Discover Dry Tortugas National Park & Fort Jefferson in the Florida Keys
While just about everyone has heard of famous national parks like Yellowstone and Yosemite, there are many lesser-known parks in North America that are also well worth a visit.
As they don’t tend to attract the masses, they often provide an even more rewarding experience. After all, who really wants to fight the crowds to get just a small glimpse of that bucket-list attraction?
Your next vacation strategy might be to travel to one of the top parks for enjoying the scenery and a variety of other highlights in relative peace.
Dry Tortugas is an outdoor lover’s dream, not only boasting stunningly azure surrounding waters, but it’s also home to the 19th century Fort Jefferson, the largest all-masonry fort in the country, making it popular with history buffs.
Built as the gateway to the Gulf of Mexico, the fort has a fascinating history along with unique brickwork and 2,000 arches.
Visitors can also enjoy world-class bird watching and snorkeling on a day trip from Key West, or while camping at Garden Key campground.
70 miles west of Key West, only accessible via boat or sea plane, lies Dry Tortugas National Park, one of the world’s most remote national parks. The 100-square mile park is mostly open water with seven small islands. Many park visitors arrive to the remote island via ferry, but many others opt for a sea plane ride or take the journey on private vessels.
One of the most awe-inspiring sights at the park is Fort Jefferson, located on Garden Key. The crown jewel of the park, this 19th century fortress has a history so rich you’ll be dying to explore it for yourself.
If you desire to extend your stay, you can camp overnight near Fort Jefferson on Garden Key on one of 10 primitive campsites.
Dry Tortugas camping is an incredible experience.
There’s no feeling quite like setting up your tent for the night and realizing you are within 50 feet of both a historic 19th-century military fort and a gorgeous beach with crystal-clear water and incredible snorkeling.
While at the same time realizing you’re 70 miles away from the hustle and bustle of civilization!
If you plan on taking the ferry (as most visitors do) to camp at Dry Tortugas, you’ll need to plan your trip well in advance in order to secure a ticket. Here’s everything you need to know.
Dry Tortugas Camping: Making your Reservation
There are no official camping reservations at Dry Tortugas, but the NPS limits the number of campers coming over on the Yankee Freedom to 10 per day to ensure that all campers have a spot. Ferry reservations for campers fill up very quickly, so you’ll need to start planning several months ahead of time to make this happen.
While regular Yankee Freedom passengers can book their reservations online, campers have to call the office for reservations. I had hoped to camp for two nights, but I was forced to stay for three to fit into the one remaining slot the NPS had for campers that week. All camping is primitive. There’s a bathroom, but nothing else – not even drinking water.
Boarding the Yankee Freedom Ferry
Campers can start arriving at 6:30 am to board the ferry. This means you’ll have to stay the night before in Key West, which is very expensive, like the entire Florida Keys. To save money, consider the Sea Shell Motel.
This beautiful island and the Seashell Motel are a great way to spend special holidays such as New Year’s Eve, Valentine’s Day, Fourth of July, Labor Day and Christmas.
Boarding the Yankee Freedom Ferry
Upon arrival, you’ll find wheelbarrows to take your luggage over to the ship. Bring all the food and water you’ll need because none is available on the island of Garden Key, where you’ll be staying. You can, however, buy lunch or snacks on the ferry when it arrives each afternoon, and prices are surprisingly reasonable.
Pack ultra-light because because it can get difficult carrying around heavy bags. Once you arrive on the island, you’ll have access to more wheelbarrows to transport your belongings directly to your campsite.
So if you’re concerned that all the gallons of water you’re bringing are too heavy, don’t worry; it won’t be an issue. You cannot bring any flammable accelerants or propane canisters on the ship, so your only options for starting fires are charcoal or sterno cans. . Think jerky and cheese, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, apples and bananas, crackers and nuts. Save time if you are planning a cookout pre-marinated meats in ziplocks are always a no brainer.
Breakfast is free on the ship, and passengers also get one free lunch on the ship during their stay. Campers are advised to save the free lunch until their final day, when their gear will already be packed up in preparation for departure. Lunch is simple but satisfying.
Securing your campsite
There are only 10 campsites at Dry Tortugas. Though the NPS limits the number of campers coming over on the ferry, private boaters can and do arrive on the island whenever they like, and they can take up campsites as well. This means there’s a good chance the camping spots will be full when you arrive.
Once the ferry arrives, campers are gathered together for an orientation. Then, you are free to get your bags, load them up, and wheel them over to the campsite.
If you are traveling in a group, once the orientation ends, you should send someone over to quickly secure an available campsite while the rest of your party packs up their bags.
The Yankee Freedom advertises that showers are available on the ship each afternoon when it arrives, but the showers are just a couple of fresh water sprinklers on the back deck that you can use to rinse off.
What’s the best time of year to visit Dry Tortugas?
It’s hard to say exactly which months are most and least crowded at Dry Tortugas, because people visit at different times for different reasons. First, the weather doesn’t vary a whole lot, and the islands stay warm even in winter (usually 60s F are as low as it gets, with occasional nights in the 50s.)
The baggage area on the Yankee Freedom will get wet on the trip over. Campers are advised to put their gear in waterproof packs, or use plastic tote bins.
The bathrooms on the island are glorified outhouses. They have a composting toilet, but don’t expect anything fancy. During the day, when the ship is on the island, you can use the bathrooms on the ship. Definitely take advantage of this option!
What’s the limit on how much stuff you can bring? As of 2019, the Tortugas website says campers are allowed 60 pounds of gear each.
That’s a really generous allowance, and it doesn’t include water jugs. You can bring as much extra water as you like.
Alcohol is permitted on Dry Tortugas, but glass bottles are not. Bring plastic bottles of wine or beer if desired. That said, our bags weren’t searched when we visited, so if you choose to bring alcohol keep that in mind.
The island definitely isn’t a party kind of place. People are generally quiet and there to enjoy the nature.
FISHING AT DRY TORTUGA
Fishing is allowed everywhere in the Dry Tortugas except in the 46 percent of the park designated Research Natural Areas. Anglers must purchase a Florida fishinglicense and saltwater stamp before they leave the mainland.
Spearfishing and lobstering are not allowed.