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The Greatest Guide To Dry Tortugas, Florida


by Carmon Forde



Welcome to the magnificent Dry Tortugas, a hidden gem located in the beautiful state of Florida. Nestled within the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, this remote national park offers a unique and unforgettable experience for nature lovers, history enthusiasts, and adventure seekers alike.


The Dry Tortugas is a collection of seven small islands, composed mostly of coral reefs, and is home to the iconic Fort Jefferson, an impressive 19th-century coastal fortress. This remote destination provides an escape from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, immersing visitors in pristine natural beauty and fascinating historical significance.


With its crystal clear waters, vibrant marine life, and stunning landscapes, Dry Tortugas is a haven for outdoor enthusiasts and explorers. Whether you’re interested in snorkeling, diving, bird watching, or simply taking in the serenity of the surroundings, this hidden paradise offers a wide range of activities to suit every interest.


With this comprehensive guide, we will take you on a virtual journey to the Dry Tortugas, providing you with valuable information on how to get there, where to stay, what to do, and must-see highlights of this remarkable destination. Prepare to be captivated by the mesmerizing beauty and rich history that awaits you at the Dry Tortugas.


Location and History

The Dry Tortugas is located approximately 70 miles west of Key West, Florida. It is a remote and isolated cluster of islands that make up the Dry Tortugas National Park. The park covers an area of about 100 square miles, with most of it being underwater.


The name “Dry Tortugas” comes from the Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon, who discovered the islands in 1513 and named them “Las Tortugas” due to the abundance of sea turtles in the area. The word “dry” was added later to warn mariners that there was no fresh water available on the islands.


The most famous landmark in the Dry Tortugas is Fort Jefferson, a massive fortress built between 1846 and 1875. It was constructed to protect the strategic shipping lanes in the Gulf of Mexico. The fort never saw any actual combat but served as a military prison during the Civil War.


The islands and the surrounding waters are rich in history, with numerous shipwrecks and artifacts dating back to the 17th and 18th centuries. It is an area steeped in legend and lore, with stories of pirates, treasure, and adventure.


In 1935, Dry Tortugas was designated as a national park, primarily to safeguard the coral reefs and marine life that thrives in the area. Today, it is a protected sanctuary, providing a haven for a diverse range of flora and fauna.


The location of Dry Tortugas makes it a prime destination for bird migration, with over 300 species of birds passing through the islands. It is also home to several species of endangered sea turtles, including the loggerhead and green turtle.


Visiting Dry Tortugas is not only an opportunity to immerse yourself in nature but also a chance to step back in time and explore a significant piece of American history. The combination of stunning natural beauty and historical significance makes the Dry Tortugas a truly unique and awe-inspiring destination.


Getting to Dry Tortugas

Due to its remote location, getting to Dry Tortugas requires a bit of planning and consideration. The primary mode of transportation to the islands is by ferry or seaplane, as there are no roads or bridges connecting them to the mainland.


The most popular and convenient way to reach Dry Tortugas is by taking the ferry from Key West. The ferry service operates daily and offers a comfortable and scenic journey. The ferry ride takes approximately two and a half hours, allowing you to enjoy the breathtaking views of the Gulf of Mexico along the way.


If you prefer a quicker means of transportation or want a unique experience, you can opt for a seaplane tour to Dry Tortugas. Several operators provide seaplane tours from Key West, offering a bird’s-eye view of the stunning islands and surrounding waters. The seaplane trip takes around 40 minutes, giving you more time to explore the islands.


Before embarking on your trip to Dry Tortugas, it is essential to make reservations in advance for both the ferry and seaplane tours, as they can fill up quickly, especially during peak tourist seasons.


It’s worth noting that there are no overnight accommodations on the islands, so day trips are the most common option. However, if you’re interested in camping, there is a designated camping area available on Garden Key. Camping permits can be obtained through the National Park Service website.


When planning your visit, it is advisable to check the weather conditions, as rough seas or inclement weather may affect the ferry and seaplane schedules. It’s also worth packing essentials such as sunscreen, hats, snacks, and plenty of water, as amenities on the islands are limited.


Visiting Dry Tortugas requires a sense of adventure and a willingness to disconnect from the outside world. The journey to this remote paradise is part of the experience, offering a unique opportunity to disconnect from the hustle and bustle of everyday life and truly immerse yourself in nature.


Camping and Accommodation Options

For those looking to immerse themselves fully in the natural beauty of Dry Tortugas, camping is a fantastic option. Located on Garden Key, the designated camping area provides a unique opportunity to spend the night under the stars in this remote and pristine environment.


Camping permits are required and can be obtained through the National Park Service website or by phone. It’s important to note that camping availability is limited, so it’s advisable to make reservations well in advance, especially during peak seasons.


The camping area on Garden Key offers basic amenities such as picnic tables, grills, and cold-water showers. However, it’s essential to come prepared with all necessary camping gear, including tents, sleeping bags, cooking equipment, and food. Drinking water is available, but it’s recommended to bring your own, as supplies are limited.


Another alternative for accommodation in the Dry Tortugas is staying in Key West, which offers a range of hotels, resorts, and vacation rentals. Key West provides a vibrant and bustling atmosphere, with numerous dining options, shops, and entertainment venues. From Key West, you can take a day trip to the Dry Tortugas by ferry or seaplane.


Whether you choose to camp on Garden Key or stay in Key West, be prepared for limited facilities and a rustic experience. The true allure of the Dry Tortugas lies in its natural beauty and seclusion. It’s an opportunity to disconnect from the outside world and fully immerse yourself in the wonders of this remote national park.


Whichever accommodation option you choose, be sure to carry all necessary supplies, including sunscreen, bug repellent, and sufficient food and water. As there are no restaurants or stores on the islands, it’s crucial to plan and pack accordingly.


By embracing the unique camping or Key West experience, you’ll have the chance to fully appreciate the natural wonders of the Dry Tortugas. From the spectacular sunsets over the turquoise waters to the tranquil serenity of the islands, this is a destination that promises an unforgettable adventure for nature enthusiasts and history buffs alike.


Exploring Fort Jefferson

A highlight of any visit to the Dry Tortugas is the opportunity to explore the impressive Fort Jefferson. Situated on Garden Key, this massive coastal fortress is a historical marvel and a testament to the engineering skills of the 19th century.


Fort Jefferson was built as a defensive structure to protect the strategic shipping lanes in the Gulf of Mexico. Its construction began in 1846 and continued for nearly three decades. The fort is composed of over 16 million bricks and encompasses a vast area, making it one of the largest masonry structures in the Americas.


As you wander through the fort’s grounds, you’ll be transported back in time. The fort offers a glimpse into the military history of the United States, as it served as a military prison during the Civil War. Notable prisoners, including Dr. Samuel Mudd, who treated the assassin of President Abraham Lincoln, were held within its walls.


The fort’s architecture and design are a sight to behold. The massive walls, bastions, and moat are a reflection of the engineering ingenuity of the era. Take your time to explore the various rooms and chambers, including the gunrooms, casemates, and even the mysterious dark passages.


Guided tours are available, led by knowledgeable park rangers who provide fascinating insights into the fort’s history and significance. These tours offer a deeper understanding of the challenges faced by the soldiers stationed at Fort Jefferson and the fort’s role in maritime defense.


As you explore the fort, take a moment to absorb the breathtaking views of the surrounding turquoise waters and beautiful coral reefs. It’s an opportunity to appreciate the fort’s strategic position and the stunning natural beauty that encompasses the Dry Tortugas.


Photographers will find countless opportunities to capture stunning images of the fort’s architecture juxtaposed against the backdrop of the azure sea. With its unique blend of history and natural beauty, Fort Jefferson is a photographer’s dream.


Whether you’re a history enthusiast, architecture lover, or simply seeking a unique experience, exploring Fort Jefferson is an absolute must-do when visiting the Dry Tortugas. Immerse yourself in the stories and mysteries of this awe-inspiring fortress and let the history and beauty of the Dry Tortugas captivate your senses.


Snorkeling and Diving Opportunities

The Dry Tortugas is a haven for underwater enthusiasts, offering some of the best snorkeling and diving opportunities in Florida. The crystal clear waters, vibrant coral reefs, and diverse marine life make it a paradise for explorers of the underwater world.


One of the top snorkeling spots in the Dry Tortugas is the shallow reefs surrounding the islands. These reefs are teeming with marine life, including colorful tropical fish, sea turtles, and rays. Grab your mask, snorkel, and fins, and prepare to be amazed by the kaleidoscope of colors beneath the surface.


If you’re an experienced diver or looking to take your diving skills to the next level, the Dry Tortugas offers exceptional diving opportunities. Explore the numerous dive sites, each with its unique features and marine life.


One of the most famous dive sites in the area is the Windjammer Wreck. This shipwreck, located just off the coast of Loggerhead Key, is a fascinating underwater playground for divers. The wreck is home to a variety of marine species, from vibrant corals to schools of fish.


Another popular diving spot is Little Africa, known for its impressive coral formations and diverse marine life. Swim alongside schools of fish, spot lobsters hiding in the crevices, and marvel at the colorful sea fans swaying with the currents.


For a truly unique diving experience, explore the underwater walls of the Dry Tortugas. These vertical coral formations create stunning drop-offs into the depths below. Be prepared to encounter larger marine species, such as groupers, barracudas, and even sharks.


Whether you choose to snorkel or dive, it’s important to practice responsible and sustainable diving techniques. Respect the fragile coral reefs by avoiding touching or standing on them, and never remove marine life or artifacts from their natural habitat.


If you’re new to snorkeling or diving, several tour operators in Key West offer guided snorkeling and diving trips to the Dry Tortugas. These tours are led by experienced guides who will ensure your safety and provide insights into the marine ecosystem.


Exploring the underwater world of the Dry Tortugas is an experience not to be missed. Immerse yourself in the vibrant colors and abundant marine life, and let the breathtaking beauty beneath the surface leave you in awe.


Wildlife and Bird Watching

The Dry Tortugas is a mecca for wildlife enthusiasts and bird watchers, offering a unique opportunity to witness a diverse range of species in their natural habitats. From marine life to migratory birds, this remote national park is teeming with biodiversity.


One of the main attractions for wildlife lovers in the Dry Tortugas is the abundance of sea turtles. The waters surrounding the islands are home to several species of sea turtles, including the endangered loggerhead and green turtles. Keep your eyes peeled while snorkeling or diving, as you may have the chance to spot these magnificent creatures in their underwater world.


In addition to sea turtles, the Dry Tortugas is a prime location for bird watching, attracting over 300 species of birds throughout the year. The islands serve as a crucial stopover point for migratory birds, making it a paradise for bird enthusiasts.


During the spring and fall migration seasons, bird watchers have the opportunity to observe a wide variety of avian visitors, including warblers, vireos, terns, and gulls. Keep your binoculars handy as you explore the islands, and you may be rewarded with sightings of rare and beautiful bird species.


One of the best spots for bird watching in the Dry Tortugas is the Garden Key campground, where you can observe birds in their natural habitat. Additionally, the fort’s walls and the surrounding beaches are ideal vantage points for spotting and photographing birds as they rest and feed.


Aside from sea turtles and birds, the Dry Tortugas is also home to a diverse array of marine life. While snorkeling or diving, you may encounter colorful tropical fish, graceful rays, curious dolphins, and even gentle manatees.


It’s important to remember that the wildlife in the Dry Tortugas is protected, and it’s crucial to observe them from a distance and respect their natural behavior. Avoid disturbing or feeding the animals, and always follow the guidelines provided by the National Park Service to ensure the preservation of the ecosystem.


Whether you’re an avid birder or simply appreciate the beauty of wildlife, the Dry Tortugas will captivate you with its rich biodiversity. Take the time to explore the islands and witness the wonders of nature firsthand.


Fishing in Dry Tortugas

For fishing enthusiasts, the Dry Tortugas offers a one-of-a-kind angling experience in a pristine and untouched environment. With its crystal-clear waters, abundant marine life, and remote location, this national park is a fishing paradise in the heart of the Gulf of Mexico.


The waters surrounding the Dry Tortugas are home to a diverse range of game fish, making it a haven for both recreational and experienced anglers. From shallow reefs to deeper offshore waters, there are ample opportunities to try your luck at catching a variety of species.


One popular fishing technique in the Dry Tortugas is bottom fishing, targeting species such as grouper, snapper, and amberjack. These fish inhabit the coral reefs and rocky areas, providing anglers with exciting battles and the chance to reel in a delicious dinner.


If you prefer offshore fishing, the waters of the Dry Tortugas offer opportunities to catch pelagic species such as tuna, mahi-mahi, and sailfish. Whether trolling or using live bait, these open waters provide thrilling experiences for those looking to hook a big game fish.


While fishing in the Dry Tortugas, it is crucial to follow all fishing regulations and guidelines set forth by the National Park Service. These regulations help maintain the delicate balance of the marine ecosystem and ensure the sustainability of the fish populations.


As the water surrounding the Dry Tortugas is a protected marine area, certain restrictions may apply, including bag limits and seasonal closures for certain species. It’s essential to familiarize yourself with the current regulations before embarking on your fishing adventure.


For anglers without their own watercraft, charter fishing trips are available from Key West to the Dry Tortugas. These trips are led by experienced captains who are knowledgeable about the best fishing spots and techniques in the area.


Whether you’re an experienced angler or a novice looking to reel in your first catch, the Dry Tortugas offers a memorable fishing experience in a pristine and breathtaking setting. Enjoy the thrill of the chase and the peace and serenity that come with fishing in these untouched waters.


Tips for Visiting Dry Tortugas

Visiting the Dry Tortugas requires some planning and preparation to ensure a smooth and enjoyable trip. Here are some helpful tips to make the most of your visit:

  • Make reservations in advance: Whether you’re taking the ferry or a seaplane to the Dry Tortugas, it’s essential to make reservations ahead of time. These trips can fill up quickly, especially during peak tourist seasons.
  • Check the weather: The Dry Tortugas is located in a tropical region, so it’s important to monitor the weather conditions. Rough seas or inclement weather may impact the ferry and seaplane schedules.
  • Pack essentials: As there are no stores or restaurants on the islands, it’s crucial to pack essentials such as sunscreen, hats, snacks, and plenty of water. Consider bringing a picnic lunch or snacks for your day trip.
  • Come prepared for outdoor activities: Whether you’re snorkeling, diving, or exploring Fort Jefferson, it’s important to bring appropriate gear and clothing. Don’t forget your swimsuit, snorkel gear, and comfortable walking shoes.
  • Respect the marine life: The Dry Tortugas is a protected marine area, so it’s important to practice responsible and sustainable tourism. Avoid touching or harassing marine life, and never remove any items from their natural habitat.
  • Observe the rules and regulations: Familiarize yourself with the rules and regulations of the Dry Tortugas before your visit. This includes fishing regulations, camping guidelines, and any restrictions on activities within the national park.
  • Treat the environment with care: Help preserve the natural beauty of the Dry Tortugas by picking up any trash or litter you come across. Leave only footprints and take care to minimize your impact on the fragile ecosystems.
  • Take your time to explore: The Dry Tortugas is a place of serenity and tranquility. Take the time to slow down, soak in the stunning views, and appreciate the unique natural and historical wonders that this remote destination has to offer.

By following these tips, you’ll be well-prepared to enjoy your visit to the Dry Tortugas. Whether you’re seeking adventure, history, or simply a chance to connect with nature, this hidden gem in Florida will undoubtedly leave a lasting impression.



The Dry Tortugas is a hidden paradise, offering a unique and unforgettable experience for visitors seeking pristine natural beauty, rich history, and outdoor adventures. From the impressive Fort Jefferson to the vibrant coral reefs, this remote national park is a treasure trove waiting to be explored.


Whether you choose to snorkel through the turquoise waters, dive into the depths of the ocean, or simply relax on the white sandy beaches, the Dry Tortugas promises a captivating experience for all. The abundant wildlife, including sea turtles and migratory birds, adds to the allure of this remote destination.


While visiting the Dry Tortugas, be sure to plan ahead and make reservations for transportation and accommodations. Pack all necessary supplies, respect the marine life and follow the guidelines provided by the National Park Service.


Whether you’re camping on Garden Key, exploring the historic Fort Jefferson, or casting your fishing line into the abundant waters, the Dry Tortugas offers a tranquil escape from the everyday hustle and bustle. It’s a place to connect with nature, immerse yourself in history, and create memories that will last a lifetime.


The Dry Tortugas, with its captivating beauty and unique experiences, truly showcases the best of what Florida has to offer. So, embark on an adventure to this hidden gem, and let the wonders of the Dry Tortugas leave you in awe and longing to return to its stunning shores.