If you’re planning a trip to South Florida, a Dry Tortugas National Park day trip should be at the top of your itinerary.
With its crystal-clear waters, pristine beaches, and rich history, it’s a must-see destination in the national parks system. But what’s the best way to make the most of your day trip to this remote paradise?
Located 70 miles off the coast of Key West, Dry Tortugas National Park is a hidden gem that offers a unique deserted island experience. With limited access and no accommodations (other than primitive camping) on the island, even planning your day trip requires some careful preparation.
We’ll explore the best way to visit Dry Tortugas National Park on a day trip, including transportation options, activities to enjoy, and tips for a successful trip.
Can you do a day trip to Dry Tortugas National Park?
Yes, it is possible to do a day trip to Dry Tortugas National Park. In fact, most people visit Dry Tortugas on a day trip. Only a small percentage of people choose to spend the night at one of the few campsites on the remote island of Garden Key.
Once you arrive at Dry Tortugas National Park, there are various activities you can enjoy. The park is famous for its stunning crystal-clear waters, making it an ideal spot for snorkeling and swimming.
It’s important to note that since it is a day trip, your time in the park will be limited. Plan your activities in advance and prioritize the ones that interest you the most.
Additionally, make sure you bring along essentials such as sunscreen, water, snacks, and appropriate attire for outdoor activities. There isn’t much shade to be found on the island.
How to get to the Dry Tortugas on a Day Trip
One of the most remote national parks in the United States, Dry Tortugas National Park is located about 70 miles west of Key West, Florida.
Getting to this hidden gem requires a bit of planning, but the trip is well worth it.
There are a few different options for reaching the island, each offering its own unique experience. One option is to take a ferry ride on the Yankee Freedom, which is the most popular and affordable way to get to the Dry Tortugas.
Another option is to take a seaplane adventure, which provides breathtaking aerial views from Key West to the park and takes only 40 minutes to reach the islands.
For those looking for a more private experience, it is also possible to charter a private boat to the Dry Tortugas, but this experience comes with a hefty price tag. Regardless of how you choose to get there, a day trip to the Dry Tortugas is an unforgettable adventure.
Ferry or Seaplane?
When planning a day trip to Dry Tortugas National Park, travelers have two public options for transportation: taking the ferry or a flight on an amphibious seaplane. Both options have their own unique advantages and considerations.
The Yankee Freedom ferry to Dry Tortugas offers a more budget-friendly journey, with a travel time of approximately 2-2.5 hours each way. During the ferry ride, passengers can enjoy the scenic views of the turquoise waters and marine life.
The ferry provides a variety of tour options, including a self-guided tour of Fort Jefferson or snorkeling excursions with snorkel gear included in the price of the ferry ticket.
If the weather does not cooperate and the ferry has to navigate rough waters on the way to the remote islands of Dry Tortugas, make sure you have motion sickness medication.
On the other hand, the seaplane trips with Key West Seaplane Adventures offer a faster and more thrilling experience, with a travel time of just 40 minutes each way. You can enjoy amazing aerial views of the park and its surroundings, providing a unique perspective of the area.
During the flight, your pilot will point out points of interest along the way, giving insight into the history and landmarks, including the impressive Fort Jefferson.
While the seaplane does not provide refreshments on board, travelers can bring their own drinks and snacks. Water and a cooler full of ice to keep you hydrated while spending time on Garden Key are included in the price of the ticket.
The seaplane experience to Dry Tortugas comes at a higher cost compared to the ferry but offers a truly unforgettable experience.
We absolutely loved our experience on the seaplane during our day trip but can certainly see the perks of either transportation option to Dry Tortugas.
Dry Tortugas Entrance Fees
There is an entrance fee for Dry Tortugas National Park if you’re 16 years old or above.
The cost is $15 per person. If you’re taking the ferry, this fee is already included in the ticket price.
If you’re going by seaplane, you can pay this fee when you check in for your flight. Cash is the best method of payment.
Passes like the America the Beautiful pass can be used to cover the Dry Tortugas entrance fee for up to 4 people.
Things to do on a Dry Tortugas Day Trip
A day trip to Dry Tortugas National Park offers a variety of both water and land activities to enjoy.
Whether you choose to explore the historic Fort Jefferson, check out the vibrant marine life through snorkeling, or simply bask in the sunshine next to those beautiful blue waters, these islands are worth visiting.
From the moment you step foot on Garden Key, you will be captivated by the stunning ocean views, white sand beaches, and the opportunity to explore the largest brick structure in the Western Hemisphere in Fort Jefferson.
Explore Fort Jefferson
Exploring Fort Jefferson, the largest brick structure in the Western Hemisphere, is one of the main reasons to visit Dry Tortugas National Park. This magnificent fort played a significant role during the Civil War as a Union military prison and is well-known for its association with Dr. Samuel Mudd.
As a Civil War prison, Fort Jefferson incarcerated thousands of Confederate soldiers and political prisoners. Among them was Dr. Samuel Mudd, famously known for treating John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of President Abraham Lincoln.
The fort’s impressive layout includes cells where prisoners were once held, casemates that served as barracks for soldiers, and cannons that were once poised for battle.
You can explore all three levels of the fort, so don’t be afraid to climb those narrow steps, look out those brick windows, and wander across the top for some of the most amazing views.
Marvel at the sheer size and scale of this architectural masterpiece as you explore its various nooks and crannies. Don’t forget that all of the bricks used to build the fort were brought in by ship!
Snorkeling while visiting Dry Tortugas National Park offers an unforgettable underwater adventure in a pristine and biodiverse marine environment. With its clear turquoise waters and vibrant coral formations, this national park is a snorkeler’s paradise when the waters are calm.
Some of the best snorkeling spots in Dry Tortugas can be found around Garden Key, where the famous Fort Jefferson resides. The shallow waters near the fort can be crowded with colorful tropical fish.
When visiting Dry Tortugas, you don’t need to worry about bringing your own snorkeling gear. Snorkel equipment is conveniently included in both the ferry ticket and the seaplane cost, and they’ll make sure you are all set before arriving on the islands.
Knowledgeable staff members can provide recommendations on the best spots to explore based on the season and recent visitor reports, with guidance for both beginners and experienced snorkelers.
While snorkeling, it’s crucial to respect the delicate coral and marine life. Avoid touching or standing on the coral formations to preserve their health and refrain from feeding or disturbing the fish.
By being mindful of the surrounding environment, we can contribute to conservation efforts and ensure that future generations can continue to experience the wonders of snorkeling and exploring in Dry Tortugas National Park.
Birdwatching in Dry Tortugas National Park is an absolute treat for enthusiasts. Birdwatching is not typically high on my list of things to do, and even I enjoyed watching the various species soaring and swooping around us.
For those who are avid birdwatchers, Dry Tortugas is a bucket-list destination for the activity.
The park is home to a wide variety of bird species and offers a great spot for migratory species to rest on their journey across the Gulf of Mexico, making it a must-visit destination for birdwatchers.
The best times to observe these magnificent creatures are during the spring season when migrating birds pass through the area, for increased variety.
Among the rare bird species that can be spotted here are frigatebirds and sooty terns. These sightings are incredibly special and can provide a once-in-a-lifetime experience for avid birdwatchers. Some of these birds are not found anywhere else in the US and spend much of their lives in the air above the ocean.
To protect the birds and their nests, it’s important to respect certain restrictions. Visitors must maintain a safe distance from the nests and should never approach or disturb them. Some areas of the beaches may be closed to protect nests and habitats.
Binoculars or a long-zoom camera lens are essential tools to observe the birds without intruding on their natural habitats.
Whether you’re a seasoned birdwatcher or a beginner, the diverse bird species in Dry Tortugas will captivate your attention. So plan your visit during the prime birdwatching seasons, bring your binoculars, and prepare to witness the awe-inspiring beauty of these feathered creatures in their natural habitat.
Kayak to Another Key
Exploring Dry Tortugas National Park by kayak offers a chance to appreciate its natural beauty and historical significance from the water without having to fight the waves while snorkeling.
The clear waters provide a window into diverse marine life and well-preserved coral reefs, while historic Fort Jefferson looms in the background.
Beyond Garden Key, kayaking opens up opportunities to visit other sites in the park that you won’t get to see on foot.
Loggerhead Key, situated three miles away, boasts seclusion, while the closer Bush Key and Long Key appeal to kayakers of varying expertise.
You’ll paddle across waves and open waters with strong currents to reach Loggerhead Key, so this trip is for those who are more experienced and have a full day to spend in the park.
Exploring the other areas is a great way to get away from the ferry crowds as you explore the sandy islands. If you plan to kayak while visiting Dry Tortugas, this will have to be arranged with the ferry ahead of time to ensure there is space available.
Full or Half Day Trip to Dry Tortugas?
When planning a trip to Dry Tortugas National Park, you have the option of either a full-day trip or a half-day tour if you take the seaplane. Each option offers a unique experience, and choosing the right one depends on your preferences and time constraints.
If you’re taking the ferry to the island, then you’re locked in for the full day because the time spent on the boat takes up a significant portion of the day.
The half-day tour is a more affordable option when it comes to seaplane tickets, and this is perfect for those who are not avid snorkelers.
It allows you to experience the beauty of Dry Tortugas without spending a full day on the island, out in the hot blazing sun. You can wander around the fort taking photos and exploring the different levels but still have a little time to enjoy the beach if you’d like.
On the other hand, the full-day trip provides more time to slow down, enjoy the island’s beauty, and truly make the most of your visit.
We highly recommend taking a full-day trip if you want to have plenty of time for snorkeling, as there are multiple spots where you can discover vibrant coral reefs and swim alongside tropical fish.
The full-day trip also allows for a self-guided tour of Fort Jefferson. Don’t go clear out to Garden Key and skip exploring the inside of the fort totally!
No matter which option you choose, a visit to Dry Tortugas National Park is sure to be an unforgettable experience.
Best Time to Visit Dry Tortugas
The optimal time to visit Dry Tortugas National Park strikes a balance between natural wonders and weather considerations.
Spring emerges as a prime season, especially for bird enthusiasts, as it marks the migratory period for various bird species. Witnessing this avian spectacle against the backdrop of the park’s pristine landscape is truly captivating.
However, while planning your visit, be cautious when planning a trip during hurricane season, which spans from June to November. While the summer months promise lovely warm waters and ideal snorkeling conditions, the threat of unpredictable weather patterns during hurricane season necessitates careful monitoring and preparedness.
To make the most of your visit, consider the springtime bird migration while keeping a watchful eye on weather updates, ensuring a safe and rewarding experience at Dry Tortugas.
Where To Stay in Key West for Visiting Dry Tortugas
When planning a visit to Dry Tortugas National Park, it’s important to consider where to stay in Key West.
Key West isn’t an easy place to reach either, so you’ll need somewhere to stay for a couple of nights before and after heading out to the Dry Tortugas.
Fortunately, there are various lodging options available that offer convenience and comfort for your visit. You’ll have a more difficult time finding cheaper lodging, but there are some really unique places to stay in Key West, so take advantage of them!
We loved our stay at the Weatherstation Inn. This 8-room bed and breakfast style accommodation is within the Truman Annex, an absolutely beautiful part of Key West.
It is an adults-only spot, and the area around the Weatherstation Inn is quiet. However, you can easily walk to all of the busy Key West streets, too.
Alternatively, if there is no availability at the Weatherstation Inn, plan to stay at The Capitana Key West. This resort offers easy access, situated just a short distance from the ferry terminal and the airport. You can reach either one in less than 10 minutes by car.
It also has a beachfront. This means you can enjoy a leisurely stroll along the shore before embarking on your day trip to Dry Tortugas.
What to Pack for a Day Trip to Dry Tortugas
- Reef Safe Sunscreen
- Sun Hat
- Rash Guard Shirt
- Waterproof Camera, like this GoPro
- Dry Change of Clothes
- Packable Beach Towel
A day trip to Dry Tortugas National Park is an adventure that should not be missed. From exploring Fort Jefferson on Garden Key to snorkeling in the beautiful turquoise waters, you’ll enjoy plenty of fun in the sun during your day at Dry Tortugas.
Just be sure to plan your visit early! There are only so many seats on the seaplanes and the ferry.