Are you, like me and my husband, trying to visit as many National Parks as possible, including some of the least-visited, remote ones that you can only access by boat? If so, you’ll definitely want to plan a visit to Dry Tortugas National Park.

It’s quite the excursion and you’ll absolutely want to know what to expect while on your day trip, so read on for all the details…

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The Ultimate Guide to Dry Tortugas National Park

Sign at entrance of Fort Jefferson Dry Tortugas National Park

Located 70 miles from Key West, Dry Tortugas National Park was discovered by Ponce de Leon.

Named The Tortugas, the Spanish word for turtles, which were found in abundance there, and later Dry, because no FRESH water was available, although the park consists mostly of water (but the ocean variety ;-))!

Plan Ahead for Your Dry Tortugas Visit

There are several ways to access the Dry Tortugas, including via private boat or seaplane. However, the most common way to get to Dry Tortugas is by the ferry boat, Yankee Freedom, a concessionaire of the National Park Service.

If Dry Tortugas is on your bucket list, start checking the Yankee Freedom calendar 2 months in advance and make your non-refundable reservations (currently ~$200 per person), as this sells out EVERY DAY.

Yankee Freedom reservation calendar.

Don’t think you can arrive in Key West and THEN decide to go, like some people we talked to…:(

Consider visiting the Dry Tortugas Museum and its Junior Park Ranger Exploration Station in Key West before your trip if you’re bringing kiddos along.

Before You Board the Yankee Freedom

Inside the Yankee Freedom terminal in Key West.
Photo credit: Parkcation

With proof of purchase in hand, you’ll want to arrive at the ferry terminal promptly at 7 a.m., because when you check in affects your boarding order, so the sooner you arrive, the better seat options you’ll have. The ferry holds 250 passengers, but they limit it to 175, so everyone will have plenty of room.

I’d suggest wearing your swimsuit if you plan to enter the water and sturdy shoes for exploring the rest of the island.

In a day bag or backpack, bring along:

  • a towel
  • sunscreen
  • sunglasses
  • snorkel gear, if you want your own
  • dry clothes
  • phone for photos only, no service is available
  • National Park passport book (don’t forget yours like we did! :()
  • cash or credit card for souvenirs or “extra” food items
Snorkel gear for Dry Tortugas National Park

There’s no need to pack food or water for the day if you’ll be satisfied with what’s provided, as those are included in the price of your trip.

You’ll receive a laminated ticket when you complete check-in, with a number on one side. On the other side, you’ll find a QR code that you’ll want to scan while waiting to board. You can scan it now, from the photo below, if you want to get a head start on learning about this fascinating place! 🙂

QR code for Self-Guided Tour of Fort Jefferson by the National Park Service.

This will give you lots of information about Fort Jefferson, which you can read on the way out to the park, including:

  • why the fort was built
  • what it was used for
  • who was housed there as a prisoner
  • when it was designated a national park
  • and more

Soon the park ranger will relay instructions about the boarding process, which starts around 7:30 a.m. with an actual departure time of 8 a.m. That’s good to know if you’re running a bit late! 🙁

Once your number is called, you’ll be turning in your laminated ticket and joining the ferry queue.

On the Ferry to Dry Tortugas National Park

View of the Yankee Freedom from inside Fort Jefferson

Once you’re on board, head to the galley and grab both a breakfast bag, which will contain a fresh bagel and cream cheese, and a drink. Find a seat on one of the two levels, either inside or out.

I chose to sit outside on the top deck in the very back row at the end. I was facing forward with no seats behind me and had room to stow my gear to the side of me, so it was the perfect seat! If you prefer not to be out in the sun, choose a seat inside and you’ll have some A/C to keep you cool as well.

During the boat ride, you’ll be offered even MORE breakfast options such as juice and coffee, fruit cups, extra bagels, etc., so grab as much as you need to tide you over until lunch is served.

Part of the fun is the 2 1/2-hour boat ride where you can look for sea turtles, dolphins and flying fish while visiting with those around you.

Dolphin swimming in water as seen from ferry going from Key West to Dry Tortugas National Park.

The ranger will tell you about Fort Jefferson, play a DVD about snorkeling on the inside TVs, have you sign waivers and give you tickets for equipment. Even though we had brought our own, we decided we might want some life jackets so went through the process.

The ranger will also tell you:

  • that the only restrooms and food are ON the ferry
  • what time lunch will be served
  • where to pick up your snorkel equipment
  • where the changing rooms with fresh water rinses are located
  • what time you need to be back onboard (set an alarm!)

And then you can eat some more breakfast and relax to music for the rest of the journey. 🙂

On the Island

View from ferry when arriving at Fort Jefferson.

You won’t believe the view arriving at the island. It’s AMAZING!

Once you’ve docked, it’s time to step off the ferry, with all the ranger info tucked away in your brain.

At this point, you can choose to continue the ranger-led talk with a 20-minute briefing, seated in the shade inside Fort Jefferson, which was started in 1846 and is still the largest masonry structure in the Western Hemisphere consisting of 16 million bricks!

View of Fort Jefferson from above at Dry Tortugas.

You can spend even more time with the ranger afterward on an extended 1-hour guided tour at no extra charge!

Dry Tortugas National Park - View of tree at Fort Jefferson with lighthouse in background.

By now it should be time to grab a couple of drinks and your sack lunch containing a hearty sub sandwich, chips, veggies and cookies, which is served from 11 a.m. until 1 p.m. only. And, like your mom would have told you, at least TRY to use the restroom before heading off for the rest of the day. 🙂

If you’re ready to get in the water, go to the snorkel hut to get your gear and head to whichever beach they recommend for the day, either North or South.

Family receiving snorkel gear from rangers on dock at entrance to Dry Tortugas National Park. Fort Jefferson in background.
Photo courtesy of Dry Tortugas

Our very clear choice was South Beach, due to the winds. We got in the water from the sandy beach and snorkeled first to the left around the wall toward the pilings where we saw lots of different coral, a barracuda, an entire school of fish and many other types of fish.

We also swam to the right side of the beach, then along the wall and saw purple coral, different fish and even an anchor underwater.

When you’ve had your fill of swimming, relax in the sun for a bit or grab a seat at one of the picnic tables scattered about and refuel with some lunch.

An exploration walk is now in order, using the map below to make sure you don’t miss anything!

Map of Dry Tortugas National Park
Courtesy of Dry Tortugas

Feel free to leave your day bag under a table to grab later if you don’t want to lug it around, but bring your camera.

First, you might see the camping area near the South Swim Beach. Yes, you can camp on Dry Tortugas, but it’s first come, first serve, unless you’re in a large group, and I heard those reservations book far in advance. Plus, you must bring everything with you, including water, on the ferry.

Next, walk as far as you can around the moat wall from both directions.

View of Fort Jefferson from the water, Florida Keys

There are breaks in the wall, so you won’t be able to make it all the way around in one fell swoop.

Then, if it’s not nesting season, like when we were there, and if you’re up for it, walk far, far out on the sand to connected Bush Key. Otherwise, enjoy watching all the birds flying overhead or listen to their calls.

If you opted out of the earlier extended tour, use what you learned, have scanned into your phone or with the above map to explore the fort on your own. Make sure you make it up to the ramparts to see the cannons and lighthouse. And then do a 360-degree turn to take it all in at once!

Panoramic view from Dry Tortugas National Park

When you’re done exploring, stop by the visitor’s center where you can stamp your National Park passport book or stamp some brochures instead like we did! 🙂 There’s a little gift shop as well where you can buy souvenirs like books, postcards and T-shirts.

My husband collects hiking stick medallions, and I think they have the best one I’ve seen yet: a true representation of all there is to see and do!

Dry Tortugas National Park hiking stick medallion

Don’t forget to turn in your snorkel gear and head to the changing rooms if you haven’t done that already.

Make sure to sign in with a crew member, so they’ll know you’re there, before the all-aboard call at 2:45 p.m.

Return to Key West

Ferry dock at Dry Tortugas National Park - day trip from Key west

The boat will depart promptly at 3 p.m. to get you back to Key West by 5:30 p.m., so don’t be late!

Grab a seat again and consider whether or not you’d like to splurge on a drink from the bar or need an extra snack or two. They also have souvenirs and essentials for sale.

On the way back, they’ll conduct a raffle for a chance to win a prize from the onboard store. The money raised through the raffle is used as tips for the guides. You can also fill out a comment card for a chance to win a return trip. We didn’t win, but we were so glad to be able to check this park off our bucket list that we absolutely didn’t mind at all.

Sit back and enjoy the ride back to Key West, looking through all the photos you took to see which one you’ll want to enter in the Dry Tortugas photo contest for your chance to win an annual National Parks pass!

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  • Cami Sauder

    Cami Sauder, a member of the Families Travel Free team, is a longtime traveler who aims to be away from home at least 1/3 of the year. She's mastered the art of using miles and points to save on flights and hotels and saved more than $16,000 on travel using points in the last year. She and her husband have a goal to see as many National Parks as possible.

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