Peaceful sunset over Fort Jefferson and Garden Key in Dry Tortugas National Park Florida USA
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National Parks

A Complete Guide to Visiting Dry Tortugas National Park

This park is 99 percent water—yet it's packed with history.

The name Dry Tortugas National Park is a bit of a misnomer, considering that less than one percent of this Florida national park’s 100 square miles is dry land. Located some 70 miles west of Key West, and consisting of wide-open water and a smattering of small islands, Dry Tortugas is actually the wettest national park in the country—one that necessitates swimming and snorkeling to really grasp its breadth. 

The islands (Garden, Loggerhead, Bush, Long, East, Hospital, and Middle Keys) are part of not only the most aquatic park in the U.S., but also one of the most remote and least visited, which should perhaps come as no surprise since Dry Tortugas is only accessible via a two-hour ferry ride or private seaplane. Said ferry docks at Garden Key, home to Fort Jefferson, white-sand beaches, and an underwater snorkeling trail, where visitors are free to explore for four to five hours before returning to Key West. With limited seating aboard the high-speed catamaran, and only one out-and-back sailing per day, this is one park that requires ample planning, but the added effort is more than worth the opportunity to dive into the maritime lore and coral beauty at a national park like no other. 

Below is our complete guide for planning a seamless Dry Tortugas National Park visit, whether it’s your first visit or a return trip—from the best places to stay to the underwater experiences you won’t want to miss. 

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When to visit Dry Tortugas National Park

To ensure your visit to Dry Tortugas National Park is as blue-skied as possible, be strategic about the time of year you visit. Garden Key, the main island where the Yankee Freedom ferry docks, is technically open every day of the year, but trips are subject to extreme weather. Hurricane season (June through November) brings the highest threat of storms, which can cause ferry cancellations, or at the very least result in rain and wind that lead to choppy waves and muddy waters that are hardly ideal for snorkeling. The park is also at its hottest June through September, which explains why January through March is the peak season for this watery wonderland. Consider traveling in the shoulder season, like April to May, or prepare to book your peak season trip well in advance—the Yankee Freedom only has capacity for 175 passengers and demand is high. 

At $200 per adult for a ferry ticket ($145 for children 4 to 16; infants are free), this is also one of the most expensive national parks to visit. Luckily, the ferry includes entrance to the park on Garden Key (it’s $15 for those arriving via seaplane), complimentary snorkeling equipment, and buffets for both breakfast and lunch. The ferry also has a snack-filled galley, fresh-water rinse showers, an air conditioned cabin, an open-air sundeck, and bars serving beer, wine, and cocktails. The bar is only open during lunch and on the return trip (but it’s probably best to save those frozen margaritas for post-snorkeling anyway). 

Ferries embark at 8 a.m. out of the Key West Ferry Terminal, with boarding at 7 a.m. The trip is about two hours each way, docking at Garden Key for four to five hours. En route, an on-board naturalist talks about the park and its wildlife, with opportunities for potential sea turtle and dolphin sightings. It’s recommended that visitors come equipped with sunscreen, a beach towel, a bathing suit, and a change of clothes. 

When exploring underwater, remember that coral is extremely delicate, and it’s pivotal to practice “leave no trace” principles, as the mildest scrape against a reef can kill it. The same applies to any and all marine life, which might include sea turtles, urchins, jellyfish, and reef squid. 

In Dry Tortugas National Park lies a former U.S. military coastal fortress, Fort Jefferson.

Jeffrey K Collins/Getty

What to do in Dry Tortugas

Seventy miles off Key West, at the westernmost fringe of the third largest coral reef on Earth, this is one park where you've got to get into the water. With azure-blue as far as the eye can see, and teeming marine life and kaleidoscopic coral, there’s much to marvel at beneath the surface. Swimming and snorkeling are permitted anywhere at Garden Key, aside from within the moat wall, with the greatest abundance of larger marine life dwelling in and around the pier pilings, which provide habitat for roving grouper, barracudas, and docile nurse sharks. 

There’s a unique underwater snorkel trail that circles Garden Key, lined with signs explaining the aquatic ecosystem. For more casual swimming and sunbathing, white-sand beaches are located on the north, south, and east sides of the key. Snorkeling is permitted in areas beyond designated sections at Garden Key, but swimmers must display approved dive flags. This can be done at places like Loggerhead Key, which like all other areas of the park beyond Garden Key, is only accessible via private boat. If you can make it, the largest island in the park has a lot to offer, including the Loggerhead Lighthouse, Little Africa reef, and the Windjammer shipwreck. 

On the dryer side of the Tortugas, Fort Jefferson is the iron-clad star of Garden Key. The giant brick fortress, built to defend the Southern coast after the War of 1812, was initially used by the Union to thwart Confederate trade during the Civil War, later serving as a prison. The fort’s most infamous resident was Dr. Samuel Mudd, imprisoned for mending John Wilkes Booth’s leg after the he shot President Lincoln. Today, park-goers are free to explore the entirety of the fort on their own, including Dr. Mudd’s cell, as part of a complimentary 45-minute tour. Be sure to head up to the roof for views of the turquoise-tinted Gulf. 

During the drier season (late fall to early winter), Bush Key is a 16-acre island that becomes accessible from a land bridge linking Garden Key, creating a one-mile shoreline trail. The key is completely closed to visitors from February through September, however, to protect nesting sea birds—with upwards of 80,000 sooty terns and 4,500 brown noddies, Bush Key is home to the only breeding colonies of these rare species in the U.S. 

Margaritaville Beach House Key West is a tropical haven perched on the largest beach on the island.

Courtesy Margaritaville Beach House Key West

Where to stay when you visit Dry Tortugas

As you might expect of a tiny chain of keys 70 miles into the Gulf of Mexico, lodging options at Dry Tortugas National Park are minimal. For the ultimate serenity, visitors unafraid to rough it can camp overnight for $220 (including transit on Yankee Freedom), but you’ll need to bring all your own equipment, including water. Campsites are limited, and most are available on a first-come, first-served basis, while group sites (for 10 to 20 people) can be reserved in advance. All campsites are primitive and frills-free, but it’s a special opportunity to dwell in utter solitude under the stars, with the sound of waves lapping on the shore. 

All other lodging options are back on Key West, where there are hotels, inns, Airbnbs, and home rentals abound—just keep in mind that, much like the cost of admission to the Tortugas, they don’t come cheap. Properties run the gamut from Margaritaville Beach House Key West, a tropical haven perched on the largest beach on the island, to the Kimpton Lighthouse Hotel, a smaller boutique with a relaxed pool, gardens, and mojito-slinging Isabel’s Bar. 

Learn about Key West’s most famed resident at The Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum.

Malgorzata Litkowska/Alamy

What to do nearby

Away from the National Park, Key West is a wonderland of kitsch and character, swimming with bars, history, and entertainment. Duval Street is the Bourbon Street of Key West, thanks to its myriad open-air bars and open-container alcohol policy. A tipsy highlight is 801 Bourbon Bar, a queer hotspot for drag shows and dancing until the wee hour of 4 a.m. Sloppy Joe’s, open since the ‘30s, is an iconic saloon once frequented by Ernest Hemingway and now revered for its Hemingway Look-Alike Contests. And it doesn’t get any quirkier than Blue Heaven, an al fresco fixture where guests can dine on jerk chicken and key lime pie on a funky patio next to a “rooster graveyard.” In the morning, Cuban Coffee Queen serves excellent Cuban coffee and breakfast specialties, like guava-smeared toast and breakfast sandwiches pressed on Cuban bread (hot tip: there’s a location right near the ferry terminal that opens at 6:30 a.m., in case you’d prefer pan Cubano to the on-board breakfast buffet).

Everglades National Park - Canoe
Just an hour from Miami, the 1.5 million acres of Floridian flora and fauna that make up the Everglades are home to rare Florida panthers and writhing pythons.

As Key West’s most famed resident, more Hemingway ephemera—and a population of six-toed cats—is on full display at the The Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum, a decadent French Colonial-style manor accessible via cash-only tours. After you’ve queued up for a photo at the Southernmost Point of the Continental U.S.A., soak in the maritime lore at Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park, the southernmost state park in the continental U.S. These parts are hardly  short on superlatives.