Dry Tortugas National Park is a must-see destination. The park is located nearly 70 miles from Key West, Florida. It is comprised of seven different islands, corals reefs, sand, marine life, birds, and strikingly clear, blue waters.
It is well-known that a large majority of the island is made up of water, 98% to be exact. However, the island of Garden Key, the second-largest island within Dry Tortugas, is the most popular for tourism. Garden Key is home to Fort Jefferson, a masonry fort from the 1800s. It is approximately 100 acres of pure beauty.
Dry Tortugas National Park – Things to Know Before You Go!
Transportation – How to get to the National Park
There are several methods of transportation when you decide to visit the island. Garden Key can be accessed by seaplane, charter boat, and ferry. Visitors to the island have the option of a day trip or a camping trip.
You can also reach Dry Tortugas by tour which can be easier than the other options. Here is a tour we would recommend.
The Yankee Freedom Ferry to Dry Tortugas
The ferry to Dry Tortugas, known as the Yankee Freedom, is one of the most common ways of getting to the island. It provides many services on the way to Garden Key Island, home to the famous Fort Jefferson.
The ride to the island is beautiful. However, the weather can have a major impact on the waters. If the weather is less than ideal and the seas are rough, the staff will likely offer Dramamine or a similar medication to help with motion or seasickness.
It is highly recommended to use the medication when and if the staff members suggest it. However, you must ensure that your doctor approves of this and that you do not have any health conditions or medication interactions that restrict you from using the medication. Please read about the medication and any side effects before taking it. Do not take the medication based on this suggestion. You can also bring sea-bands and natural methods to help prevent seasickness.
During the journey, small snacks are provided in the morning, and bagged lunches are offered between 11 o’clock and 1 o’clock. There are gluten-free options, and the staff works hard to meet any dietary needs for their bagged lunch. You must simply speak with the person in charge of the lunches, who they will identify during their introduction.
It is vital to look at the weather and coordinate your trip when the waters are smooth and the weather is warm. Planning your trip during beautiful weather makes a significant difference, but it can be enjoyable even during rough weather if you are well-prepared.
All passengers should wear clothing that is waterproof or water-resistant and carry an extra set of clothing. This will make a world of difference if you get wet during the trip, as the winds can be brutally cold. Other recommended items to bring include swimwear (if you plan to swim or snorkel), snacks, drinks, medications (as needed), towels, sunscreen, water shoes to protect your feet from the sharp sand, comfortable dry footwear such as sneakers, sunglasses or a hat, a camera or camera-phone, and anything you require for a long day of adventure.
Campers require additional equipment, including camping gear, bug spray, a first aid kit, additional food, fresh drinking water, toilet paper, trash bags, as well as anything else one may need for an overnight stay. During the evening hours on the island, mosquitos and other insects are active, and bug spray is a necessity if you do not want to go home covered in bites.
According to the National Park Service, U.S. Department of Interior, the Yankee Freedom Ferry has two check-in times. One for campers at six o’clock in the morning and one for non-campers at seven o’clock. Boarding begins at seven-thirty, and the ship departs at eight o’clock. The trip takes approximately two hours and 15 minutes. However, the duration may vary slightly based on the weather.
The prime place to be on the ship when the weather is nice is the top deck due to the stunning views as you travel through Dry Tortugas National Park. They offer a bar on the top and bottom deck with delicious wines and an assortment of alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages. It is vital to be aware of the high chance of becoming wet if you’re sitting outside while the waters are rough.
The Yankee Freedom is exceedingly popular due to the ease of the trip and the food, beverages, and other necessities offered to the passengers. It is also a wonderful experience to relax and enjoy the scenery of Dry Tortugas National Park. In addition, the prices are reasonable and not as costly as others methods of transportation to the island.
The Yankee Freedom Ferry Cost – How much does it cost to go to Dry Tortugas
The Yankee Freedom offers day trips for $190 for adults, $135 for children aged 4-16, $180 for senior citizens, and $180 for students aged 17+ and for active military, both requiring identification. There is an entrance fee to the park of $15 which will be refunded if you have a National Park Pass.
The prices are slightly higher for campers at $210 per adult and $155 per child aged 4-16. Reservations are required to be made by phone due to limited availability. It is highly recommended that people call at least 12 months in advance to obtain a spot at one of the most exciting camping locations in Florida.
Camping on the island is ideal for those who want more time to explore the magnificent island and all it offers. Campers must bring their own snorkeling gear and other equipment such as paddleboards or kayaks, which they can use during their time on the island. This makes the experience much more adventurous and it is ideal for avid campers and travelers.
Another benefit of the Yankee Freedom is the Dry Tortugas Photo Contest. Visitors of Dry Tortugas frequently bring cameras or camera phones to capture images of the stunning island and Fort Jefferson. Visitors who travel via the Yankee Freedom may enter in the photo contest for a chance to win a $500 Visa card.
You simply tag #DryTortugas and share your post on Instagram or Twitter to enter. Each month, five photographs are selected by a panel of judges and public voting opens. At the end of the month, the winner will receive the $500 Visa card and a National Park Annual Pass.
Day travelers have approximately four hours to explore the island and campers have the entire day and night and the following morning for exploration. This allows campers to be able to see the island and fort at their leisure and spend more time on activities such as snorkeling and swimming in the dazzling blue waters, kayaking, paddle-boarding, birdwatching, and more.
Seaplane to Dry Tortugas National Park
Another method of exploring Dry Tortugas National Park is by seaplane. Key West Seaplane Adventures is the only seaplane service allowed in Dry Tortugas National Park. They are also known to be the fastest and the most thrilling way to reach Garden Key while taking in the sights along the way.
During the journey through Dry Tortugas to one of the many islands in the park, Garden Key, passengers are set up with headsets and window seats. The entire flight is narrated by the pilot who gives a personal tour. The pilot will bring you to low and high altitudes for the best experience possible. The low altitudes offer up-close views of the stunning waters below, marine life, birdlife, and much more. During the tour, you will get the opportunity to see various marine life such as sharks and stingrays.
It is even said that porpoises are spotted on occasion. Slightly west of Key West, the plane will fly over waters of three to five feet in depth, allowing you to see the delicate ecosystem across the 20-mile flats. There are numerous sights to see along the way, such as the seven islands within Dry Tortugas. One island, known as Ballast Key, is the only island within Dry Tortugas that has a personal home. Flying over the island with the guided tour offers passengers an incredible insight to experience the beauty and history of the park.
From the Marquesas Islands and quicksand to the shipwrecks from World War II, it is the experience of a lifetime. The seaplane will also fly over Fort Jefferson, allowing passengers to take photographs of the historic fort.
The seaplane lands on Garden Key, home to Fort Jefferson. You can then experience the beauty of the island from the ground and experience similar adventures as the people who take The Yankee Freedom. Given there are no showers or as many amenities on the seaplane, it still offers a unique experience, unlike anything you will ever do, and it is worth every penny you spend.
Keywestseaplanecharters.com is the only direct booking website. Rates range from half-day rates for adults at $361, $288.80 for children 12 and under, and free for children under two years of age. The half-day trip is slightly under four hours long and provides you with two and one-half hours to visit Fort Jefferson, the main attraction of Dry Tortugas National Park.
The full-day trip is $634 for adults, $507.20 for children aged 12 and under, and similarly free for children under two years old. This trip is almost eight hours long, and you have the opportunity to explore Fort Jefferson and roam around Garden Key for six and one-half hours.
The prices are higher than The Yankee Freedom. However, the opportunities this trip offers are incredible, and you can spend much more time on Garden Key without having to camp, as you would have to do to get more time if you chose The Yankee Freedom. Both options allow you to take in the stunning sights from afar and up close.
The third option for visiting Dry Tortugas National Park is the most complex yet the most unique. The top items on your list are to plan and obtain the boat permit, which is required to be filed on Garden Key even if you do not plan to visit Fort Jefferson.
It is of utmost importance to plan for camping and boating alike. The weather and tides are the top safety concerns when visiting Dry Tortugas in your private boat. If the 110-foot ferry is unable to provide a clear horizon, you can count on your smaller boat suffering as you navigate the waters. It is recommended to avoid going when the weather is not ideal and when the waves are high. Caution of the shallow waters of Dry Tortugas is vital in your preparation for your trip.
There are many points of consideration and many necessities that you will need to be aware of on your to, and once you are on the island. You need to bring everything from food and water to toilet paper and bedding. You must abide by the park rules regarding trash, permits, licenses, anchoring your vessel, items that are prohibited such as firearms, and you must be aware of the “Special Protection Zones” in Dry Tortugas.
This includes areas such as the “Shark Special Protection Zone”, the “Coral Special Protection Zone”, “Bush Key” (when it is nesting season), and “East Key, Middle Key, and Long Key” which are closed year-round.
Personal experience at Dry Tortugas National Park
My husband and I took The Yankee Freedom. Once on the island, there are two options, a guided tour at eleven o’clock or a self-guided tour that offers more leisure. Small snacks are offered in the morning and lunch is served between 11 o’clock and 1 o’clock.
There are gluten-free options, and the staff works hard to meet any dietary needs for their bagged lunch. If you select the guided tour, be aware that the ship leaves the island for the day at three o’clock and does not return until the morning. For those who are not camping, be aware that the ship will arrive back in Key West at around five-fifteen in the evening.
The major activities include the island tour, swimming, snorkeling with equipment provided, bird-watching, and exploring the island and fort. My husband and I did the self-guided tour and had a blast. We explored Fort Jefferson, which was mainly used as a prison housing the most famous prisoner on the island, Dr. Samuel Mud, known for his involvement in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.
Life and history are abundant on the island, and there is no shortage of beautiful sights. Our favorite part of the visit to the island was the stunning blue waters which were crystal clear, enabling us to see the coral reefs and ocean floors. Snorkeling was a great highlight and an opportunity to explore the waters further. During our time on the island, Fort Jefferson was under construction, and certain parts of the fort were restricted.
However, the robust island has so much to see. We explored Fort Jefferson and its incredible history, walked around the island and surrounding mote that offered views unlike anything we had ever seen, and snorkeled in the pleasant waters below.
It is crucial to make quality use of your time, and the fort was slightly challenging to navigate. However, the island is easy to navigate, and the staff has fantastic suggestions of where to snorkel. If we could change anything on our trip, we would opt for camping and take the guided tour before roaming the island by ourselves.
This option is ideal if you are a camper because you have the entire island to yourselves and the other campers after the ship returns to Key West. Camping would have provided us with much more time for snorkeling, swimming, exploring Fort Jefferson, bird-watching, and enjoying roaming the island. Depending on your choice, what you should bring varies.
Most Popular Activities at Dry Tortugas Island – What is special about Dry Tortugas Island
The most popular and best activities to do when visiting Dry Tortugas Island are visiting Fort Jefferson and exploring the island, visiting the beaches, snorkeling, kayaking, paddleboarding, recreational fishing, bird watching, and sighting the Tortugas Harbor Lighthouse.
During our trip, we were able to visit the beach and Fort Jefferson, walk the mote, snorkel, birdwatch, and photograph the beautiful scenery surrounding us. I believe that a longer time on the island would be an incredible experience and I know we will go back to experience camping and likely try taking the seaplane for a new experience the next time around.
Our favorite part of the entire trip was the opportunity to walk the mote that surrounds Fort Jefferson and allows you to see the gorgeous waters below and to snorkel in the clear blue waters, which is one of the main things that Dry Tortugas National Park is known for.
Things to Avoid at Dry Tortugas National Park
- If you are not a seasoned boater or someone who does not get motion sickness, wait for a better day or be prepared to bring sea bands or take the Dramamine that is offered at the beginning of the trip before leaving Key West (Consult with your physician first).
- Bringing small children and babies that may not be able to handle the ferry trip if it gets rough.
- Destruction or any type of manipulation of the natural and man-made properties on the island. For example, the movement of stones and building material from Jefferson Fort, the mote, or anything that would alter the appearance and functionality of the island and all that it holds.
- The collection of items or souvenirs from the island such as shells, rocks, and other items you may find.
- Taking the ferry if you have any medical condition that could be worsened by the rough movement of the boat when the waves are intense.
Summary – Is it Worth The Trip?
Yes, we believe it is worth the trip to go to Dry Tortugas National Park.
In summary, no matter which way you decide to explore Dry Tortugas Island, there is a $15 fee, which will be refunded if you have a National Park Annual Pass. The top things to focus on are the type of experience you want and how long you want it to last.
The Yankee Freedom offers a superb opportunity to explore the island for both a day trip and for camping. You can snorkel, swim, explore, and do many activities. The longer you stay, the more you can do. I recommend camping for the best experience for couples and seasoned travelers and the day trip for families with children.
If you are on a budget, The Yankee Freedom is the way to go. If you have fewer restrictions on your budget, I recommend the full-day trip via seaplane. It offers much more time and is great for photography. I would suggest the half-day for families with children and the full day for those who are seasoned travelers. The personal vessel option is extremely challenging to coordinate but could be an incredible experience. I would suggest this to those who are very seasoned in traveling and boating, and who have plenty of time and money to spare for their trip.
For those with young children, this is a very risky endeavor. If I had to go back and do it again, I would do the full-day seaplane adventure. The prices are slightly higher, but you will have more than enough time for photography, swimming, snorkeling, roaming around, learning about the history of Fort Jefferson, and relaxing for a nice lunch surrounded by wildlife.
However, whichever way you choose to visit Dry Tortugas National Park, there is something for everyone and I can assure you that it will be an amazing experience. To my husband and me, it was like a dream with the stunningly clear blue water, the opportunity to try snorkeling in the clear water where you could see the coral reefs, and the marine life and wildlife that we encountered during our trip.
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