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17 Best Tips for Visiting Dry Tortugas National Park

Planning a trip to the Garden Key takes a little extra effort, but the rewards are extraordinary! This remote island paradise is only accessible by boat or seaplane. Below, I will share my essential insider tips for visiting Dry Tortugas National Park, navigating transportation, packing wisely, and making the most of your time in this amazing park.

Table of Contents

1. Reserve your transportation early

The Yankee Freedom Ferry and the Key West Seaplane Adventure reservations book up months in advance.  Plan ahead and make sure you secure your tickets ASAP. We called four months in advance and still ended up taking the half day seaplane adventure because all the full days were booked. 

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

2. Take a seaplane

It is worth it! There is no beating taking a seaplane using Key West Seaplane Adventures and getting a scenic view of sharks, old shipwrecks and remote tropical waters.  The pilot will take you around for an amazing scenic view of Garden Key and Fort Jefferson.  Then you land right next to the fort.  They also provide snorkel gear and some drinks!

3. Find a picnic table to stow your gear

We walked 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 and was fairly secluded. We felt safe leaving our gear at the picnic table, even when we were walking around the site.

View of clear water and picnic table off east side of Fort Jefferson tips for visiting Dry Tortugas

4. Walk to Bush Key

If it is the right time of year, and the sandbar is there, walk to Bush Key. It is a small island next to Garden Key where Fort Jefferson is located. A critical bird sanctuary, it is only open to the public from mid-October to mid-January. It is a nice walk if you have the time and gives you a completely different perspective of Dry Tortugas.

5. Visit Fort Jefferson first

If all goes well, your seaplane should arrive a little before or right when the main public Ferry arrives at Dry Tortugas. After finding a place for your things, head to Fort Jefferson before the herd of people from the ferry. 

The Fort’s footprint takes up 11 of the 16 acres on Garden key and is chock full of history. You can of course walk inside and tour the interior of the fort, but you can also walk on the top battlements and around the outside wall. Look to the west toward Loggerhead Key to see the Lighthouse. A self-guided tour can take about 45 minutes.  

View of clear turquois water and wall from top of Fort Jefferson

6. Be careful walking around the top of Fort Jefferson 

The views on the top of Fort Jefferson are some of the bests on the island but be cautious! There are no railings around the edges. The views are amazing, but not so much if you are tumbling off the side of a wall!

7. Get your National Park cancellation stamp at the visitor center

The visitor center is to the right after entering the main gate of the fort. The National Park Passport Stamping location is on a table in the second room after entering the Visitor Center. They have the main stamp and the lighthouse stamps as well.  It is a great, low impact, FREE souvenir of your visit.

8. Bring a change of clothes

Afte spending all day in the water, in the sand and walking around in the sun, you will want some nice clean clothes to wear on the trip back. There are nice changing rooms on the pier next to the Yankee Freedom Ferry, that anyone can use.

Pier next to Ferry with changing rooms Dry Tortugas

9. Come prepared for summer sun

The sun can be brutal here, even in the winter. Come prepared with reef safe sunscreen, a hat, and long sleeve sun shirt. 

Why use reef safe sunscreen in the Keys?

Chemicals in normal sunscreen are toxic to coral reefs. Since coral are living organisms, the spread of these while you are snorkeling can be deadly. If you are interested in snorkeling, then you should be interested in keeping the reef safe for future generations. Unfortunately, ‘reef safe’ is not regulated, so you should check the ingredients carefully against the HEL list, and avoid them.

Don’t forget to reapply after getting into the water!

10. Bring water shoes

The white sand on the beach here is beautiful but rough! It is not fine sand, but coarse bits of coral and rock. Having water shoes will ensure your feet stay happy in the water and on the beach!

White sand beach with one piece of driftwood

11. Bring Mosquito repellent in the summer.

With Summer comes bugs. We thankfully did not need it as we visited in the winter, but the Park Service recommend having some on hand in the summer, just in case.

12. Go snorkeling at different locations!

Dry Tortugas has some of the best snorkeling in the world. The low amount of visitor and pristine waters makes for an amazing experience. If possible, don’t just spend your time in one location, as there are several places around Garden Key. The areas around the coaling dock ruins are great places, but you need to be careful of sharp debris in that area. Ask the Park Rangers or the Seaplane pilot for the best locations to snorkel. 

View from water of Fort Jefferson, clear water, and blue sky

13. Stay Hydrated

The island sun can be brutal, especially in the summer. There are very few areas with shade, mainly around the campgrounds in the southwest. It is easy to get excited with all the amazing things to do but remember to drink a lot of water. Our pilot mentioned several people pass out a day during the summer due to the heat.

14. Leave No Trace

Remember this is a National Park and is a protected place to be preserved for future generations. You will find some amazing and interesting shells all around the island. That is because people before you did not take it. Follow Leave No Trace principles! Remember, take only pictures and leave only footprints.

4th Grade America the Beautiful Pass

15. Don’t forget to Bring your Park Pass

If you are taking the seaplane, you will show it to the operator when you check in. My daughter was in the 4th grade during our visit, and we were able to use her Free National Park Pass for our visit. She was very excited. If you don’t have a park pass, everyone 17 and older will have to pay $15 during check-in.

16. Bring a snack or lunch if you are on the island all day

Meals and snacks are not available on the island, and you need to plan ahead and bring food based on how long you will be on the island. If you need to use the bathroom, the best option is to use the bathrooms on the Ferry. If the ferry is not docked, you will have to use the campsites compostable toilets. 

17. Leave your drone at home

As a National Park property, drones are prohibited. Instead, plan on taking the seaplane ride to the island and you will get an amazing aerial view of this tropical paradise.

View from landed seaplane of Fort Jefferson, beach, clear water on a blue sky day

Final Thoughts

Dry Tortugas National Park is an amazing place and is made even better by following some of these suggestions. If you’re ready for an escape learn about history, experience natural beauty, and remote seclusion, then this park is a must-see destination.

Remember these tips for visiting Dry Tortugas, plan ahead, and you’ll have an unforgettable day trip that will leave you with memories for a lifetime.

What to do after you visit Dry Tortugas National Park?

Did you know there are eleven National Park sites in Florida? Check out the details on ALL of Florida’s National Park Sites! There is much to see and do!

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