Dry Tortugas National Park, a series of remote islands surrounded by turquoise-blue water, is located 70 miles off the coast of Key West in the Gulf of Mexico.
Dry Tortugas is one of the most remote and least visited National Parks in the NPS system. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t visit! In fact, I’d encourage you all to put Dry Tortugas National Park on your Florida bucket list.
If camping under the stars on an island 70 miles off the coast, snorkeling with sting rays and jellyfish, swimming in aquamarine-blue waters, and paddling through choppy ocean waves to a secluded key sound like fun to you, consider visiting this little cluster of remote islands deep into the Gulf of Mexico.
In this Complete Guide to Dry Tortugas National Park, I will share with you the top hikes, the best things to do, when to go, and where to stay, so that when you are ready to hit the road on your Florida National Parks road trip, you will know exactly what to expect!
Complete Guide to Dry Tortugas National Park
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Quick Facts About Dry Tortugas
- Location: Florida, USA
- Established: 1935 (Fort Jefferson National Monument), 1992 (Dry Tortugas National Park)
- Size: 64,700 acres
- Annual Visitors: 78,488 (2022)
- Fee: $15/person for 7 days or FREE with an annual pass
- Visitor Center: Garden Key
Fun Facts About Dry Tortugas
“Tortugas” is Spanish for turtles.
The 1513 discoverer of the island, Ponce de Leon, called the island “Las Tortugas” because of the abundance of sea turtles that he caught while visiting. It was later changed to Dry Tortugas because of the lack of fresh water available on the islands.
The Navy built a military fortress on the island to protect the Florida coastline. The 16-million-brick fortress, Fort Jefferson, is the third largest fort that defends a coast ever built in the U.S. It’s also the largest masonry structure in the country.
Bush Key, an island on Dry Tortugas, is sometimes only accessible via kayak or canoe; other times, it can be visited by foot from Garden Key. This is due to the dynamic landscape and shifting sands.
During the breeding season, the island of Bush Key is home to birds that can’t be found anywhere else in the continental United States.
A lighthouse was constructed at Garden Key in 1825 to warn incoming vessels of the dangerous reefs and later, a brick tower lighthouse was constructed on Loggerhead Key in 1858 for the same purpose.
Dry Tortugas’ lowest point is 0 feet at the Gulf of Mexico. The highest point is 10 feet at Loggerhead Key.
Top Hikes in Dry Tortugas
Fort Jefferson Loop
- Distance: 0.5 miles
- Type of Trail: Loop
- Elevation: 3 feet
- Difficulty: Easy
The Fort Jefferson Loop is the only hiking trail on the island that’s open year-round. And while the official hiking trail is carved onto the top level of the military fortress, all three levels are worth exploring.
The levels are separated by curved stone steps.
The first and second levels are constructed with unfinished brick walls and windows that make it easy to take in your surroundings, both on the landside and waterside. Peer out of the windows, sit on one of the many window ledges perched on the edge of the structure, and draw in the views of the turquoise water.
The top level gives you a great vantage point of the entire island, and you’ll be able to see the endless sea stretching into the horizon no matter which way you turn.
⚠️ Be careful as you wander the different levels of the fort. The trail on top of the fort is cut pretty close to the edge in some places, and the window ledges and walls are unfinished and unprotected. Falling is very possible, so keep a close eye on your children, and always watch your step.
Bush Key Trail
- Distance: 1 mile
- Type of Trail: Out & back
- Elevation: 0 feet
- Difficulty: Easy
The spectacular thing about the Bush Key trail is that it is only accessible between October and January.
Spring, summer, and early fall visitors won’t get to walk on this island since the NPS closes it down for the breeding season. Up to 80,000 sooty terns and 4,500 brown noddies make nests and raise their young on this little island.
Bush Key is a 20-acre island that can either be accessed by foot or by kayak or canoe, depending on the shifting sands and changing landscape.
As you walk the mile loop around the margin of the island, you will glimpse coastal dunes, sand beaches, washed-up coral, an array of marine life, and even many rare birds that aren’t found anywhere else in the continental United States.
Where to Stay in Dry Tortugas
Lodging (Inside the Park)
There is no lodging inside the park. Consider camping in the park or staying outside of the park.
Lodging (Outside the Park)
Havana Cabana Key West – budget
Blue Marlin Motel – mid-range
Parrot Key Hotel & Villas – luxury
If you’re hoping to be one of the few lucky campers who get to camp on the island, you’ll need to make your reservations at least one year in advance.
If you plan early, you might get the pleasure of hauling your gear 70 miles across the ocean, pitching a tent under the stars, and calling the tiny remote island in the middle of the Gulf home for up to three nights. How exciting is that?
Campsites at Dry Tortugas are available only on Garden Key. There are ten campsites, and you can stay for up to three nights.
You must book your transportation either by ferry, tour guide, or private vessel. Seaplanes don’t offer transport for campers.
Each campsite is equipped with a picnic table and a charcoal grill. There are composting toilets on the island; these are closed when the Yankee Freedom ferry is docked (usually from 10 AM – 3 PM). At this time, campers are allowed to use the restrooms and the freshwater rinse on the ferry.
For more information on camping, visit the NPS website.
Book your campsite here.
Getting Around Dry Tortugas
Dry Tortugas is only accessible by boat or seaplane.
If you’re bringing your own boat, you must get a permit.
If you decide to take a private tour, here is the list of approved private charters.
The ferry is the budget option.
It takes longer to get there than the seaplane, but you’ll pay significantly less.
Prepare for a full 10-hour day.
Yankee Freedom Ferry is the only ferry that connects Key West to Dry Tortugas National Park. You’ll check in a 7:00 am, depart at 8:00 am, and arrive at the island around 10:30 am. You’ll get to spend about 4 hours in the park before you have to re-board the ferry and head back to Key West at 3:00 pm, where you’ll arrive at the dock around 5:30 pm.
With your $200 ferry ticket, you’ll get access to the National Park (you’ll save $15/person if you have a National Parks pass), complimentary breakfast and lunch, free use of snorkel gear, a guided tour around Fort Jefferson, clean restrooms, and access to a galley full of snacks and drinks that are available to purchase during your voyage and island visit.
The seaplane is the more expensive option.
You will get rewarded with scenic views as you fly over the water and glimpse the reefs, shipwrecks, sea turtles, keys, and underwater sand dunes.
You’ll also arrive on the island a lot quicker than you would on a ferry. It’s a 40-minute flight versus the ferry’s 2.5-hour voyage.
Key West Seaplane Adventures is the only company that flies to Dry Tortugas National Park. You can choose from a half-day or full-day trip. Soft drinks and coolers are provided to all passengers.
Which Islands Are Open to Visitors?
You will spend most of your time on Garden Key, which is the arrival point for boats and seaplanes.
When you arrive at Garden Key, you get to walk around. Be sure to either take a self-guided tour or a guided tour of Fort Jefferson if it’s offered for the day of your visit.
We chose to take a self-guided tour so that we could go at our leisure and avoid the mass of passengers. The ferry will provide you with a PDF file full of historical information that you can reference as you meander through the three-level brick fort.
If you’re visiting from October through January, be sure to explore Bush Key. It is closed for the rest of the year for the breeding season.
Since only about 20,000 visitors get to see Bush Key annually, take the time to walk the loop around the island. Dip your toes in the shallow water. Have a picnic lunch on one of the sandy beaches. Watch the boats and kayaks maneuver through the waves.
For our visit, most people spent the majority of their time on Garden Key, leaving Bush Key almost empty and allowing us to experience the island in solitude.
Loggerhead Key, the largest island in Dry Tortugas, is about 3 miles from Garden Key and requires a boat to access.
When to Visit Dry Tortugas
The most ideal months to visit Dry Tortugas are December through May. But to make sure you see Bush Key, plan your visit for October through January!
Dry Tortugas is one of those places that has mild year-round air and sea temperatures, so while you can technically visit any month of the year, there are some things you should note.
If you visit from October through January, you get to walk around Bush Key, which was one of my favorite experiences on the island. Temperatures are mild and still warm enough to swim, paddle, and snorkel. Water visibility can be poor and sea travel can be choppy, but on our visit in early January, conditions were perfect.
Hurricane season is usually from June through November, so while water visibility is crystal-clear and temperatures are hot in the summer, hurricanes can cause the ferry or seaplane to postpone travel.
Best Things to Do in Dry Tortugas
If you’re looking for things to do that don’t involve hiking (best hikes are listed above), you’ve come to the right place!
Explore Fort Jefferson
Sure, some may consider this a “hike,” but really, it’s less of a trail and more of an experience.
You can wander as far into the fortress as you’d like and as high or low as you want. It’s worth exploring all three levels and walking the moat surrounding the fort. Since the water is crystal-clear around the moat, you could even spot coral reefs, fish, and sea turtles.
You can take a self-guided or ranger-led tour around the fort.
The ranger-led tour lasts about 45 minutes and is narrated.
If you choose to take a self-guided tour, the ferry will provide you with a PDF file full of historical information that you can reference as you wander through the walls of the fortress.
Snorkel at Garden Key
Dry Tortugas has some of the best snorkeling in all of Florida.
While snorkeling, you could potentially see a variety of marine life from coral and octopus to jellyfish and barracuda.
In Garden Key, you can snorkel in three areas:
- North Coaling Dock Ruins. Located off North Swim Beach with pilings and a variety of fish.
- South Coaling Dock Ruins. Requires a swim from South Swim Beach to the pilings. Great for coral viewing.
- Moat Wall near South Swim Beach. Great for beginners. Calm and shallow waters. Many tropical fish and historical artifacts.
The ferry provides each passenger with FREE use of snorkel equipment during the duration of the island visit: snorkels, fins, and masks.
Along the shores of the island are wide swaths of sandy beaches. Dip your toes into the foamy waves or go for a refreshing swim in the clear blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
Explore Bush Key
If you’re visiting Dry Tortugas from October through January, don’t forget to explore the 20-acre island of Bush Key.
Visitors who arrive from February through September won’t get the pleasure of walking on this island since the NPS closes it down for the breeding season.
Take the time to walk the mile loop around the island. You will see coastal dunes, sand beaches, washed-up coral, an array of marine life, and even many rare birds that aren’t found anywhere else in the continental United States.
Have a picnic. Read a book. Go for a swim. Be one of the very few visitors who get to walk on the key!
Paddle to Loggerhead Key
Loggerhead Key is the largest of the seven islands in Dry Tortugas National Park. It is located 3 miles west of Garden Key, so the only way to get there is by boat. You can take your own boat or a private charter to this key, but you’ll need a permit first.
Since there is no public transportation to this island, the simplest way to get to Loggerhead is to kayak there.
You can bring a kayak onto the Yankee Freedom Ferry, but since only a limited number of kayaks are allowed onboard the ferry at a time, it can be very difficult to get a ticket. If you want to bring a kayak onto the ferry, book your spot at least a year in advance.
In order to kayak to Loggerhead Key, you’ll need a permit and you’ll need to bring essential gear like a PFD (Personal Floatation Device), a signaling device (typically a whistle and/or hand-held mirror), and a portable VHF radio. You’ll also have to spend the night on Garden Key.
What to Explore Around Dry Tortugas
Since South Florida’s National Parks – Everglades, Biscayne, and Dry Tortugas – are all grouped together, they make for a great road trip. Read my guide on how you can plan a trip to all three!