Dry Tortugas Guide – Florida’s Remote National Park

Dry Tortugas Moat
The moat wall of Fort Jefferson in Dry Tortugas National Park.

There are many reasons to visit Florida’s most remote National Park—Dry Tortugas. They include a storied history that dates back to 1513, an abundance of birds and sea life, and really dark skies. You can read all about the Top 9 reasons to visit Dry Tortugas on our website. While there are many things to love about the Dry Tortugas the journey isn’t an easy one. The archipelago of seven tiny islands lie 70-miles west of the end of the road in Key West. The park’s service regulates the visitors to the islands each day making this a highly sought-after ticket. Luckily for you, you’ve found our Dry Tortugas Guide which help you plan and hopefully secure your spot in exploring this amazing natural and historic wonder.

Dry Tortugas Guide Quick Links

How Much Time Do You Need?

Dry Tortugas Sunset
The sunsets on the Dry Tortugas and the Loggerhead Key Lighthouse.

For many visiting Dry Tortugas National Park, the journey is relatively short with only about 4.5 hours on the actual island. It’s not cheap to get to Garden Key and I’ve never heard anyone say that they spent too much time in this unique place. (Other than maybe the soldiers and prisoners in the 1800s) :). We suggest a minimum of two days but we stayed for four days and had a hard time leaving when it was time to go. To stay this long takes preparation. You must travel to the island with everything needed to survive (food, water, etc) and you must plan to do this nearly a year in advance. You are limited to 14 consecutive days and no more than 30 days per year.

Seasons & Weather

If you are looking for the best time to visit then our Dry Tortugas Guide has got you covered. We recommend booking your journey in late May or early June. Although there’s really no bad time to visit the park, except maybe during a hurricane. 🙂

Fort Jefferson Birds
The late spring and early summer is a great time to travel to Dry Tortugas to see all the seabirds, like this brown noddy, nesting on Bush Key.

Spring

Spring has perfect weather for camping and swimming. The days tend to be warm but not yet hot. It can still be very windy causing the water to be choppy and murky. March is the beginning of the sooty tern nesting season that runs through mid-July.

Summer

Summer is known for having the calmest, clearest water but it is going to be hot! Nurse Shark mating season is in June and July. Young sharks stay in the shallows through October. Sea Turtles also lay eggs on the beaches between May and October. Hurricane season officially starts in June but storms tend to be more likely in August and September.

Fall

Fall tends to have some of the roughest weather with large hurricanes passing through the Gulf of Mexico during this time. A lot of migratory birds heading further south pass through the Dry Tortugas during this season but the nesting birds have flown the coop by October.

Winter

Winter has the benefit of fewer bugs, smaller crowds, and cooler air. However, the colder air also makes it less appealing to go for a swim. It also tends to be windy making the water murky and less than ideal for snorkeling. From mid-October thru mid-January is the only time of year when Bush Key is open to the public for exploration. This is because the birds have left and the baby sea turtles have all hatched.

Getting to the Island/ Reservations

Fort Jefferson Pano
A panoramic view of Fort Jefferson with the Yankee Freedom Ferry III at the dock.

Throughout history, the biggest challenge to visiting the Dry Tortugas has been getting there. While it is easier today than it ever has been, it can still be a challenge. This is especially true if you wish to spend more than just a few hours on Garden Key.

Yankee Freedom III

Most travelers who visit Dry Tortugas National Park get there via the Yankee Freedom Ferry. It is the only concessionary licensed entity to take visitors to the island via boat. The ferry takes travelers from Key West to Garden Key. The boat leaves port once a day at 8:00 AM and takes more than two hours to travel the nearly 70-mile journey. While this is perhaps the cost-effective way to travel to the islands it isn’t cheap, costing about $200 a seat for adults. Fifteen dollars of each reservation is for the park access fee which will be reimbursed if you have a National Park Pass and present it when checking in for the ferry. You also need to reserve your seat about 6 to 9 months in advance.

Seaplane

Dry Tortugas Guide Seaplane
One of the Dry Tortugas seaplanes lands just outside the old ruins of the southern coal dock.

Like the ferry, the park’s service only licenses one seaplane service for commercial flights to the islands. The Seaplane Adventures might be the more scenic and quicker way to travel to the island, but it’s more expensive. It’s also not an option for campers as the weight limits are too narrow. For day-trippers, the journey is typically shorter with only 2.5-hours of island time for $361 (as of 2021) for each adult. They do offer an extended stay of 6.5-hours but that will run you more than $600/adult.

Personal Boat

Sailing in the Dry Tortugas
The early pre-dawn light illuminates the ruins of the south coal dock and all the sailboats moored in the waters around Garden Key.

Perhaps the best way to travel to the islands is on your own personal boat. Sailors can moor in the safety of Garden Key with a National Park permit. Permits are easily acquired for free at the Garden Key ranger station. A National Park Pass or a $15/day entrance fee is still required to visit the park.

Parking – Dry Tortugas Guide

Dry Tortugas Guide - Pelican
Unlike this Brown Pelican, you might have a tough time finding parking when visiting the Dry Tortugas.

The second challenge to visiting Dry Tortugas is finding parking in Key West. This can be extra challenging for those camping on the island. While parking is included with the Seaplane Adventures, this is not the case with the ferry boat. Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered in this Dry Tortugas Guide. There is a parking garage adjacent to the dock, Old Town Parking Garage at 300 Grinnell Street, and runs $32/day. It has a clearance height of 7’2″ and restricts anything longer than 20′ from parking in the garage.

RV Parking

If you own a large RV, do not drive it into Key West as it is illegal to park your rig anywhere in the city. The streets are too tight and generally the city seems to have a disdane for RVs. You will need to arrange to leave your rig at one of the campgrounds near Key West and drive your tow vehicle in or take an Uber.

Truck and Van Parking

Parking truck campers and camper vans is difficult but not impossible. The Bight Parking Lot is an open-air lot about two blocks from the ferry terminal at 800 Caroline Street. It only allows parking for a maximum 24-hour period. Free street parking is available in the area but only for a maximum of 72 hours and these spots are hard to find. Much of the street parking is reserved for and labeled “residents.”

There is one parking lot suitable for trucks and vans for more than one night. Please leave this small parking lot for larger vehicles. It is simply called the Key West Parking Lot and is located at 808 Southard Street. There are signs posted stating no RVs or Campers, but we took the latter to mean no camping in your rig which is a city ordinance. We parked our camper here for four days and had no issues.

Camping Details

Dry Tortugas Star Trails
One of the best things about the Dry Tortugas are how many stars can be seen in the dark sky.

This Dry Tortugas Guide is all about helping you make the most out of your journey to the National Park. Beyond mooring your own vessel in the bay, camping is the only way to fully explore the park and we highly recommend it. However, it does take a lot more preparation than a simple day visit. The Garden Key Campground is the only camping area in the park. It is located a few yards from both the dock and the entrance to Fort Jefferson. Campers traveling to Garden Key on board the Yankee Freedom Ferry are required to load their gear onto the boat at 6:00 AM. All of your gear will be searched. Do not attempt to bring weapons, drones, lighter fluid or compressed gas canisters onboard the vessel. You should also pack your gear in waterproof bags as it is stored uncovered on the back of the boat.

Camping Reservations

The park’s service will tell you that the Garden Key Campground is first-come, first-served and this is sort of true. The ferry limits the number of campers on each boat making camping ferry reservations extremely important, unless you own your own boat. If you come over on the ferry with your camping supplies you are guaranteed a spot to camp by the park’s service. If you want to use the ferry as transportation when camping you need to be book your seat 10 to 12 months in advance and you must call them to do so: 800-634-0939. Err on the side of 12 months if you desire to camp over a weekend or holiday.

The Garden Key Campsites

Garden Key Camping
Our Campsite overlooking Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas.

There are 8 designated campsites on Garden Key along with an overflow area. Upon arrival, you select an empty site and pay for it via an iron ranger ($15/night in 2021). The sites are scattered throughout a small section of trees on Garden Key between the white sand swimming beach and the dingy beach.

The cluster of trees is known for having rats and large hermit crabs. While the shade from the trees is nice during the days they also block the cooling winds. It is generally better to set up your tent on the edge, outside of the trees. This way you are somewhat away from the highest volume of rats and get a little breeze as well. You’ll sleep better at night and if you need the shade to cool down during the day you can retreat into the trees or go for a swim. The entire overflow area and the group sites are barren of trees.

Camping Amenities

All campsites come with a large plastic bin for storing food and water away from the rats. It is vital to protect your food and water by storing them inside the storage bin. Do not leave food or water in your tent as the rats have been known to chew through it to get to them. There is also a hanging pole as nothing is allowed to be tied to the trees. Each campsite has a picnic table that has a number stenciled on it for listing your campsite in the paperwork. A standing BBQ grill is also provided at each campsite.

Hermit Crab
Properly store your food while camping to keep it away from the rats and hermit crabs that permeate Garden Key.

Toilets

The campground has four gender-specific composting toilets. They are actually quite nice. The toilets are closed each day when the ferry arrives and do not reopen until it departs the dock. Campers are expected to use the ferry’s facilities while it is docked.

Cooking… READ THIS!

While gas camping stoves like our jetboil are allowed by the Parks Service at the Garden Key Campground, you are not allowed to bring these on board the ferry or the seaplanes. You are also not allowed to travel with lighter fluid or any other accelerant. The only thing you can bring is briquettes for cooking on the provided grill. Wood fires are not allowed. You will also want to make sure you buy the instant (AKA: Easy Light) charcoal briquettes. The island can be very windy, making it hard to light a fire. Don’t forget to bring a long neck grilling lighter.

Depths of Fort Jefferson
If you think it is hot cooking out on the beach think about the poor soles that used massive ovens to cook for hundreds of people inside these brick walls.

Food

Your first day’s breakfast and one lunch are provided by the ship when traveling via the ferry boat. We suggest saving the lunch for the last day as fresh food is hard to come by on longer journeys. You can also return to the ship daily for free fresh coffee or hot tea. Keep in mind the boat doesn’t dock at the island until around 10:15 AM. You can also purchase additional food and beverages from the ship daily and the prices are very reasonable.

When preparing what food to bring, keep in mind that cooking over briquettes is very slow. I suggest cooking dinner and bringing foods like dried meats, hard cheese, granola, fruit, and nuts for breakfast and lunch.

Water

You must bring all potable water with you to the island. This includes water for cooking and cleaning. Soaps aren’t allowed to be used on the island. We traveled in March when the air was cooler and found that a gallon a day per person was enough for us, but during the hot summer months, twice as much is the recommended minimum.

Showers

There are no shower facilities on Garden Key but the back of the ferry boat does provide hot water showers when it is docked. However, they are open-air so you will need to bathe in your swimsuit. They also do not allow any soaps to be used so this is more of a rinse than a shower. I’ve been on many long journeys where I would have killed for such a luxury. It is nice to be able to rinse off the saltwater after snorkeling. Don’t confuse these showers with the foot wash hoses that the ferry provides on the dock. Those are cold and salt water but it is a common mistake. The hot showers are on the back of the boat on the first deck.

Camping Gear List – Dry Tortugas Guide

Visiting Dry Tortugas
A section of the Moat Wall has fallen into the crystal clear waters of the Dry Tortugas.

While camping on Dry Tortugas is similar to backpacking, the gear selection won’t be quite the same. Each camper is allowed to bring 60lbs of gear and food aboard the ferry. Water is not a part of the weight restriction and each camper can bring an unlimited amount. Nothing can be tied to the trees so leave your hammocks at home. Wheelbarrows are provided at the dock on each side of the journey. It is very easy to wheel 60lbs onto and off of the dock and the ferry service takes care of loading and unloading the gear from the boat. However, they will treat your gear like the TSA so keep anything easily broken with you on the ferry.

  • Tent – No Hammocks
  • Sleeping Bag – Check the weather forecast. A light blanket was sufficient for us.
  • Sleeping Pad
  • Cooking utensils like tongs
  • Eating utensils like cups, plates, spoons, forks, and small knives.
  • Headlamp and/or lantern
  • Rain gear that doubles as a windbreaker
  • Long-sleeve shirts and pants for sun protection
  • The ferry will supply you with a large trash bag
  • Waterproof dry bags for all your gear

Don’t Forget

Optional Gear

  • Snorkeling Gear is included with the ferry and plane services but you can also bring your own.
  • Camera – A waterproof camera like our GoPro is recommended for snorkeling.
  • Water shoes are nice to have when kayaking and around camp. Closed-toed shoes are recommended for exploring the fort.
  • Binoculars for bird watching
  • Bug Spray – Mostly in the summer
  • Battery backup for charging devices
Caribbean Pelicans
While the birds in Dry Tortugas are used to humans they are still cautious. Bring binoculars to get a better look at the various species including the brown pelican.

Emergency Supplies

Don’t forget that this journey is one that takes you 70 miles from everything. Come prepared with emergency supplies. This should include a first aid kit and medications but it also should include extra food and water. The ferry boats and planes arrive daily but if the weather turns bad or mechanical breakdowns occur you could find yourself with no relief. You are expected to be self-reliant when you camp in the Dry Tortugas and this includes being prepared for all circumstances and situations that may occur.

Kayak Restrictions

Dry Tortugas Guide - Kayaking
Kayaking in the Dry Tortugas is one of the best ways to explore the National Park.

Kayaking is a great way to explore the waters around Garden, Bush, and Long Keys. It is also one of the best ways to visit the beautiful Loggerhead Key which is one of the Top 9 reasons to visit Dry Tortugas. The ferry boat only allows two kayaks onboard each crossing (to and from). You will want to reserve your spot very early. The cost is a reasonable $20 total. A personal flotation device, a sound-producing device, and a flashlight are required for kayakers by the parks service. VHF radios are highly recommended, especially if you intend to paddle the 3 miles to Loggerhead Key. A dive flag is also required if you intend on diving or snorkeling from the kayak. A free boat permit must be filled out upon arrival at Garden Key. You should also let someone on the island know your itinerary in case you go missing.

Kayak Rental

If you are in need of a kayak rental contact Kayak Kings in Key West but get the kayak reservation on the ferry locked in first. Kayak Kings is a very laid-back outfitter so make sure you follow up with them as paperwork doesn’t seem to be their strong suit. We reserved our kayak months in advance and they wanted payment one week prior. However, I ended up having to call them because they never reached out. It all worked out in the end, they are very nice, and they delivered the kayak on time at 5:45 AM the morning of our departure. They do not provide a VHF radio but do provide PFDs and a whistle. It is pricey to rent a kayak in Key West but as of 2021, there are no other choices if you don’t bring your own.

After Visiting Dry Tortugas Guide

Path of the Milky Way
The Milky Way Galaxy stretches out over Fort Jefferson’s moat wall.

Once you make the 70-mile journey from the Dry Tortugas back to Key West you will find yourself more than 120 miles from the mainland of Florida. Most people return to Key West via the ferry boat which returns at about 5:30 PM daily. We suggest staying at least one night in the city at the end of the road and enjoying a bit of the culture. However, Key West has a lot of history and attractions and is worthy of a few days of exploration if you have the time.

Campgrounds

If you are active or retired military then you should defiantly reserve a spot at Sigsbee Campground. It is located very close to the heart of Key West and it is reported to be very reasonably priced.

The El Mar R.V. Resort just off mile marker 5 east of Key West is an “affordable” option for staying in the Key West area. It will run you more than $100/night (prices are seasonal) but that is a steal when compared with hotels in the area.

The most reasonably priced campgrounds are owned by the state and are notoriously difficult to book. Each of the four parks found in the Keys can be reserved 11-months to the day in advance but they fill up instantly. These campgrounds might be the hottest ticket in the entire United States. If you wish to try your luck, Bahia Honda State Park is the closest one to Key West but it is still 37 miles from the city.

Hotel Accommodations

Hotels in Key West are pricey and there is no skirting that fact. We like the Hyatt Residence Club Key West, Sunset Harbor. It is located on the western edge of the island making it a great spot for epic sunsets and it is relatively close to all the hot spots in Key West. If you are on a budget the only place we found with reasonable rates was the Seashell Motel and Hostel a few blocks from Higgs Beach on the south side of the island.

Food

We were informed by a local that bad restaurants don’t exist in Key West because of the insane competition. I am apt to believe that is true. However, if you are looking for a tasty seafood joint, and why wouldn’t you, we suggest checking out DJ’s Clam Shack. This is an establishment featured on Dinner’s, Drive-ins and Dives and it is tasty.

Dry Tortugas Guide

Dry Tortugas Guide
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While we highly recommend camping and spending a few days exploring the National Park in this Dry Tortugas Guide, any amount of time that you have in this tropical paradise is worth the journey and cost. With an abundance of wildlife in the air, a massive coral reef teeming with life, and a storied history including the massive Fort Jefferson, this is a park that stands out as truly unique. Given its remote location, it isn’t an easy place to visit but it is worth the effort.

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