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Complete Guide to Dry Tortugas: Unlock Paradise

We were fortunate enough to spend a day at Dry Tortugas National Park in January, and it was a fantastic experience. The amazing views. incredible snorkeling, secluded beaches and a touch of history makes this a special place that you have to see for yourself. In our complete guide to Dry Tortugas, we will share all of our experiences to help you learn more about this amazing place.

Table of Contents

This guide will give you great information to make this a memorable trip.

view of Fort wall at Dry Tortugas with turquois waters on either side of low wall on clear blue skey

Getting to Dry Tortugas

There are three ways to get to Dry Tortugas; Yankee Freedom Ferry, Seaplane or Boat Charter. After looking into all the options, we took the half day Seaplane charter in the morning from Key West Seaplane Adventures. We were hoping to book the full day excursion, but they were all booked up.  Since our trip plans were not flexible enough to change our days, we went with the half day option. We still had an amazing time.

Our Recommendation:  The best choice is the full day Seaplane excursion. Check out all the options and find out costs and suggestions in our article.

Seaplane parked at airport on Tarmac in Key West

Flight to Dry Tortugas

Our seaplane trip to Dry Tortugas was an unforgettable experience.  The flight over was a huge highlight for me. Instead of sitting on a rocking ferry, staring out across endless water, we were treated with spectacular views of tropical islands, sandy shorelines and even marine life and shipwrecks. In my view this is one of the main reasons to take the seaplane over a boat.

Our Pilot, Britt, was really intrigued by the story of Mel Fisher and his discovery of the 1622 Spanish Galleon. He pointed out where they found it and a number of other wrecks as well. You can learn more about this at Mel Fisher’s museum in the old town Key West. 

Circling Dry Tortugas and seeing the iconic fort sitting on the tropical island was a mind-blowing sight. This view made the entire trip worthwhile.

Aerial view of Dry Tortugas and Fort Jefferson Florida National Park
Dry Tortugas National Park

The Seaplane adventure is a wholly unique experience.

On the island

Find a spot for your gear

After stepping off the plane and gathering your belongings, your next step is to claim a spot for your stay. There are picnic tables across the front section of the fort where the Ferry disembarks. You can also walk to Fort to the left of the entrance toward the campground and find a spot along the beach. While not terrible, I would not choose those locations.

Our Recommendation: We walked on the right side of the Fort, along the east side of the fort and found a picnic table next to a beach overlooking Bush key. This was next to the North Coaling docks. It was solitary and just a short walk to a beautiful white sand beach and clear turquois water. It was also close to the snorkeling spot by the Northeast section of the Fort.

View of clear water and picnic table off east side of Fort Jefferson part of the complete guide to Dry Tortugas
View of our Picnic table spot from Fort Jefferson

Exploring Fort Jefferson

The next and obvious thing to do, is explore this massive brick fort on the island. Its footprint takes up 11 of the 16 acres on Garden key and is chock full of history. Walking inside, you can immediately start a self-guided tour of the interior of the fort and on the top battlements. A full self-guided tour can take about 45 minutes, but we took some shortcuts and were there maybe 20 minutes. 

Fort Jefferson Visiting Tips

  • The Fort Jefferson visitor center is just inside and on the right-hand side.  It has exhibit, a small gift shop and additional information on the fort.
  • The National Park Passport Stamping location is on a table in the second room of the Visitor Center. Don’t forget to obtain your free souvenir stamp!
  • The Ranger let talk/tour starts at 11am under the big tree in the middle of the fort. 
  • Seek out the cell where the Lincoln conspirators were held after the Civil War. (hint, it is on the second level)
  • The stairs to the upper level can be found in the back corners. 
  • If you have time walk around the entire top battlement to take in the different views.
  • Be Careful! Railings are not installed, so be cautious on your walk.
View of clear turquois water and wall from top of Fort Jefferson

Walk along wall around Fort Jefferson

After a little tour of the inside of Fort Jefferson, something you must do is walk the low retaining wall around the perimeter of the Fort. The water was so clear, that we could see Tropical fish swimming next to the battlements, clear as day. So cool. Looking West away from the fort you can also catch a glimpse of the lighthouse on Loggerhead key, as well.

As we walked, I noticed a US Army Corp of Engineering Survey Mark embedded in the concrete on the walkway. Designated as FJNHS-5 and placed in 1978. 

Complete Guide to Dry Tortugas Must-Do Experiences


Yes! This is a must do and we had fun swimming around the Fort and Coal piers looking at all the different fish and sea life. I even saw an old cannon on the sea floor covered in coral! I do have to say, that the water was a bit chilly in January, but after you get in, it felt fine.  The equipment provided by Key West Seaplanes worked fine and we had no issues with using the gear. 

Relax and Explore the Beach

I think whenever you think of the perfect tropical setting, white sand beaches and turquois water comes to mind. That is exactly what you see on Garden key. It is an amazing setting to just sit and absorb it was a treat.

Walk to Bush Key

Make sure you save time to walk out to Bush Key before you go. It provides a completely different view of Garden key. Plus what could be better than a nice little stroll on white sand beach on a tropical island?

Change clothes before departure

Before you head to the Seaplane make sure to leave time to change into dry set of clothes. The Island conveniently has changing rooms on the pier next to the ferry dock. These are nice places to easily change out of wet swimsuits and into dry clothes for your trip back to Key West. 

Pier next to Ferry with changing rooms Dry Tortugas

What would we do differently on our trip to Dry Tortugas

The trip to Dry Tortugas National Park was a true bucket list item and we absolutely loved it. There were a few things we wish we did a little differently after reflecting on our first-time experience:

  1. Have more time on the island. Our half day visit did feel a little rushed. We could have easily used more time exploring Fort Jefferson or swimming/snorkeling. This was our originally plan, to spend the entire day, but unfortunately due to our we did not have a flexible schedule and had to settle on the half day excursion. My recommendation would be to take the full day flight or Ferry service.
  2. Bring a better camera. I went light and only took a Canon D30 underwater camera, which was great when we were in the water and for a few shots while we were out and about. I would have brought a Canon R5 and tripod so I could have taken some better composed photographs.
  3. Consider camping on the island. This would have been an incredible experience, to be one of only a few people on the island. Again, our tight schedule did not leave us with many options. 

What to bring on your trip to Dry Tortugas National Park

This is a special experience, and riding in a seaplane does not happen every day for some folks. We found this list helpful in our trip to Dry Tortugas

  • Reef Safe Sunscreen
  • Towels
  • Camera
  • Change of clothes for the return flight
  • Bathing suits -we wore ours and changed to normal clothes for the return flight
  • Snack – We were able to store some in the cooler they gave us
  • If you are going for the full day, bring your own packed lunch
  • Water shoes- the sand and rocks can be sharp
  • Bug spray – only needed in the summer
  • National Park Passport book – To get your National Park Cancellation Stamp!
  • Cash for the National Park Gift Shop
  • Cash for Pilot Gratuity

Extra information about Dry Tortugas

Camping in Dry Tortugas

Camping is permitted on the island!  This is a special experience for anyone able to plan this type of outing, so here are some useful tips:

  • There are limited camping spaces and are on a first come, first serve only.
  • You can only reserve the large camping site in advance.
  • However, if the large campsite is not in use, it can be used as an overflow spot.
  • If you have a reservation to the island on the Yankee Freedom Ferry, you will be given a place to camp (they limit only 10 campers on each Ferry). 
  • You must bring your own gear, and a tent is mandatory (no hammock camping). 

Best time to Visit Dry Tortugas

The Dry Tortugas offers an amazing island experience, but choosing the right time to visit is important.

February to April offers a great balance. It has calmer seas and smaller crowds. You are still able to snorkel and enjoy other water activities, although the water will be cooler.

Summer (June to August) brings in warmer weather and the calmest seas. This makes the water activities amazing, but this also is the peak tourist season. Also, be aware that Hurricane season runs from June 1st to the end of November.

We visited in late January and had perfect weather. However, we were lucky, the week prior some big storms came through the Keys. So, it is important to keep tabs of the weather conditions.

National Park Passport Cancellation Stamps

After collecting your Dry Tortugas National Park Passport stamp and maybe a few of the Lighthouse stamps at the Visitor Center in Dry Tortugas, you may have caught the stamp bug. If you want to collect even more, you will find additional stamps at some of these locations in the Florida Keys:

National Park passport cancellation stamps are a great, no cost, low impact way to commemorate a visit to one of our National Parks. We have an entire article dedicated to explaining the program and how to get the most out of it.

A Little History of Dry Tortugas

First discovered by Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon in 1513 and named for the abundance of sea turtles (las Tortugas). It got the ‘dry’ connotation by mariners to warn of the lack of any fresh water. The first building was a lighthouse in 1825, and then followed by the construction of Fort Jefferson to protect trade to the Atlantic. This was part of the huge effort by the United States to enhance the seacoast fortifications. 

Man next to Fort Jefferson Dry Tortugas Sign

Why is Dry Tortugas so Special?

Dry Tortugas is one of 63 National Parks in the United States but is one of the most remote.  At 70 miles west of the Key West, you cannot simply drive to the park.  In 2023, it ranked as the 55th visited National Park with only 84,285 visitations, making it one of least visited National Parks.  As a comparison, the Grand Canyon had over 4.7 million (!)

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