Sitting seventy miles west of Key West is the last group of islands in the Florida Keys. This is the location of Dry Tortugas National Park, an underrated gem in the national park system. In this guide we cover everything you need to know on how to visit Dry Tortugas National Park, including the best things to do, how to get here, when to visit, and essential tips to have the best experience.
Dry Tortugas National Park is one of the least visited national parks in the US. In 2022, only 80,000 people visited this park. That averages out to about 220 people per day. Even when this park is at its most crowded, it still feels delightfully empty.
There are several reasons why so few people visit this park. For one thing, it is relatively remote. You can only get here by boat and seaplane, which also makes this visit more expensive than many other national parks. And with a limited number seats on the ferry and seaplanes, there is a limit to the number of people who make it Dry Tortugas National Park. Since these seats sell out in advance, you have to plan your visit and book your tickets well before you get to Key West.
Tim and I visited Key West several times before this most recent trip in December 2021, but we never made it to Dry Tortugas National Park. If only we knew what we had been missing this whole time.
For some reason, I wasn’t excited about visiting the Dry Tortugas. Touring a fort and a few beaches really didn’t sound all that exciting. But I loved this trip, from start to finish. The views from the seaplane, walking on the fort walls, snorkeling around old dock pilings, and strolling the beach on Bush Key was amazing.
I can’t wait to share this beautiful, underrated park with you.
Let’s get started.
While in Dry Tortugas National Park, please practice the seven principles of Leave No Trace: plan ahead, stay on the trail, pack out what you bring to the hiking trail, properly dispose of waste, leave areas as you found them, minimize campfire impacts, be considerate of other hikers, and do not approach or feed wildlife.
Interesting Facts about Dry Tortugas National Park
Dry Tortugas National Park is located at the end of the Florida Keys. This group of seven islands sits about 70 miles west of Key West. Most of the park is water, but it is also home to coral reefs, bird nesting grounds, and historic Fort Jefferson.
The Dry Tortugas were discovered by Juan Ponce de León in 1513. He named these islands the Dry Tortugas for the lack of fresh water (dry) and the abundance of sea turtles in this area (tortuga means sea turtle in Spanish).
Fort Jefferson, which is on Garden Key, is the largest brick structure in the Western Hemisphere. Construction began in 1847 and it was never completed. It was used as a prison until 1874. The most famous prisoner is Dr. Samuel Mudd, who treated John Wilkes Booth just after the Lincoln assassination.
This small group of tropical islands is home to almost 300 species of birds. Below the water’s surface are coral reefs, tropical fish, and nurse sharks, making this an excellent place for snorkeling or scuba diving. Sea turtles lay their eggs on the white sandy beaches.
Dry Tortugas National Park is a sanctuary for these animals. The park is managed by the staff at Everglades National Park and together these two parks form the UNESCO Everglades and Dry Tortugas Biosphere Reserve.
Dry Tortugas National Park officially became a national park on October 26, 1992. In 2022, it had 80,000 visitors, making it the 9th least visited national park in the US.
Geography and Maps of Dry Tortugas National Park
Dry Tortugas National Park is made up of seven islands: Garden Key, Loggerhead Key, Bush Key, Long Key, Hospital Key, Middle Key and East Key. That might sound like a lot, but 99% of this park is underwater.
Garden Key, which is the arrival point for the boats and the seaplanes, is also home to Fort Jefferson. This is where most visitors will spend their time.
During certain times of the year (mainly the winter months), Bush Key is also open to visitors.
Loggerhead Key sits about 3 miles from Garden Key, so you will need a boat to get here. It’s one of the best things to do in Dry Tortugas National Park, and later in this guide I’ll let you know how to do it.
The remainder of the islands are closed all year since they are home to bird nesting sites.
Below is a National Park Service map of Dry Tortugas National Park. It’s a good overview as to the size of this park.
Here is a map of Garden Key, Bush Key and Long Key, with labels for snorkeling sites and beaches.
How to Get to Dry Tortugas National Park
There are two ways to get to Dry Tortugas National Park: by seaplane and by boat. Both of these leave from Key West, Florida.
Below is a quick overview on how to get to Dry Tortugas National Park. For more information, whether or not the seaplane is worth the additional cost, and many more photos from the seaplane flight, read our guide How to Visit Dry Tortugas National Park.
Getting to the Dry Tortugas by Seaplane
The seaplane is the quickest way to get to Dry Tortugas National Park.
Key West Seaplane Adventures is the only company that flies to Dry Tortugas National Park. They offer flights throughout the day, and you can choose between a half day visit and a full day visit.
Half Day Trip to the Dry Tortugas
Cost: $371 per adult, $296.80 for children 12 and under
National Park Fee: $15 (this is in addition to the seaplane ticket price)
Grand Total: $386
Length of Time: 4 hours total; 40-minute flight each way and 2.5 hours at Dry Tortugas National Park
Full Day Trip to the Dry Tortugas
Cost: $644 per adult, $507.20 for children 12 and under
National Park Fee: $15 (this is in addition to the seaplane ticket price)
Grand Total: $659
Length of Time: 8 hours total; 40-minute flight each way and 6.5 hours on the island
Key West Seaplane Adventures provides snorkel gear and coolers with ice and water or soft drinks.
We did the half day trip by seaplane. The 2.5 hours in Dry Tortugas National Park goes by extremely fast, and the entire time Tim and I felt like we were in a race. However, 6.5 hours seems like a long time to spend here.
PRO TRAVEL TIP: Book the first flight of the day. You will have several hours on the Dry Tortugas before the ferry arrives, so you will be sharing Fort Jefferson and the Garden Key snorkeling spots with just a handful of other visitors. The next best option is the last flight of the day.
If you take the seaplane, you get this view of Dry Tortugas National Park.
Getting to the Dry Tortugas by Ferry
The Yankee Freedom is the ferry that connects Key West to Dry Tortugas National Park. It is a full day experience and most of that will be spent on board the ferry.
Cost: $200 per adult, $145 for children 4 to 16, $190 for students, seniors, and active military
National Park Fee: Included in the ferry ticket price
Camping trips: If you plan to camp, the fee is $220
Length of Time: 10.5 hours
Check-in time is at 7 am (6:30 am for campers). The ferry departs at 8:00 am and it takes 2.5 hours to get to Dry Tortugas National Park. You spend 4.5 hours in the park. At 3 pm, the ferry departs Dry Tortugas National Park, and you will arrive in Key West at 5:30 pm.
A breakfast snack, boxed lunch, and snorkeling equipment are included with the fee. The ferry takes 175 people. At the galley, you can purchase alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks, ice cream, and snacks.
PRO TRAVEL TIP: If you plan to camp at Dry Tortugas National Park, you will have to take the ferry or a private boat to get here. You cannot bring camping equipment on the seaplane.
By Private Charter or Your Own Boat
If you have your own boat, you can visit Dry Tortugas National Park without taking the ferry or seaplane. Before your visit, you will need to get a permit. Learn more on the National Park Service website.
There are also private charters that can take you to the Dry Tortugas. We considered doing this, since we also wanted to visit Loggerhead Key, but the price tag for this is extremely high (the one we looked at was about $3000 for the day). For a list of approved private charters, visit the National Park Service website.
Best Things to Do in Dry Tortugas National Park
1. Explore Fort Jefferson
Fort Jefferson is the largest masonry structure in the Western Hemisphere. It was built in the 1800’s to protect the ship traffic in the Gulf of Mexico and the Straits of Florida. It was never completed and never attacked, but it is a symbol of the power of the USA during this time.
Since its construction, it has served other roles…prison, coaling station, and it was used in both world wars. It is no longer a fort…now it is a protected national park.
You can tour the fort on your own or take a ranger guided tour (these last about 45 minutes).
There are three levels to the fort. Our favorite was the top level, where you get great views of the fort, the surrounding beaches and islands, and the crystal-clear aquamarine water. There are no guardrails up here, so be careful, and if you are visiting with kids, keep them close to you.
There are more than 2,000 brick arches in Fort Jefferson!
Here are a few more.
On top of Fort Jefferson.
The view of Bush Key from the top of Fort Jefferson. And also pay attention to how close the trail gets to the edge of the fort. Be careful up here!
In this photo, you can see the camping area, entrance into Fort Jefferson, lots of picnic tables, and the dock.
One more view from Fort Jefferson. Way off in the distance (you can barely see it in this photo) is Loggerhead Key. Note that the moat walk is broken in one spot, so you cannot walk the entire moat wall as one big loop.
Walking part of the the moat wall is a great way to get more views of Fort Jefferson and the beautiful water. From the wall it is possible to see fish swimming in the water.
2. Go Snorkeling at Garden Key
The Dry Tortugas are home to some of the best snorkeling and scuba diving in Florida. For most visitors, particularly those on a day trip to Dry Tortugas National Park, the sites at Garden Key are the most accessible. Below are four snorkeling sites at Garden Key.
Moat Wall: Snorkeling along the moat wall is best for beginner snorkelers. The water is calm and shallow and you get to see a variety of tropical fish as well as historical artifacts.
South Coaling Dock Ruins: These iron pilings are located on the south side of the island. The easiest way to get here is to get in the water at the South Swim Beach and swim to the pilings. At this site, mostly what you see is coral with a few fish.
Snorkeling at the South Coaling Dock Ruins
North Coaling Dock Ruins: These pilings are located near the north side of Garden Key. We got into the water next to Bush Key and swam out to them. There were a ton of fish here, and pelicans sitting on top of the pilings, when we did this.
View of the South Coaling Dock Ruins from the beach.
Snorkeling at the North Coaling Dock Ruins
Pelicans on the dock ruins.
West of Garden Key: Just to the west of Garden Key is coral reef that is great for snorkeling. From South Swim Beach, swim west 50 to 100 feet towards the buoys marking the end of the safe swim area and you will come to this spot. This is the snorkeling area that we did not get to but I heard great things about it.
3. Go Swimming
If snorkeling is not your thing, there are several beautiful beaches where you can get into the water. The South Swim Beach is the best, in my opinion. With crystal clear water, no waves, and great views of Fort Jefferson, this is a great place to go swimming.
South Swim Beach
You can also swim at North Swim Beach and next to Bush Key.
North Swim Beach
4. Visit Bush Key
Bush Key sits to the east of Garden Key. It’s easy to get to if the sandbar is present.
We walked around the entire key. It’s a 1-mile loop and the views back to Fort Jefferson and Garden Key are awesome. We also saw tons of birds circling over nearby Long Key.
If you don’t plan or snorkeling or swimming while at Dry Tortugas National Park, this is a great activity to do instead. In fact, it was one of our favorite things to do in Dry Tortugas National Park.
View of Fort Jefferson from Bush Key
Another view from Bush Key
PRO TRAVEL TIP: Bush Key is closed from February through September, when sooty terns and brown noddies use the island as a nesting site.
5. Wildlife Viewing
Dry Tortugas National Park is a haven for marine life and birds.
Nearly 300 hundred species of birds visit the Dry Tortugas over the course of the year. The islands serve as both breeding grounds and nesting sites for numerous species of birds. During some seasons, several keys may “close,” like Bush Key, when terns and noddies come here to raise their young.
Sea turtles can be seen from the ferry and the seaplane, as you approach the park. It’s also possible to see them swimming in the shallow waters around the park or nesting on the beaches. If you see a sea turtle, please keep your distance.
If you go snorkeling or scuba diving, it is possible to see tropical fish, octopus, sharks, sea turtles, and lobsters at the coral reefs.
6. Visit Loggerhead Key
Loggerhead is the largest island in Dry Tortugas National Park. It is located 3 miles from Garden Key, so the only way to get here is by boat. Even for the best swimmers, 3 miles is a long way to go.
How to Get to Loggerhead Key
There is no public transportation to Loggerhead Key.
If you have your own boat or are using a private charter, you can use this to get to Loggerhead Key. A permit is required, and you will have to check in at Garden Key before you go to Loggerhead Key.
You can also get here by kayak. You can bring a kayak to Dry Tortugas National Park on the Yankee Freedom Ferry. The ferry has very limited spots for kayaks and these spots get reserved up to 9 to 12 months in advance.
We called in October about reserving a spot on the ferry for kayaks and they were booked through the next July!
If you plan to kayak to Loggerhead Key, you will need to get a permit from the National Park Service and you will have to spend the night on Garden Key. There is not enough time to kayak out and back to Loggerhead Key and make it back to the ferry, if you try to do this as a day trip to Dry Tortugas National Park.
So, you will also need a camping permit from the National Park Service.
Things to Do on Loggerhead Key
Once on Loggerhead Key, explore the empty beaches and go snorkeling or scuba diving at the Windjammer Wreck or at Little Africa Reef.
The island is only open from dawn until dusk, so you cannot camp here. The only place to camp is on Garden Key.
We did not visit Loggerhead Key. But if you have been here, and camped on Garden Key, we would love to hear about your experience. This is something we want to come back and do someday. Let us know about your experience in the comment section below and if you have any photos to share, we would love to see them too. Thanks!
7. Go Camping on Dry Tortugas National Park
From those that have done it, we were told that camping is one of the best things to do in Dry Tortugas National Park.
The star gazing is incredible and so are the sunsets. Plus, you will be here with just a handful of people, a great way to experience this park without a lot of people.
All campers are guaranteed a place to camp. There are eight regular camping sites and an overflow area. The campsites have charcoal grills and picnic tables. There are toilets on Garden Key but there is no running water, electricity, or Wi-Fi service.
If you want to camp at Dry Tortugas, you will need to make your reservation on the Yankee Freedom up to 9 to 12 months in advance. You can also get here on your own boat, a private charter, or with a permitted tour guide.
For full details, visit the National Park Service website.
IMPORTANT TO KNOW: We recently got an email from someone who went camping in January 2020. They mentioned that rats on the island got into their water bottles, food containers, and tents at night. We don’t know if the National Park Service has addressed this issue or not, so if you have stayed here recently, please comment below about your experience.
How Much Time Do You Need in Dry Tortugas National Park?
There are very few national parks where you only need a few hours to see the highlights, and Dry Tortugas National Park is one of them.
In just a few hours, you can explore Fort Jefferson, walk around Bush Key (if it is open), and go snorkeling or swimming.
With more time, you can take a ranger guided tour of the fort and spend more time at the snorkeling spots.
For those who want the full experience, plan on spending the night on Garden Key and kayaking out to Loggerhead Key.
Dry Tortugas National Park Day Trip Itineraries
If you plan to day trip to Dry Tortugas National Park, here are several ways to spend your time, depending on the mode of transportation you choose.
Half Day by Seaplane
The 2.5 hours is going to go by fast! Start off by exploring Fort Jefferson. This takes 30 to 45 minutes. Depending on your timing, it is possible to join a ranger guided tour of the fort. If you move fast, you can walk around Bush Key and then snorkel in one or two snorkeling spots.
What We Did: We moved very fast. The first thing we did was Fort Jefferson. In about 30 minutes, we walked most of the bottom level of the fort, a small portion of the middle level, and the full length of the upper level. Then, we walked the perimeter of Bush Key, snorkeled the North Coaling Dock Ruins and then then South Coaling Dock Ruins and along the moat wall. Tim and I had just enough time to change into dry clothes before boarding the seaplane.
Full Day by Seaplane
You get a lot more time in Dry Tortugas with the full day tour (an additional four hours!). Visit the fort first thing, before the ferry arrives. Swim and snorkel at the South Swim Beach, at the South Coaling Dock Ruins, and along the moat wall. Midday, have a picnic lunch. Then visit Bush Key (if it is open) and snorkel the North Coaling Dock Ruins.
Day Trip on the Yankee Freedom Ferry
If you want to take the ranger guided tour of the fort, do this first thing. On our visit, it looked like the ranger guided tour was timed to start right after the ferry arrives. Then spend the rest of your time snorkeling, swimming, and walking around Bush Key.
If you don’t want to take the ranger guided tour, go snorkeling and swimming first, and visit Bush Key. Then tour the fort later in the day, when it is less crowded.
Dry Tortugas National Park Multi-Day Itinerary
Day 1: Take the Yankee Freedom Ferry to the Dry Tortugas. If you plan to kayak to Loggerhead Key, do that today.
Day 2: Explore Fort Jefferson in the morning, before the ferry arrives. Spend the middle part of the day snorkeling and swimming. At 3 pm, take the Yankee Freedom Ferry back to Key West.
Walking on the Bush Key beach.
Best Time to Go to Dry Tortugas National Park
With warm sea and air temperatures, Dry Tortugas National Park is a great place to visit all year.
One of the best times to visit Dry Tortugas National Park is from October through January, when Bush Key is open. Walking around this key was one of our favorite experiences in the park.
We visited Dry Tortugas National Park in early December. The high temperature for the day was 80°F and the water also felt very warm. We had calm weather while we were here.
During the winter months (November through April), brief periods of windy conditions can create large swells of water. This makes snorkeling and kayaking difficult and there is an increased chance of seasickness on the ferry. It is also possible that the ferry may not run if the sea is very rough. We were told that flights are seldom cancelled during this time due to weather.
May through October is the hurricane season. In general, the winds are calm and sea visibility is excellent. However, hurricanes can disrupt travel during this time. Bush Key is also closed during this time for bird nesting.
What to Bring to Dry Tortugas National Park
Here is a list of things to bring with you to Dry Tortugas National Park:
- Reef-safe sunscreen
- Water, snacks, and a picnic lunch if you will be here midday
- Change of clothes
Important Planning Information
Entrance Fee: $15 per person, valid for 7 days. Those under 16 years of age are exempt from the fee.
Hours of Operation: The park is open 24 hours a day, 365 days per year.
Pets: Pets are only permitted on Garden Key and must be on a leash at all times. They are not permitted inside of Fort Jefferson.
Get updates on park conditions, as you plan your trip and just before your visit, on the National Park Service website.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are there restrooms at Dry Tortugas National Park?
Yes, there are several composting toilets on Garden Key. There are also changing rooms located at the ferry dock.
When the Yankee Freedom is docked at Garden Key, the composting toilets are closed, and all visitors use the restrooms on the ferry (even visitors who arrived by seaplane).
Is there potable water?
No, there is no running water on Dry Tortugas. All visitors must bring their own water. For those who plan to camp on the Dry Tortugas, the National Park Service recommends bringing two gallons of water per person per day.
Can I rent kayaks at Dry Tortugas National Park?
No, kayaks are not available for rent at Dry Tortugas National Park. You can rent a kayak in Key West and bring it to the park on the Yankee Freedom ferry. However, there are very limited spots for kayaks on the ferry and this needs to be reserved well in advance (about 9 to 12 months before your visit).
Are there mosquitoes at Dry Tortugas National Park?
Mosquitoes are virtually non-existent in Dry Tortugas National Park. During our visit in December, we saw no mosquitoes. However, just a few days earlier, when we were in Biscayne National Park, mosquitoes were out in full force.
If you have any questions about how to visit Dry Tortugas National Park or the best things to do here, let us know in the comment section below.
More Information for Your Trip to Florida
DRY TORTUGAS: If Dry Tortugas National Park is on your to-do list, don’t miss our guide about How to Get to Dry Tortugas National Park. For even more information, check out our Dry Tortugas National Park Travel Guide.
KEY WEST: For a list of top experiences in Key West, read our article Best Things to Do in Key West. We also have guides on renting a Tiki Boat in Key West, Where to Eat in Key West, and Where to Stay in Key West.
FLORIDA KEYS: Plan your Florida Keys road trip with our Florida Keys Itinerary, which has suggestions on how to road trip from Miami to Key West. We also have a guide to the best things to do along the Florida Keys.
NATIONAL PARKS: In our Guide to the US National Parks, get the full list of national parks with important travel planning information, such as things to do in the parks and sample itineraries.
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