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Dry Tortugas National Park is one of the least visited national parks in the United States, with only 60,000 visitors per year. This is primarily due to its remote location 70 miles west of Key West, Florida.
It is also the most aquatic of all the U.S. national parks with 98% of the park consisting of water. The 2% of the park that is land is largely taken up by Fort Jefferson. A Civil War era fort which was originally designed to protect shipping lanes, it was used as a prison during and after the Civil War. Its most famous prisoner was Dr. Samuel Mudd, who treated John Wilkes Booth after the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.
Dry Tortugas Overview
In addition to the history of Fort Jefferson, the island also has some of the region’s best beaches. Because so few people visit Dry Tortugas National Park, these beaches are some of the cleanest, least crowded beaches you will find in the entire Florida Keys.
You can camp in the Dry Tortugas, but you will need to bring in all your own food and water. Campsites are right next to the fort and beaches.
I really loved my visit to Dry Tortugas. I’d love to return and actually camp there for one to two nights. I think it would be one of the closest experiences you could have to stay on a remote island, without actually being shipwrecked. When you’re visiting the Dry Tortugas, you’re likely visiting various parts of the region, so here’s what you need to know about nearby attractions, and how the Dry Tortugas fit into the equation.
The Florida Keys incorporate Key West, along with several islands famous for snorkeling. This part of Florida represents about 120 miles stretch of coastline from the southern tip of Florida state and extending into the ocean, south toward Cuba—the Straits of Florida essentially form the dividing line here between the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. The Florida Keys as a whole are one of the more unique aspects of Florida and are worth adding to any Florida road trip itinerary.
Within Key West, there are two main attractions to check out: Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center and Key West Bight Museum. At the Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center, you can explore a world showcasing the native plants and animals in the region.
You can also organize day trips to snorkel various reefs off of Key West, but considering the pristine nature and variety of fish available in the reefs around Dry Tortugas National Park, it’s your best bet to spend your time in Key West on land, soaking up the quirky Conch culture you can only find in the Keys. Then enjoy snorkeling as part of your Dry Tortugas trip (it’s included in the day trip via catamaran ferry).
The Dry Tortugas are a group of small islands that lend their name to the national park. This island group is popular for its lighthouse, fishing, sailing, and camping. All visitors without their own boat generally arrive in the Dry Tortugas via Key West on a day trip. The only way you can stay longer is by securing one of the very limited camping spots (begin planning about a year in advance), and even then you’ll still need to take the ferry or seaplane over from Key West.
Things to Do in Dry Tortugas National Park
Dry Tortugas National Park is huge. There are plenty of things to do, and you’ll actually have a hard time hitting and enjoying each on on a day trip, that’s how much there is worth seeing. Once you in the Dry Tortugas, here are the key things to do and must-see attractions:
Historic Fort Jefferson
It’s an island fortress and prison in one that was built in 1847. It was built to patrol ship traffic, and it also serves to protect the American coastline.
Garden Key Light
This lighthouse is found in the Historic Fort Jefferson. It’s 65 feet tall and was built in 1826. It has been on active duty for more than a century.
This is another must-see attraction in Dry Tortugas National Park. It’s an uninhabited tropical island along the Gulf of Mexico. It’s about 49 acres in land area.
Snorkeling the reefs around the fort is one of the most popular things to do in the Dry Tortugas. You can see a broad variety of colorful fish, and it’s easy to use the island as a guide and snorkel around it in the time given during your handful of hours on the island.
Where to Stay in Key West
You’ll likely be using Key West as your base for exploring the keys, although there are also great state parks a few keys higher that offer fantastic camping opportunities. If you’re staying in Key West, our three favorite places to stay include:
Getting to the National Park
Dry Tortugas National Park is one of Florida’s best national parks, but it can only be visited by ferry from Key West (2.5-hour trip), seaplane, or via a private boat. To visit the park, you first need to get to Key West, which is the end of the road in terms of how far you can drive down the Florida Keys. Dry Tortugas can easily be a day trip from Key West.
To fly there, and get great views of Fort Jefferson from the air, contact Key West Seaplane Charters. The flights are approximately 35 minutes. To take the ferry, you will need to take the Yankee Freedom III and it is approximately a 2.5-hour trip—most travelers visit as a day trip from Key West, although if you book far in advance camping is available.