Dry Tortugas Park

Dry Tortugas Park

At Dry Tortugas Park, enjoy snorkeling, history, and birdwatching as you explore this amazing bird and marine sactuary.  Dry Tortugas Park stretches across seven islands 70 miles out to sea from Key West.  It also includes the surrounding waters, and protects the marine life that lives within it boundaries.

Garden Key, one of the seven islands of Dry Tortugas, contains Fort Jefferson.  This historic fort from the mid-1800s is the largest coastal fort in the United States.  Once used as a military prison, it’s now home to birds who are protected by the sanctuary status of Dry Tortugas Park.

The origin of the name of Dry Tortugas Park comes from none other than Ponce de Leon.  Tortugas is Spanish for turtles. There are still lots of sea turtles at Dry Tortugas Park, but centuries ago, before they were hunted by humans, there were even more.

You’ll have the chance to see Sea Turtles if you visit Dry Tortugas Park, and that’s just the beginning.  Go snorkeling and see a whole new world of marine life including colorful tropical fish.  Also look for porpoise, flying fish, and depending on what time of year, sooty terns who come to the park to nest during the Summer months.  During the rest of the year you can spot frigate birds and pelicans.

Whether you plan on doing some birdwatching, snorkeling, touring historic Fort Jefferson, or just relaxing on the beach, a trip out to Dry Tortugas Park is an unforgettable experience!

Dry Tortugas Fort

Dry Tortugas Fort

The Dry Tortugas Fort is a beautiful coastal fort that stands today as an important historical landmark.  Almost thirty years in the making, from 1846 to 1875, Fort Jefferson was never even finished and was never armed to capacity.  It was important, nevertheless, as part of a chain of coastal forts from Maine to Florida and to California.

The Dry Tortugas Fort is located along one of history’s busiest and most important shipping routes- the Gulf Coast and the eastern seaboard of the US.  As part of the Dry Tortugas set of seven islands, it’s located on Garden Key.  It’s one the largest ever built, and made quite an impression on the heavy ship traffic that passed by.  The Dry Tortugas Fort was never attacked, but it helped stabilize the area when the US was a young nation.

During the Civil War, the Dry Tortugas Fort was in the hands of the Union, and therefor was used as a base from which to blockade ships involved in shipping for the South.  It was also used as a prison in the Civil War era, housing Union deserters.  Dr. Samuel Mudd, who tended to  John Wilkes Booth’s broken leg, was imprisoned here.

The US Army abandoned the Dry Tortugas Fort in 1874 and was then used as a coaling station for warships.  In 1989 the USS Maine anchored at Dry Tortugas Fort before it sailed to Cuba during the Spanish American War.  In 1935 Fort Jefferson National Monument was established, and then in 1992 the seven islands became Dry Tortugas National Park.

Dry Tortugas Travel

Dry Tortugas Travel

Dry Tortugas travel is one of the main reasons to visit Key West, FL.  The number one attraction according to some, the Dry Tortugas is one of the most unusual National Parks in the entire Park system.  That’s because Dry Tortugas are actually seven remote sub-tropical islands located 70 miles from civilization, making your Dry Tortugas travel to one of America’s remotest parks a special day you’ll never forget.

Dry Tortugas travel means purchasing a ticket on a ferry or charter boat, several of which go out every day from Key West.  The trip out to the islands takes about two hours and you get four hours to four and a half hours to explore Garden Key, which is where Fort Jefferson is located.  The larger Dry Tortugas ferry, called Yankee Freedom, can getyou to your destination at around 27 knots and is packed with amenities to make your Dry Tortugas travel as comfortable and enjoyable as possible.

There are fresh water showers on board for after your afternoon of snorkeling.  It’s fully air conditioned with cushioned seating inside.  There are tables to sit at and enjoy the view.  The Yankee Freedom can hold 250 people, although your trip will never be that full.  That’s because Dry Tortugas National Park only allows 100 people at a time at the park.  125 people can fit in the inside area.  There’s a full gally with sandwiches and snacks, with two beverage bars on board.  You can purchase extra food on the ride back home, if you just can’t wait for dinner and you’re hungry after exploring Garden Key.  All this and more makes your Dry Tortugas travel an unforgettable experience!

Dry Tortugas Camping

Dry Tortugas camping is for those who need more than just four and a half hours at Americas’ remotest National Park.  The ecology of The Dry Tortugas is so diverse and rich with exciting examples of marine flora and fauna, anyone who is even just remotely interested in marine life, birding, or both, will want to consider Dry Tortugas camping.

You can spend one night, two or three nights and you can bring a kayak if you want, for an extra fee.  The way it works: you book a seat on a Dry Tortugas charter, and pay extra fee for a kayak if you’re taking one.  Dry Tortugas National Park charges $3 per person per night for camping.  Tell your charter company that you’re camping and they will tell you special instructions for boarding, etc.

The campsites at Dry Tortugas are located outside the fort’s walls, near the beaches in a shaded area (see picture).  Most of the sites have a picnic table and a grill.  You are not allowed to take propane fuel on the boat, so it’s recommended that you use charcoal for cooking.

Remember, this is basically wilderness camping.  You have to bring in everything you’ll need for your Dry Tortugas camping experience.  Your basic needs: food, shelter, water and medication, etc are your responsibility.  There are salt water flush toilets, but no fresh water for showers.  You are limited on the amount of gear you can take.

So enjoy the reef, the snorkeling, the birds, and everything else you’re bound to discover on your Dry Tortugas camping adventure!

The Dry Tortugas

The Dry Tortugas

The Dry Tortugas were just another group of sub-tropical islands until Ponce de Leon stumbled upon these seven small islands in 1513 and gave them their name.  There was quite an abundance of sea turtles, and Tortugas is Spanish for turtle.  Later explorers who encountered the Dry Tortugas added the word dry to indicate there was no fresh water to be found here.

The Dry Tortugas became part of the Spanich colonial empire after de Leon claimed the area for his mother country.  And there it remained until 1821 when the United States officially acquired Florida and the Florida Keys from the Spaniards.  But before that period, the Dry Tortugas served as a vantage point for raids on the Spanish ships and settlements.  Dutch and English ships frequently sent fleets out to the Dry Tortugas to battle the Spanish ships.  The islands also became a haven to pirates and temporary home to men stranded there by wrecks.

The pirates and other shady types were driven out by the US after the 1820, in a move to make the area safer for shipping.  The start of building of the Dry Tortugas Fort in 1846 was also driven by commerce.

All around The Dry Tortugas there are healthy coral reefs and tons of marine life.  There are also sea grass beds and far-reaching lagoon environments.  These areas are habitat for fish and coral and all types of flora and fauna native to the Florida Keys.  There are almost 450 species of fish found at the Dry Tortugas, most of which need the reef environment to live. Perhaps the most valuable aspect of the Dry Tortugas is the protection of the marine ecology.

Dry Tortugas Ferry

Dry Tortugas Ferry

Catch a Dry Tortugas Ferry out of Key West’s Historic Seaport and discover America’s most remote National Park.  Dry Tortugas National Park is seven remote islands, with a Civil War-era fort, nesting birds, and lots of snorkeling opportunities.  There are few choices with the Dry Tortugas Ferry: you can take a smaller faster boat and be at the Park in two hours.  Or you can take a larger boat with Park-approved naturalist guide and the ride is two and half hours.

The larger boat, called Yankee Freedom, is pictured here, in the morning as people are boarding.  You will travel in comfort: there are three bathrooms, indoor tables and benches, a galley from which you can purchase soft drinks and snacks on the way out and on the way back, and friendly crew who will answer your questions.

The Yankee Freedom also has a naturalist who travels with the group and gives a 40-minute talk which is fascinating.  She will also identify any marine life, birds, or anything else you spot, both on the Dry Tortugas ferry and while you’re in the Park.

The smaller boat that takes visitors out to Dry Tortugas National Park is a catamaran.  Like the larger Dry Tortugas Ferry, they serve breakfast on the boat, as well as lunch at the Park.  On the catamaran, operated by Sunny Days, you can also read the daily newspaper, or brochures about the Park and Fort Jefferson.  After arriving at the park, this Dry Tortugas Ferry waits for four and a half hours before departing for Key West.  Plenty of time to explore!

Dry Tortugas National Park

Dry Tortugas National Park

Dry Tortugas National Park is several islands, but if you make the trip out there, you’ll be exploring Garden Key.  Garden Key is the location of Fort Jefferson, a Civil War-era coastal fort that is today part of the Dry Tortugas National Park.  Park Rangers have an office here, and they maintain the grounds as well as protect the sanctuary.

Fort Jefferson is a wonderful bit of preserved history, and as you can see from the picture visitors are allowed to explore the fort, including walking on the upper parts of the outer wall.  This is a view from the wall looking across the interior of the fort and to the seas beyond.  The upper wall is accessible by original  circular steps built into the fort by the toiling army soldiers who constructed Fort Jefferson in the mid-1800s under incredible conditions.  They suffered disease and extreme heat under US Army orders and many died.

Dry Tortugas National Park is one of the country’s most remote parks.  The fort was used as a military prison and you can just imagine the conditions for the prisoners and even the guards.  In the days when the fort was built, there was no way to get fresh water for the soldiers.  Actually, that’s still true:  all water must be brought in.  Visitors who visit Dry Tortugas Park with a charter company will have plenty of water and soft drinks provided by the crew on their boat.

Dry Tortugas Snorkeling

Dry Tortugas Snorkeling

Dry Tortugas snorkeling is one of the main reasons for visiting this amazing National Park.  Since the entire park is a marine sanctuary, which includes the seven islands plus the water around them, the marine world is abundant and healthy.  Dry Tortugas National Park covers one hundred square miles, all of it protected.  No fishing, spearfishing, or any type of collection of any type of marine life whatsoever.  Here in the picture you can see a mutton snapper and a blue tang hanging around one of the pilings at Fort Jefferson.  This is just a short swim from the beach, so even beginners can experience this bit of Dry Tortugas snorkeling.

The snorkeling area at Dry Tortugas extends from the swimming area on the beach around the corner from these pilings, all the way north to the northwest corner of Fort Jefferson.  Basically you can follow the moat to the right after entering the water from the beach area.  Visitors report seeing a very wide variety of marine life while Dry Tortugas snorkeling.  These include rays, starfish, tarpon, star coral, brain coral, purple sea fans, yellowtail damselfish, blue tangs, angelfish, parrotfish, needlefish, groupers, snappers, neon gobys, and butterflyfish.

You can snorkel the pylons or posts which once supported docks for loading coal, on two sides of the fort.  The pilings have stood for over one hundred years, accumulating coral, which is habitat for fish.

There are no life guards at the Dry Tortugas so snorkel safely.  Don’t touch coral, because it may cause their mucous membranes to erode, leaving the coral species susceptible to disease and death.


Key West and the Florida Keys is home to some of the most diverse saltwater ecosystems in the United States. This draws anglers from all over the world to fish the water surrounding the islands.
Key West Fishing is a major draw to people coming to the Islands for vacation. There are many key west fishing charter operations that cater to people of all skill levels. So if you are into fishing it is highly recommended to try your luck on one of the many boats waiting for you.

Dry Tortugas Charter

Dry Tortugas Charter

A Dry Tortugas Charter is easy to book and just about everything is taken care of for you.  Book a seat and you get not only an unforgettable trip to America’s most remote National Park, but also everything you’ll need to enjoy your day.  The price of admission on a Dry Torguas Charter includes breakfast, lunch, guided tour of the Dry Tortugas Fort, Snorkeling gear, and beverages including bottled water and soda.

You just have to bring your swimsuit and towel!  Of course there are a few other extra items you can bring: camera, sunscreen, walking shoes, and even binoculars to view nesting birds on the other islands.  In winter, you may want a jacket for the ride out and even for the island if it’s a little windy.  If you want to explore the Dry Tortugas Fort, bring some shoes that are comfortable to walk in.

While on the boat or even at the fort, feel free to ask the crew any questions you have, since they have extensive knowledge of the area.  Also, on the trip out, crew will ask you whether you plan on doing any snorkeling that day.  This is when you will be asked your shoe size and given gear to test before disembarking.  During the four-hour visit to the Park, fresh water is available at all times on the dock from your crew.  When you get off the boat, put your things on a picnic table or at the beach, and follow the guided tour if your particular Dry Tortugas charter offers one.  Your Dry Tortugas Charter will either serve lunch on the boat or at picnic tables on the beach near the docks.

dry-tortugasOffering a glimpse into the 1800s set amidst amazing variety of marine life and beautiful turquoise waters,  Dry Tortugas National Park is the best reason to come to Key West.  Visitors to this National Park will return home with an intangible souvenir – an appreciation for life in the 1800s on a sub-tropical island, and respect for the marine world and their place in it.

That’s because Dry Tortugas National Park features a still-standing fort from the Civil War era, Fort Jefferson.  Tour the fort with a knowledgeable guide and learn the surprising way of life for US army soldiers 150 years ago.  If you’re the adventurous type, you can even camp at the fort overnight, imagining life as it was for the soldiers who toiled in the heat to build the fort.

But Dry Tortugas is more importantly a beacon of marine conservation, with some of the loveliest coral reef, fish, and other marine life.  It’s 80 miles out from civilization, so there’s nothing out here to spoil the reef and the world that exists just under the surface of the turquoise waters that surround the Dry Tortugas.    On your day trip, go snorkeling and see it for yourself, or take a walk on the ramparts of Fort Jefferson and look down into the clear flats below.  You’re bound to see fish even from atop the high wall of the fort.  A day at Dry Tortugas offers all this plus sweeping views of the ocean around you, a lighthouse in the distance, bird watching on the surrounding islands, and a fresh look back into the history of our nation through Fort Jefferson.