Did you know that there are islands even further west than Key West? If your visit to the Conch Republic includes enough time for a day trip, I highly recommend going to Dry Tortugas National Park! After several visits, the park is still my absolute favorite day trip in the Florida Keys!
Located about 70 miles from Key West, the Dry Tortugas are a cluster of seven islands. When Spanish explorer Ponce de León came across them, he came up with the not-so-creative name based on the abundant sea turtles (tortugas) there. “Dry” comes from the islands’ lack of natural freshwater springs.
Why travel to this remote place? Whether you’re a history buff, intrepid explorer, nature lover, or camping enthusiast, there is truly something for everyone!
The park's star attraction is the fascinating Fort Jefferson, located on Garden Key. Though unfinished, it is the largest masonry structure in the Western Hemisphere. The U.S. Navy began construction in 1846 with the goal of creating an outpost to combat piracy in the Caribbean. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1970, it’s a spectacular sight! You can opt for a 45-minute guided tour (my recommendation) or do a self-guided walking tour. Don't miss the amazing views from the top!
This protected marine preserve is home to stunning coral reefs and tropical fish, making it a wonderful place to snorkel! Water visibility varies but is often very clear. You might even see its namesake sea turtles, especially during the summer months when they come to lay their eggs. And let’s not forget our feathered friends! The Dry Tortugas are a key part of the Great Florida Birding Trail, and nearly 300 species of birds have been spotted here.
Interested in some primitive camping? Staying overnight in Dry Tortugas National Park is a unique experience. There are ten first-come, first-served sites on Garden Key. You’ll have to book in advance and bring all your gear, including a tent, water, and food. Despite the challenges, you’ll enjoy tropical breezes at one of the most secluded campgrounds in the country. Thanks to the area’s remoteness, the best part might be the spectacular view of the stars at night!
There are a few ways to get to the Dry Tortugas, and both require booking in advance. The most common way is by water on the Yankee Freedom III. This option is offered daily and includes breakfast, lunch, snorkel gear, and a tour of Fort Jefferson. Each leg takes two and a half hours, giving you about four hours on Garden Key. You’ll have enough time for a tour of the fort, lunch on the boat, snorkeling, and exploring. The other option (if you aren’t camping) is by seaplane, which costs more but is a shorter trip, giving you more time on the island.
Here are a few more tried-and-true tips to get the most out of your visit to Dry Tortugas National Park:
Some people might say that visiting the Dry Tortugas is a once-in-a-lifetime trip, but I’m betting you’ll want to go back!