Table of Contents
Updated May 2023
The crystal-clear turquoise waters of the Dry Tortugas are mesmerizing, a true tropical paradise. Spending a day at Dry Tortugas National Park has been on our bucket list since we set our goal to visit all the National Parks. Today we checked this one off our list.
Now, the Dry Tortugas Islands and Fort Jefferson stand as a testament to the region’s rich history and offer visitors a chance to explore the remnants of the fort, snorkel among vibrant coral reefs, and appreciate the pristine natural beauty of this remote and protected national park.
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From Ancient Indigenous Roots to Modern Preservation: The History of the Dry Tortugas Island
The islands were first discovered by Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León in 1513. When he first discovered these iconic islands, there were 13 islands today, only 7 atoll islands remaining. He named them “Las Tortugas” (The Turtles) due to the large number of sea turtles found in the area. The prefix “Dry” was added later to highlight the lack of fresh water sources on the islands.
The Spaniards quickly realized how strategic significance of these islands. Garden Key played a significant role due to its deep water anchorage on the north shore, providing a sheltered harbor during storms and hurricanes. This natural harbor offered a safe refuge for ships seeking protection from the turbulent waters and harsh weather conditions of the Gulf of Mexico. The Dry Tortugas Islands gained importance as a navigational landmark due to their position along major shipping routes in the Gulf of Mexico and the Florida Straits.
Additionally, the explorers understood that between the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean, the Gulf stream current gave mariners the speed they needed to return to Spain. This trading route did not go unnoticed. It became quite important when, during the Civil War, the union began building Fort Jefferson in 1846 to protect the lucrative shipping channel.
Civil War Era: Fort Jefferson Rises in the Dry Tortugas
In the 19th century, the United States recognized the strategic significance of the Dry Tortugas Islands and began construction of Fort Jefferson in 1846. The fort was designed to protect the Gulf Coast and serve as a naval station, providing a base for patrols and defense during the Civil War.
Although never fully completed, Fort Jefferson remains the largest brick masonry structure in the Americas. It is the 3rd largest fort in the US. Raised with 16 million bricks over a coral concrete core, covering 16 acres of land. The fort also featured a 70-foot wide moat. They brought all the materials for construction from Key West to the island. The builders decided that slaves and, later, prisoners would provide the labor. Mind-boggling to think that they had to work in such terrible conditions. It must have been a miserable existence.
Preserving Paradise: The Evolution of Dry Tortugas into a National Park
They incorporated the Dry Tortugas Light into Fort Jefferson, changed little over the years. They decommissioned the light in 2015. On January 4, 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt designated the area as the Fort Jefferson National Monument. They listed it on the National Register of Historic Places on November 10, 1970. The Dry Tortugas, including Fort Jefferson on became a National Park on October 26, 1992.
Journey to Paradise: Getting to Dry Tortugas National Park
The most popular and convenient way to reach Dry Tortugas is by taking the Yankee Freedom III ferry. The ferry departs from Key West and provides round-trip transportation to the national park. This journey takes approximately 2 hours and 15 minutes each way. The ferry operates on a daily basis, except on Christmas Day. It’s advisable to make advance reservations as the ferry can fill up quickly, especially during peak seasons.
Another option to reach Dry Tortugas is by seaplane. Several tour operators in Key West offer scenic flights to the national park, providing a unique and breathtaking perspective. These flights typically include aerial views of the islands, the coral reefs, and the crystal-clear waters surrounding Dry Tortugas.
Why the Ferry is the Perfect Choice for Exploring Dry Tortugas National Park from Key West
Because a teacher’s salary cannot be accommodated by a private boat or a seaplane, we opted to ride the ferry. Yankee Freedom III, a 110-foot high-speed catamaran departing from Key West daily (except Christmas Day). Even though some may consider the ferry’s cost prohibitive, I think it is money well spent. Currently, the Yankee Freedom Ferry is the only concessionaire authorized by the National Park Service.
Plan to arrive at the Key West port with sufficient time before the scheduled departure of the ferry. Allow extra time for parking, ticket check-in, and any necessary preparations. It’s recommended to arrive at least 30 minutes to an hour prior to the ferry departure time to ensure a smooth boarding process. Our day began early waking at 4:30 AM to drive from Marathon to the Key West Ferry Terminal. We would have liked to stay in Key West. Unfortunately, during Christmas the prices of lodging are just too expensive in Key West, so we elected to stay in Marathon and make the hour long drive.
Convenient Parking Solutions for the Yankee Freedom Ferry at Key West Port
We recommend the city parking garage at 300 Grinnell Street close to the ferry costs $32/day. We took the first parking garage we saw. However, if you continue to the terminal, there is a smaller parking garage directly across from the terminal that charges only $15/day. I would use this garage next time and save a few dollars.
- Continental breakfast of fresh fruit, freshly baked bagels, hot and cold cereal, boiled eggs, cheese, yogurt, juice and coffee.
- Complimentary snorkel gear
- ticket includes the entrance fee to the Park and Fort Jefferson (if you have an annual pass, you can get a $15 dollar refund)
- Lunch of a variety of breads, cold cuts & toppings, chicken salad, potato salad, potato chips, cookies, fresh fruit and soft drinks.
- Guided narrated tour of Fort Jefferson – 45 minutes
The Gateway to Paradise: The Port of Key West and the Yankee Freedom III Ferry to Dry Tortugas
Registration begins at 7 AM, getting in line early dictates boarding order. Luckily, I get in line immediately drawing boarding passes 23 & 24. Check-in was smooth and well organized. The ferry has a capacity for 250 passengers, but only allows 175 passengers per day. Boarding begins in at 7:30 AM called in groups of 25. We chose a seat beside the galley kitchen inside the lower cabin. Closer to the back of the boat produces less motion. Our tour guide-Hollywood explained during the safety orientation that the seas over the past few days had been rougher than usual. Therefore, he advised that the purchase of Dramamine tablets ($1.00) would be the best preventive for seasickness. Advice we took to heart-neither of us was woozy during the trip. Even if you are not prone to motion sickness, take Dramamine or something similar before you board the boat.
The journey to the park takes about 2.5 hrs each way. The ferry departs at 8 AM and returns at 5:30 PM and makes for an enduring day. You will have approximately 4 hours to spend on the island. There is no cell service or Wi-Fi once you leave the dock.
Bon Voyage: Embarking on an Unforgettable Journey from Key West to Dry Tortugas
They serve a continental breakfast immediately upon departure from the dock. The crew on board is attentive to all the needs of the passengers. They work as a cohesive team. Their enthusiasm shines through.
The ride out to the park and back can be an adventure. We were lucky to have a wonderful couple from Ohio join our table for the ride out to the park. Through our chatting, we soon discover that we shared a love for the national parks and fishing. Other passengers settle in by playing cards, reading books, or admiring the views on the open front deck. The ferry passes the Marquesas Islands and Boca Grande before reaching the channel. Riding across the channel at 30 mph in rough seas
There are four marine toilets behind the galley, following the rules specified by the crew at the orientation will ensure that they remain function for the entire trip. They serve lunch upon arrival around 11:00 until 1:00. You may eat as much as you like until they promptly put it away.
Essentials for a Successful Visit: What to Bring to Fort Jefferson at Dry Tortugas National Park
- Towels and bathing suit
- Sunscreen (preferably reef safe)
- Change of dry clothes for your comfort on the return.
- Bag to store wet clothes
- Snorkel Gear (this is provided free by the ferry)
- Dry Bag or Backpack
- Refillable water bottle (water refills available on the ferry)
- Bring cash for the bar, tips, and raffles
Visiting Dry Tortugas National Park, A Place Of Breathtaking Beauty
Garden Key, the most popular of the six tiny islands that comprise the Dry Tortugas. The dominate feature is Fort Jefferson, where the ferry, seaplanes, and boats can dock. Bird Island is a huge nesting colony that is only open at certain times of the year. Loggerhead Key is the largest of the islands and is home to the Dry Tortugas lighthouse. Bush Key is off-limits for nesting birds such as noddies & Terns April through September. Hospital Key is a minor key known for the small hospital housed here during the Yellow Fever epidemic. This key disappears during severe weather because it’s so close to sea level. Long Key is next to Bush Key. Middle and East Key are the two remain islands.
Island Adventures: Six Must-Do Activities in Dry Tortugas National Park
Dry Tortugas National Park is a true gem and a paradise for nature lovers. Whether you’re interested in history, snorkeling, birdwatching, or simply immersing yourself in the beauty of the surroundings, a day spent in this breathtaking park will be an unforgettable experience.
1. Begin with a Walking Tour of Historic Fort Jefferson
The focal point of the park is Fort Jefferson, a massive 19th-century coastal fortress. You can take a self-guided tour of the fort or explore on your own. The guided tour you will learn about in depth its history, construction, and role during the Civil War. The fort offers incredible photo opportunities, so be sure to capture the panoramic views from its ramparts. We signed up to take the 20-minute introductory tour and the 45-minute walking tour. Our tour guide Hollywood is a whirlwind of energy. His passion for this magnificent fort is clear in his storytelling.
Stepping into History: Venture Through the Sallyport to Discover Fort Jefferson
We met at Sallyport, the only entrance into the fort. Enter the fort through the main entrance, passing through the sallyport—a fortified gateway. We took a moment to appreciate the strategic design of the entrance, built to control access and protect the fort’s inhabitants. Constructed of granite, it has withstood the test of time. The sallyport was further protected by a wooden drawbridge. If invaders somehow made it past the drawbridge into the sallyport, they would become trapped by the solid steel door at the opposite end of the sallyport. Small windows referred to as loopholes notched into the walls of the sallyport allowed soldiers to fire directly into the sallyport, killing the invaders.
During our guided tour, we learned that drinking water is rainwater collected and stored in cisterns. As the tour progresses, I imagine the total isolation that the soldiers, workers and prisoners must have felt, especially in the summer months.
Step onto the parade ground, a central open space within the fort’s walls. This area served as a gathering point for military drills, ceremonies, and daily activities. Admire the scale and grandeur of the fort’s architecture as you walk across the parade ground. The parade grounds cover eight acres and include the soldiers and officer quarters, powder magazine house, curtain wall magazine, the hot shot furnace, and the bakery.
The Guiding Light: Exploring the Fort Jefferson Lighthouse in Dry Tortugas National Park
The construction of the 70 ft Fort Jefferson Lighthouse began in 1824. It was completed and activated in 1825. The masonry lighthouse was built to aid navigation for ships approaching the treacherous waters surrounding the Dry Tortugas Islands. Its primary purpose was to provide a guiding light to vessels, warning them of the dangerous reefs and aiding in safe navigation.
A keeper who maintained the light and ensured its proper functioning initially operated the lighthouse. Keepers were responsible for fueling the light, cleaning the lens, and conducting routine maintenance. They lived in quarters adjacent to the lighthouse tower.
In 1876, the Fort Jefferson Lighthouse was automated, meaning that the light no longer required manual operation by keepers. The light was fueled by oil until 1906, when it was converted to a more efficient and reliable incandescent oil vapor lamp. The lighthouse remained in operation until 1921, when it was decommissioned and replaced by a modern beacon on a skeletal tower nearby. Restoration efforts have been undertaken to preserve the lighthouse and its surrounding structures, allowing visitors to appreciate its historical significance.
Beneath the Surface: Uncovering the Lower Floor Casements of Fort Jefferson
There are many honeycombed arches that line the 1st floor of the fort. Essentially, these gunrooms are the backbone of the fort supporting the 45 foot outside walls. They designed them to hold a massive number of armaments, including cannons, that never came to fruition. Totten shutters protected the soldiers working the cannons from gun shells. The army specifically designed the wrought-iron hinged shutters for the fort. These shutters would swing open at the precise moment the cannonball left the chamber, and in a split second would close again. However, these shutters are now causing deterioration of the brick walls.
Guardians of the Fortress: Unveiling the Upper Bastions of Fort Jefferson
We climbed the spiral stairs inside one of the corner bastions (there are six total) for an overlook onto the parade grounds from the 2nd floor. They construct the staircases of vast slabs of granite. The bastions held 24-pounder howitzers, enabling soldiers to fire down towards the 70-foot moat and beaches.
The Secrets Within: Exploring the Curtain Wall Magazine of Fort Jefferson
A large curtain magazine was designed with a capacity of 860 barrels of gunpowder. There were four curtain magazines within the fort, “curtain” meaning that the magazines were located inside the walls. You can find this powder magazine on the parade grounds on the first level. Originally, five similar structures were to be built, but they were never completed. Because of the fear and vulnerability of an attack, the current 71 ft x 52 ft structure was never completed.
The Hot Shot Furnace: Heating Up History at Fort Jefferson
They built the fiery furnace to make the solid iron cannonballs. They considered these very effective in the defenses against wooden ships. The cannonballs were superheated in the furnace; the soldiers then fed them down iron rails where gun crews would load into the cannon barrel. The super-heated cannonballs when launched skipped across the surface of the water, impacting the wooden ship near the waterline maximizing damage to the hull.
Unleashing the Thunder: The Raw Power of the Rodman Cannon at Fort Jefferson
On the third level of the fort, you will find one of the six 15-inch Rodman smoothbore cannons designed to fire 450-pound projectiles a distance of 3-miles. They mount this Rodman cannon on a reproduction cage in 2010.
The Incarceration of Dr. Samuel Mudd: Exploring the Story of a Famous Prisoner at Fort Jefferson
What I found to be the most interesting was during the Civil War, the Fort was used to house prisoners and the most famous prisoner was Dr. Samuel Mudd. Accused of conspiracy Dr Mudd along with John Wilkes Booth for the shooting of President Abraham Lincoln. Dr. Mudd was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison at Dry Tortugas. Dr. Mudd volunteered his medical skills when the prison doctor died during a Yellow Fever epidemic, he saved countless lives. President Andrew Johnson in February 1869 pardoned Dr. Mudd. They released him in March of that same year, returning to Maryland. We walked into the fort to see Dr. Mudd’s cell on the 3rd level where he gouged the floor, creating divets to collect rainwater. The dungeon on 1st floor isolated prisoners.
Fort Jefferson stands as a testament to its builders. It has withstood many storms and hurricanes. After the talk, we wandered the fort and island beaches on our own, doing a little snorkeling, and a little exploring. The sandy beach is littered with seashells and coral pieces.
REMEMBER: Never remove artifacts from National Park.
2. Discovering the beauty of Dry Tortugas National Park Snorkeling the Pristine Beaches
Dry Tortugas is renowned for its crystal-clear waters and vibrant coral reefs. Take the opportunity to snorkel and witness the diverse marine life that inhabits the area. The park provides snorkeling gear rentals, or you can bring your own. Before entering the water to snorkel, you will have to sign a waiver. Snorkel around the moat walls of Fort Jefferson, where you’ll encounter colorful fish, coral formations, and possibly even sea turtles. The fish species here are unlike anything we say in Key Biscayne or Key Largo.
Othe ideal locations are the north and south beach, both are excellent places to snorkel. The cool pilings can be good, but if there is a current in both locations. Close to the beaches holds mostly seagrasses, but swimming further out you will reach the coral reef. I would only recommend this to seasoned snorkelers because of the currents.
Fair warning, there are large barracudas and nurse sharks. We saw a nurse shark swimming in the moat, but they prohibit snorkeling inside the moat waters.
3. Hook, Line, and Serenity: Fishing in the Calm Waters of Dry Tortugas National Park
The emerald waters of the Gulf of Mexico are renown for fishing. They limit fishing to a few areas of the park. One of the crew pointed out that if you fish the dock area where the ferry moors, you have a good chance at catching a whopper. We met Kevin on our ride out, who took this advice fishing at the dock edge. He was rewarded with a good bend of the rod, however, a broken line hampered his efforts.
4. Primitive Camping in Paradise: Unforgettable Nights in Dry Tortugas National Park
If you’re planning an overnight stay, camping is available on the Garden Key, where Fort Jefferson is located. The park provides primitive campsites, offering a rare opportunity to experience the park after the day-trippers have departed. Enjoy a peaceful evening under the stars and wake up to the sound of waves crashing against the shore.
All campers must provide all of their basic needs, including food, water, shelter, medication, and other essentials. Campsites have picnic tables and grills. Each site accommodates from 3 to 6 campers. There is no electricity and a compost toilet and change rooms are available. The ferry can provide campers transportation, they require reservations. Camping fees are $15/day.
REMEMBER: What you pack in, you must pack out. Be sure to follow the Leave No Trace principles and respect the park’s fragile ecosystem by not disturbing wildlife or damaging coral reefs.
5. Feathered Wonders: Impressive Birdwatching on Garden and Bird Key in Dry Tortugas National Park
Dry Tortugas National Park is an important stopover for migratory birds and a nesting site for various species. Birdwatchers can spot a wide array of seabirds, such as the magnificent frigatebird, brown booby, and sooty tern. Bring your binoculars and explore the birding hotspots within the park, including the Bush Key and Long Key areas.
Avid bird watchers can see different species in depending on the season. Today we spotted many magnificent frigatebirds, brown pelicans, and rudy turnstones. Although Bush Island is off limits most of the year, including when we were there, you can walk out far enough to see many of the birds that inhabit the island.
6. Exploring the Past, Discovering Treasures: The Insightful Visitor Center & Gift Shop at Dry Tortugas National Park
There is a small visitor center and gift shop inside the fort, beside the sallyport. We started our tour at the visitor center, gathering information about the fort’s history, picking up a map, and getting oriented with the layout of the site. The knowledgeable park staff can provide insights and answer any questions you may have. If you are looking for your passport cancellation stamp, you can get one here. They also sell shirts, posters, national park pendants and other gifts. The informative displays showcase the history and wildlife found in the park.
Farewell: Reflecting on Memorable Moments and the Return Trip Home
The Yankee Freedom lll crew were exceptionally courteous and professional. We encountered large swells crossing the channel. The boat sway increased, causing a few to succumb to motion sickness. The crew seemed well versed in looking for symptoms in passengers, feeling the effects of the motion. They ran around the vessel to make sure they took care of all guests with “souvenir” bags, ginger ale, and ice packs if needed. Kudos to Captain Meg for piloting the ferry through the channel, taking the time to keep passengers informed. Most passengers slept through the rough ride, others stood at the bar when it opened for alcoholic beverages. I preferred the warm tea.
On your return trip, fill out the comment card. The crew will draw from these awarding a free trips, which can be used at a later time for one lucky winner. They also sell raffle tickets for a lucky passenger to choose from an array of souvenirs they sell for only a dollar.
Final Thoughts on Spending A Breathtaking Day In Beautiful Dry Tortugas National Park
Whether it’s a day trip or an overnight stay, a visit to Dry Tortugas National Park is an adventure that showcases the beauty of nature and the power of history. It’s a place where breathtaking sights, immersive experiences, and a sense of wonder converge, leaving visitors with memories that will be cherished for a lifetime.
Dry Tortugas National Park is a true gem and a destination that leaves a lasting impression on visitors. From the breathtaking views of crystal-clear waters to the awe-inspiring historical fortress of Fort Jefferson, the park offers a unique and immersive experience. This is definitely a trip of a lifetime for many visitors. I know if given the opportunity, I would return.
Have you been to the Dry Tortugas? What did you enjoy the most? Please share your comments below?