Ah, Dry Tortugas National Park. Such a great park to reminisce about, especially as I’m looking at the snow. Dry Tortugas is one of the most remote national parks and the least visited, due to its limited accessibility. It is located 68 miles off of Key West in Florida and consists of seven little islands. It takes about 2.5 hours by ferry to get to the park.
During our first round through the south while we were living in the van, we actually skipped Dry Tortugas because of our lack of advance planning. While we were at the Everglades, I began researching this park. For what our lifestyle was at the time, it was going to be damn hard to visit this park. We were still in the Sprinter van, and Key West absolutely despises vanlifers. Parking is extremely limited and there are very few parking lots that fit the height of our vans. The park is also not dog friendly, obviously, and we very much struggled to find doggy care for Luca. The last thing that prevented us from going at that time was tickets. Unless you have your own boat or take a seaplane, you’ll have to take the one ferry that is authorized with the National Park and tickets sell out well in advance.
So, we visited this gem while we lived in Florida last year. It made our visit much more enjoyable though since we were able to take our time and make a real vacay out of it (and avoid the busiest seasons). Most people visit this park just for the day. I personally recommend camping if you can, as it’s simply beautiful and breathtaking at night with no light pollution. You’ll have hours in the morning and afternoon where the island feels like it’s all your own since the day visitors are really only there from 10:30am until 3pm when the ferry leaves.
The park has a fascinating history. The island was discovered by the Spanish explorer, Juan Ponce de Leon, in 1513 and he named it for the many turtles found in the gulf. Dry was later added to the name as a warning to sailors that were was no fresh water available here.
The US took control in 1822 from Spain, and then it started to become what we know it as today; a historic fort. 16 million bricks were brought to this remote park and assembled to create this massive fort with eight foot walls, space for 1500 soldiers, and capabilities that were unheard of at the time. However, with all this, it never was technically finished nor were the cannons ever fired. The weight of everything built here created worries that the island would begin to sink. However, being such a formidable presence, it still prevented aggression.
It was still utilized in a variety of ways; most notably as a military prison that housed Dr. Samuel Mudd, who set the broken leg of John Wilkes Booth and was convicted of conspiracy. My absolute favorite history lesson that was told to us during a tour was about how it ended up in the Union’s hands during the Civil Way and the Confederates were never able to claim it. I won’t ruin the story for you before you visit, but it essentially came down to a great poker face and some BDE.
So during our visit, since we had plenty of time as campers, we took a very leisurely approach. When we arrived, we set up camp first while the day visitors overtook the fort and the beach. The only spots available at the time were in the overflow section, which is really just a large open field. We slept there the first night, but once people left the next day, we moved into a campsite. The overflow section has no shade and gets pretty windy at night. It was fine, but not ideal. It did make the second night in the better campsite seem extremely magical though. Another thing to note when you camp at Dry Tortugas that there are two main wildlife; hermit crabs andddd rats. The crabs you’ll see all the time but they’re pretty shy. The rats stay out of the way during the day but then love to scurry about at night, cleaning up after all the visitors. Eeek. Super important reminder for ALL people to pack in it, pack it out and not litter. The park also provides large containers for all campers to put their items in that rats can’t get into.
We first explored the fort by ourselves, but then later took a tour with a guide. The tour was so informative and our guide was obsessed with this place. His energy and excitement was easily passed on to all of us and he was a fantastic story teller. The fort has three main sections to explore; within the 8 foot walls, on top of the fort, and in the middle of the fort. You can also walk most of the moat walls around the fort.
We also had plenty of time to snorkel, the other favorite activity for visitors. We had a couple days so we explored out and around most of the fort, but the most popular section is by the old docks where you’ll find a lot of fish and coral. Apparently, if you can make it to Loggerhead Key, that is where the actual best snorkeling and diving is. There are 200 wrecks here! Unfortunately, it’s three miles away from Garden Key (the main island to visit) and there is no public transportation here. We had discussed bringing kayaks (which you can bring on the ferry for a small fee) but ultimately decided not to since we were visiting during windy season and didn’t want to risk it.
The last real activity here is walking along the beach and bird watching, if it’s in season. A lot of birders will go when Bush Key (directly off of Garden Key) is available, but during nesting season it’s closed. Since Mike and I had more than enough time, we were able to walk around and really explore every nook and cranny of the island. We took advantage of the quiet mornings and evenings to walk along the beaches, the moat, and the fort for beautiful sunrises and sunsets.
- Get your tickets early! The ferry does sell out about 6-12 months in advance.
- We highly recommend camping. It takes a lot of time and effort to get here, and I think this is the best way to fully get the most out of it. We were originally set to camp for three nights, but we left after two. For us, that was the more than enough of time to do everything we wanted. The only way I think we would have enjoyed another day is if we had brought kayaks to explore more and try to go to Loggerhead. To be honest, one night would be just fine too if you knew the weather was going to be absolutely perfect.
- Packing – you really don’t need much! Bring your suit and towel, sunscreen, a water bottle, and a change of clothes. If you’re staying the night, bring a sweatshirt since it does get windy!
- The ferry will give you snorkel equipment.
- They also give you a small breakfast and a boxed lunch.
- Water – while the ferry is docked at the island (about 10:30am-3:00pm), you have access to fresh water and restrooms. So even if you’re camping, DON’T pack as much as they suggest; 1 gallon per person per day. Since Mike and I were planning on 4 days, 3 nights, we had like 6 gallons. We could have brought one for each of us and filled them when the boat was there.
- Food – you can’t have a campfire and they have strict rules on what type of cookware you can bring. Keep it easy and bring things you don’t have to cook, like sandwich items and such.
- Keep your pack as light as possible. Even though you don’t have to carry it far, it’s still much easier. And whatever you bring, you have to bring it back (including your trash)
- However, a LOT of people will leave their unopened food and drinks, so I promise you won’t starve or become dehydrated. We personally left our extra gallons of water (but we finished our wine, of course).
- Speaking of drinking, the ferry sells drinks on the way back. But also, the ocean can get tough with the waves and we saw a lot of people get sick, both on the way there and on the way back. We recommend sitting outside on the back if you’re prone to get seasick OR you want to avoid the vomiters that are inside the cabin.