Established: October 26, 1992
Size: 64,700 acres
Known for its spectacular coral reefs teeming with aquatic life, Dry Tortugas National Park protects a seven-key (Garden, Loggerhead, Bush, Long, East, Hospital, and Middle) archipelago in the Gulf of Mexico. Nearly 99 percent of the park’s hundred square miles are submerged beneath crystalline waters. Stunning coral reefs ring Garden Key, home to Fort Jefferson (an imposing 19th-century military installation), a ferry dock, and the park’s campground and visitors center. Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León named these low-lying keys Las Tortugas (The Turtles) for the green, hawksbill, leatherback, and loggerhead turtles he encountered here in 1513. During the summer, sea turtles return to the park’s sugar-white beaches to bury their eggs. And between roughly March and September, up to 100,000 sooty terns gather in Dry Tortugas to nest. Inside Tip: This is a primitive island park with no running water, food concessions, or restrooms. Use the bathroom facilities on board the ferries docked at Fort Jefferson. Pack in all food and drinks. Pack out all trash and garbage.
How to Get Around: Dry Tortugas is located about 70 nautical miles west of Key West. Take the high-speed Dry Tortugas National Park Ferry (about two hours and 15 minutes one-way) or a seaplane (about 40 minutes one-way) from Key West to Fort Jefferson on Garden Key. A charter or personal boat (with permit) is required to visit most areas beyond Garden Key.
When to Go: The park is open year-round. The daily ferry schedule (arriving on Garden Key at about 10:15 a.m. and departing at 3 p.m.) allows for about a four-and-a-half-hour visit. Plan an April or mid-May trip to witness the spring bird migration (more than 200 species may be sighted), or visit in May or June to see the greatest concentration of sea turtles. Winter is warm (temperatures in the 80s), yet it can be windy, with rough seas. Summer is a prime time to visit, but there is always the possibility of a tropical storm during hurricane season (June to November).
What to Do: Snorkel (rental gear is included with the ferry ticket) in the designated areas around Fort Jefferson to see massive coral heads and colorful reef life, including parrot fish, angelfish, and moray eels. Picnic and sunbathe on a beach. Take a self-guided walking tour or a 45-minute guided tour of Fort Jefferson. Walk along or swim around the fort’s moat wall (no swimming is allowed in the moat) to look for cultural artifacts such as cement barrels and anchor chains, plus marine life that includes reef squid and nurse sharks. Best Bet: A sandbar land bridge intermittently connects Garden Key to neighboring Bush Key. If the bridge isn’t submerged and it isn’t tern-nesting season (about February to mid-September), you can walk between the two keys.
Where to Stay: Tent camping is the only in-park option. There is a ten-site primitive campground on Garden Key (eight individual, one group, and one grassy overflow area). Individual sites and the overflow area are first-come, first-served. A tent is required. Reserve the group site (10 to 40 people). Campers must arrive by ferry (limit ten campers per day each way) or by private boat. Seaplanes cannot transport campers due to the added weight of camping supplies (including water, ice, food, and fuel).
What to Watch Before You Go: The Plan Your Visit video created by the National Park Service includes practical information about what to pack and expect at the park, a brief historical overview of Dry Tortugas, and up-close views of Fort Jefferson, the ferry ride, and the park’s coral reefs, sea turtles, and other marine life.
Helpful Link: Dry Tortugas National Park
Did You Know? Fort Jefferson served as a federal prison following the Civil War. Prisoners included Union Army deserters and four men convicted of conspiring to kill President Abraham Lincoln. Among the conspirators was Dr. Samuel Mudd, who set John Wilkes Booth’s broken leg after the assassination. Sentenced to life in prison in 1865, Mudd was pardoned four years later. He is credited with helping to save lives during an 1867 yellow fever epidemic at Fort Jefferson.