservation page for updated prices and information.
Dry Tortugas in a seaplane
This is another popular option to get to Dry Tortugas National Park: the Dry Tortugas Seaplane. You know – if you want to arrive in style.
Look at this view!
If you have the budget for it, arriving by seaplane is an adventure in itself.
Key West Seaplane Adventures offers two different options for a flight to Dry Tortugas:
- Half day – $342 per person for four hours
- Full day – $600 per person for eight hours
For more information, check the Key West Seaplane Adventures official website.
Although it is the least common way to visit Dry Tortugas National Park, some people opt to take their own private vessels (think yachts and fishing boats).
You will need to obtain a boating permit for your vessel and follow other National Park regulations.
You can moor your vessel in Key Garden (where Fort Jefferson is located).
Overnight mooring is prohibited in any of these Keys.
Yankee Freedom III Review
We decided to take the Dry Tortugas ferry for the full-day experience. That meant leaving our Airbnb to be at the Key West Ferry Terminal for check in at 7 AM. Thankfully we found great Cuban Coffee just a few minutes walk away.
Go to Cuban Coffee Queen – it’s worth it!
Checking in with the Yankee Freedom is easy and well-organized. Just give the staff your last name and they’ll give you your laminated boarding pass.
It is worth coming in early to beat the crowd. Your arrival time dictates the order of when you board the boat and choose your seats.
You’ll want good seats for the trip over.
Seating on Yankee Freedom III ferry
The benefit of arriving early for check-in is to reserve your seating preference upon boarding. It’s first-come, first-served. Most people sit inside for the trip over so they can enjoy the air conditioning.
While it is nice to sit inside the air-conditioned main room, some travelers prefer the upper-level indoor seating or the sundeck.
Our preference was the bow of the ferry, where you can enjoy the breeze and beautiful scenery of the Florida Keys.
We spotted lots of flying fish, as well as loggerhead sea turtles and dolphins!
Food and Drink on the Yankee Freedom
Your day trip to Dry Tortugas includes a simple breakfast and lunch. Don’t expect much from these meals – breakfast includes bagels, yogurt, cereal options, and fruit cocktail.
Basic lunch is do-it-yourself sandwiches:
- tomatoes, and deli meat
- chips and soda/water
You can always purchase additional meals and snacks, such as hot dogs, burgers and pretzels, from the main bar.
Drinking water, brewed coffee, and tea are always available throughout the journey.
On the way back to Key West, alcoholic beverages and beer are available for purchase.
Prices on drink and beverages on board are regulated by the National Park Service, which keeps the prices reasonably low.
To give you an idea:
- hotdog or burger with chips: $5
- pretzels or an ice cream bar: $2
- wine and mixed drinks: $4 and $5 respectively
- domestic beer: $3
- soda: $1
- bottled water: $2
You can use cash or cards on board. As is common in the United States, tip for great service – you’ll find a tip jar at the bar.
What to do in Dry Tortugas?
There are seven islands that make up Dry Tortugas National Park. It was 11 during the Ponce de Leon era in the 1510s. Only three of the Keys are open to public.
Even if you come in with your own private boat, you are not allowed to dock on the closed Keys.
You will most likely to start your visit at Garden Key, the home of Fort Jefferson. Fort Jefferson is a fortification that was built in the early to mid 1800s.
Technically, it’s never been completed.
The main activities for visitors are camping, snorkeling, fishing, and of course, touring Fort Jefferson. See below for separate sections on each.
Kayaking is possible, although you will need to bring your own equipment. Exploration of the nearby keys – Loggerhead Key and Bush Key – requires careful planning and may be time-sensitive, so plan accordingly with the ferry schedule if you plan to arrive on the Yankee Freedom day trip.
You can coordinate with the visitor’s center regarding kayaking requirements and more information.
Dry Tortugas Camping
While we didn’t personally camp in Dry Tortugas, here are the basics.
Camping in Dry Tortugas is rewarding for people who decide to do it, but you will have to plan accordingly. Dry Tortugas campground is one of the most beautiful setting you can imagine. However, space is very limited.
A maximum of 68 campers can stay here and space is on a first-come, first-served basis.
To reserve, call Yankee Freedom’s phone at 1-800-634-0939. There is no other way to do it. Groups of 10-20 people will have to fill out this form and email it as an attachment to email@example.com
The official rates for Dry Tortugas camping are $200 per adult/$145 per child, plus a $15-$30 campsite fee.
You pay when you arrive on the campground.
Expect to have a primitive stay here – and you will have to be self-sufficient. There is a basic hole-in-the-ground toilet and no bathing facilities. You will have to bring your own necessities, including water and food, shelters and medication.
You will need to carry out your trash with you.
Remember, it can get very hot here. Bring lots of water. There is literally nothing here. You bring everything yourself and you take everything home with you.
And forget electricity and cellular service in Dry Tortugas. It doesn’t exist. But that’s why you want to go there, right?
Dry Tortugas Snorkeling and scuba
If you arrive on the Yankeee Freedom III, they’ll provide you with all the snorkeling gear you need once you arrive on the Dry Tortugas. You will have to sign the snorkeling waiver prior to snorkeling.
Dry Tortugas snorkeling is spectacular. The best snorkeling in Dry Tortugas is at the main dock, which is to the right of the main entrance to Fort Jefferson.
You can spot many fish, including several big barracudas and even a few bait balls.
If you know you will be snorkeling, and bringing your own mask is not too much trouble, we recommend it. The masks they give you are OK, but they fog up easily during use.
You don’t want a foggy mask here.
While it is possible to scuba dive in the Dry Tortugas, the ferry day trip itinerary won’t allow you to do that. They don’t allow any scuba diving gear on the boat.
More information about scuba diving in Dry Tortugas National Park can be found on the NPS’s web site.
Dry Tortugas Fishing
It is possible to fish in the Dry Tortugas and there are designated areas to do so. Check with the Visitor’s Center upon arrival for more information on where you can and cannot fish.
You must arrange your own State of Florida salt water fishing license before boarding the ferry.
Dry Tortugas Tours
If you arrive with the Dry Tortugas ferry, your price includes a guided tour. You can sign up for one of the two slots for a quick 20-minute history of the Dry Tortugas, followed by a walking tour to several notable Fort Jefferson spots.
For your own exploration, you can get an itinerary along with a brochure and a Dry Tortugas map from the NPS Visitor’s Center.
Dry Tortugas Visitor’s Center
The National Park Visitor’s Center is a great way to start your journey here. The Dry Tortugas Visitor’s Center is right at the entrance to Fort Jefferson.
You can learn more about Dry Tortugas, as well get brochures and the Dry Tortugas Map.
Things to know before your visit to Dry Tortugas
While it is easy to find information about the Dry Tortugas and their history, here are a few things that we wish we knew before our Dry Tortugas visit.
Dry Tortugas Weather
The temperature in Dry Tortugas ranges from mid 50s (12 C) in the winter to mid 90s (35 C) in the summer. When we were there, it was blazing hot!
Be mindful of planning your trip during hurricane season. The Yankee Freedom ferry runs everyday except Christmas Day, and rarely cancels a trip unless there is a hurricane threat.
Safety in Dry Tortugas
The grounds of Fort Jefferson are uneven and, in some places, hazardous. Unfortunately, it is not a wheelchair accessible in many areas. Even if you walk, you will need to watch your step. The ground is uneven.
There’s loose brick and mortar, plus things poking out of the ground. There are no guard rails on the high bluffs.
Just be careful!
Consider wearing comfortable walking or hiking shoes instead of flip-flops. Don’t hurt yourself – the nearest hospital is 70 miles away from the Dry Tortugas. Any emergency evacuation would be extremely difficult.
And it would most certainly be extremely expensive!
Don’t let your preference for flip-flops cost you tens of thousand of dollars or more!
Bring a bag for wet clothing
Of course, if you are planning on snorkeling in Dry Tortugas or lounging on the beach, bring the essentials: bathing suit, sunglasses, towels, sunscreen and hat.
But also bring a bag to carry all of your wet items back to Key West, which we forgot to do!
You’ll also want to protect your valuables from water and sand while you’re there.
We highly recommend this Geckobrands Waterproof dry bag. It’s inexpensive. It keeps your camera, phone, wallet, and more dry and out of the sand.
We have this bag and it’s great.
A friendly note about sunscreen, a few years ago we learned that all sunscreen are not created equal. Many products are harmful to coral. Our suggestion is to consider purchasing sunscreen that is friendly to the corals and other aquatic life – like this one.
Bring a water bottle
Dry Tortugas can be brutally hot and humid at mid-day, especially in the summer. If you are planning on spending a few hours on the island, don’t forget to bring your own water off the ferry.
There is no drinking water available on the island, but you can refill your water bottle (or purchase bottled water for $2) on the boat.
Don’t forget to hydrate yourself!
Drone flying in Dry Tortugas
The U.S. National Park Service bans drone flying in all of the areas it serves, including in the Dry Tortugas National Park – no drones allowed.
Check out the Dry Tortugas official web site here for more information.
Dry Tortugas bird-watching
If you are into wildlife, birding in Dry Tortugas is great fun! Upon arrival, you can immediately spot many frigate birds and their 7-foot (over 2 meter) wingspans, soaring above Fort Jefferson.
It’s a sight to see!
Do your homework first with Dry Tortugas birding guide. You can find this information online and even purchasing a bird guide at the Visitor’s Center.
Bring a pair of binoculars – just in case you need a reminder!
Whatever you decide to do and no matter how you choose to get there, we think you’ll enjoy your visit to Dry Tortugas National Park.
Are the Dry Tortugas on your bucket list?
Have anything to add?
Let us know!
Featured photo courtesy of Key West Seaplane Adventures.
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