As much as I like to take roads less traveled, often my vacation time seems sadly to be in geographical sync with every other explorer. Experience Great Smoky Mountains National Park — the U.S.’s most-visited park — on Labor Day Weekend? I did that, and spent hours stuck in traffic. Wait for Old Faithful at Yellowstone National Park in August? I did that too, with vast camera-carrying crowds waiting for the geyser to photobomb us. So imagine visiting Dry Tortugas National Park — just 70 miles west of Key West, Florida, over spring break. It seemed like the worst-ever timing. Instead, it was amazing. One hundred square miles for just a few hundred daily visitors finally put the travel odds in my favor.
1. Get National Park Perks Without National Park Crowds
The National Park Service says 79,200 people visited Dry Tortugas in 2019, an average of about 217 people a day. At that rate, it would take 150 years of Dry Tortugas’ visitors to match one year of Great Smoky Mountains tourists.
Too good to be true? No, but you do need a ticket to this paradise. Access is limited to planes or boats, and you could spend hours of your trip to and from the mainland with nearly everyone else traveling that day. It is the one time I faced crowds, though sharing a voyage with people on the same route taken by pirates, explorers, and criminals added to the adventure. The Dry Tortugas National Park is worth the trip when you know some useful tips.
2. Test Your Sea Legs
Most Dry Tortugas visitors take the Yankee Freedom official Key West ferry to the park. Plan this part of the trip first! The ferry caps park visitors at 175, with only one daily round trip, so it’s important to make reservations months in advance. Adult tickets are $190, and there are discounts for active military with ID or seniors 62 and older. National park passholders can get the entrance fee refunded. The boat is American Disability Act compliant; give the company advance notice of any special needs.
The 110-foot catamaran’s air-conditioned cabin is welcome in Florida heat or rain. I chose the sunny open-air upper deck as a pleasant contrast to the cold mid-Atlantic winter back home. The views were remarkable, with one exception. Before we left that morning, boat operators advised taking anti-nausea medicine for what they warned would be unusually choppy water. Those of us who heeded the advice were comfortable and even enjoyed the big waves. Many who didn’t take professional advice did accept nausea bags handed out mid-trip.
Pro Tip: Listen to tips about water conditions and come prepared with anti-nausea medicine — just in case.
The ferry provides a 45-minute guided tour, a box lunch, and fresh-water showers. You can buy snacks and sandwiches to get you through the 2-hour-and-15-minute trip to and from the park. Plan on bringing everything else you need: camera, bathing suit, beach towel, sunscreen, good walking shoes, and water as you can’t buy food or drink at the park. A ferry cash bar is available for the return trip.
The ferry makes for a full day — boarding at 7:30 a.m. and returning around 5:15 p.m., so make dinner reservations in Key West accordingly.
3. Take A Seaplane
There is one guaranteed way to avoid seasickness: Fly over the Gulf of Mexico. The National Park Service authorizes one company for Dry Tortugas seaplane charter tours. The air service is quicker and costlier: $361 for an adult half-day tour and $634 for a full-day tour which gives you more than six hours at the park.
You’ll fly over shipwrecks, get a glimpse of iconic lighthouses, and have a chance to take an aerial photo of Fort Jefferson. Don’t be surprised if time seems to fly in reverse. Key West departures are in the Eastern Time Zone; Dry Tortugas National Park is in the Central Time Zone. A standing seaplane joke is that passengers land 15 minutes before they take off.
Pro Tip of the Bucket List Variety: You can also seek private charter trips to the Dry Tortugas. These are multi-day, multi-thousand dollar trips, yet this is a way to explore all seven islands which make up Dry Tortugas National Park; with the seaplane or Yankee Freedom, you will spend your time on and around Garden Key and Fort Jefferson.
4. Fortify Your Trip
You know you’ve arrived at Dry Tortugas National Park when you see Fort Jefferson, and it is hard to miss. Made of 16 million bricks, a global engineering company that evaluated the Fort says this is the largest brick building in the Western Hemisphere.
The “Guardian of the Gulf” structure was built to protect the Gulf Coast and eastern seaboard shipping lanes, but the Army never fully finished the fort. Though Fort Jefferson was never attacked, there are remarkable stories inside its walls.
Its most famous prisoner was Samuel Mudd, the doctor who treated assassin John Wilkes Booth after President Abraham Lincoln’s murder. Mudd spent four years of his life sentence in a Fort Jefferson cell, earning time in the dungeon after a failed escape attempt. His fates changed when a yellow fever outbreak hit the prison, and the convicted doctor helped fight the disease. Mudd’s efforts won him a pardon from President Andrew Johnson and release.
Pro Tip: Samuel Mudd’s cell on Fort Jefferson’s second-tier still has holes Mudd and other prisoners dug in the floor to control rainwater.
Fort Jefferson is accessible to wheelchairs only on the first level on the grass surface or brick walkway. There’s a trail outside the fort that is also accessible.
Every vantage point allows striking photos of brick archways and stunning blue water glimpsed through the windows.
5. Get Soaking Wet, Dry Tortugas-Style
There is water everywhere you look at the Dry Tortugas, which makes its name seem ironic. It isn’t. The explanation goes back more than five centuries, when explorer Ponce de Leon discovered the islands and the sea turtles, or tortugas, which swam there. “Dry” helped explain there was no fresh water for drinking.
Today, the Dry Tortugas offer countless opportunities to enjoy water activities. After all, only about one percent of the park is dry land.
The National Park Service says the Dry Tortugas is at the corner of the world’s third-largest reef system, and the shallow waters off Fort Jefferson give snorkelers plenty of room to explore coral reefs. The Yankee Freedom ferry provides complimentary snorkel gear, though you need to bring your own prescription goggles.
Snorkeling was high on my park to-do list, but a storm the day before left clouded water, which made snorkeling impossible. We settled for time relaxing on the sandy beaches, which turned out to be a good plan B. There was plenty of space, and swimming in the calm, shallow water was a great way to cool off. There are no lifeguards, so the buddy system is safest.
Kayaking and fishing are also possible. You need permits, a knowledge of which areas allow the activities, and plans on getting gear from Key West. It’s not complicated; it is another reason trips here take preparation.
Pro Tip: Divers can explore coral and shipwrecks, but the ferry and seaplane are unable to transport dive tanks. Divers need to arrive by private boat or charter vessel to enjoy their underwater views.
6. Stay Under The Stars
When day-trippers head back to Key West, a lucky few get to wave goodbye from Fort Jefferson. There is primitive camping available on Garden Key, and reservations for most sites are on a first-come, first-served basis. There are limits on what and how much you can bring, so do your research early if you want to try this. There’s no general store for last-minute provisions! I would definitely consider camping here on a return trip to get the feel of being stranded on an island with the comfort of a ferry returning the next day.
7. Disconnect For A Day Of Discovery
Famed author Ernest Hemingway loved fishing around the Dry Tortugas, but one time the man known for his excesses got a little more of Fort Jefferson than even he planned. A violent storm stranded Hemingway and some friends there for 17 days. They lived off the canned food and liquor they’d brought along as well as the fish they caught until the storm finally passed.
You can get a milder disconnection as soon as you leave Key West. Count on a day without cell service or WI-FI, where you can scan the sea from the highest point at Fort Jefferson as if you were scouting for enemy ships generations ago.
Dry Tortugas National Park is a chance to see nature dozens of miles from distraction, and history as it is being preserved. It took a long journey and tedious labor to transform Fort Jefferson’s 16 million bricks into something unforgettable. A trip there today is a similar reminder that getting to the Dry Tortugas takes more preparation than many itineraries, yet results in the kind of travel memories which stick with you forever.