Sometimes referred to as America‘s “most isolated national park,” the seven islands and surrounding water and reefs of Dry Tortugas National Park lie at the end of the Florida Keys, closer to Cuba than the U.S. mainland.
The park’s best-known feature, Fort Jefferson, is a huge masonry structure that, when approaching by boat, appears to float atop the ocean. The fort was constructed over a 30-year period of the mid-1800s, but never finished. It is a magnificent structure in both size and the quality of the brickwork. The fort is especially amazing considering the location, conditions under which the workers toiled, and the distance over which materials had to be transported.
Getting up close to the fort, and the rest of the park, for that matter, is not exactly a simple task. But with some careful advance planning, it can be easily accomplished.
We have found early November until about a week prior to Christmas the best time to visit South Florida. The weather is generally good and most tourists don’t begin arriving until a couple of days before Christmas. Prime season is from Christmas through March when restaurants are crowded and accommodations are often filled. We visited Fort Jefferson on December 11 and our ferry wasn’t nearly full even though the second ferry was out of service.
Although we lived in Florida for a number of years and traveled to Key West on numerous occasions, late 2009 marked our first visit to the Dry Tortugas and Fort Jefferson. In large part, the delay resulted from a trip to the Dry Tortugas consuming an entire day of a relatively short stay in Key West. In part, it was because we failed to get off our duffs and make the effort to go. Key West can do that to a person.
So, what did we learn and how can our experience help smooth the way for your own trip to the Dry Tortugas? Well, for starters, there are only two ways to get to Dry Tortugas National Park: You either go by water, or by air.
Two businesses operate scheduled ferry service between Key West and Fort Jefferson. The ferries of both depart the Key West harbor area at 8:00 a.m. and return at approximately 5:30 p.m. Yankee Freedom II, operated by Yankee Fleet (800-634-0939), the larger of the two boats, offers an outside deck area, but is somewhat slower (by about 20 minutes each way) than its competitor, Sunny Days Catamarans (800-236-7937). Both ferries provide breakfast, lunch, and a guided tour of the fort. Prices are similar at about $130 to $145 per person, but it is wise to compare fares for the dates you plan to be in Key West.
This year marks the return of air service to the park. The flight will be offered by PM Air LLC, operating as Key West Seaplane Adventures with flights from Key West to the park. A half-day trip, with "at least" two-and-a-half hours at Dry Tortugas, runs $249 per adult, $199 for kids 7 to 2, and $169 for youngsters 3-6. Extend your trip with a daylong trek and the rates bump up to $435, $349 and $295, respectively, as the company holds a seat for you on the afternoon return flight.
A $5 per person national park entrance fee is collected by concessionaires in Key West when ferry tickets are purchased. America the Beautiful National Parks Passes are accepted, so don’t forget to present the pass (assuming you have one) when purchasing a ticket.
Although leashed pets are allowed on Garden Key, they are not permitted inside the fort or on the swimming beach.
Where Will You Stay?
A relatively small campground on Garden Key near the fort is operated on a first-come, first-serve basis with a 14-day limit. Grills, picnic tables, compost toilets (reserved for campers), and posts for hanging food are provided. Campers must bring their own water. The camping fee is $3 per person per day with a 50-percent discount for holders of America the Beautiful senior and access passes.
Getting Around the Park
Garden Key, on which Fort Jefferson is situated, is quite small and pretty much entirely consumed by the fort. A .8-mile self-guided trail through all three levels of the fort requires less than an hour. A walk around the moat wall offers excellent views of the surrounding ocean and the fort exterior. Of particular interest is seeing the amazing amount of the exterior restoration that has been completed, along with the work that remains.
What Can You Do at Dry Tortugas?
Guided tours of Fort Jefferson are offered by employees of the ferry concessionaires. Tours last a little less than an hour and are included in the price of the fare. We found our tour to be interesting and an excellent way to learn about the fort’s history. Total time on Garden Key on which the fort is located is approximately four hours. Visitors who arrive in their own vessel can take a self-guiding tour of the fort.
No bathroom facilities or drinking water are available for use by fort visitors. Concessionaire-operated ferries each offer soft drinks and water throughout the day and remain open at the fort’s docking area so that passengers have bathroom facilities available.
A small visitor center with exhibits and an orientation video is inside the fort. This should be your first stop following the guided tour. Books and T-shirts are sold here by Everglades Association. When is the last time you saw someone wearing a Dry Tortugas National Park T-shirt?
Snorkeling is a popular activity for many visitors to the Dry Tortugas. A designated snorkel area is a short distance from the ferry dock. Snorkel gear including mask, fins, and snorkel are provided without charge by ferry concessionaires. Be certain to bring a towel and swim wear or a change of clothes if you are interested in snorkeling. A change house is on the dock.
Sport fishing is permitted in certain areas of the park. Florida fishing regulations apply and a state license is required. Spear fishing and lobstering are prohibited.
What Do You Need to Pack?
Pack sunscreen, sunglasses, hat, and layered clothing. Also, a change of clothing if you plan to snorkel, and, depending on the weather forecast, a poncho or umbrella. You might also consider medication for motion sickness because of the possibility of rough seas. A number of passengers on our ferry trip experienced seasickness.
Worthy Sidetrips to Consider
Spending several days in Key West is an added bonus of a trip to Fort Jefferson. This is a fun-filled, laid-back town full of bars (including well-known Sloppy Joe's, Hog's Breath, and Captain Tony's), restaurants, and unique individuals. The many water-related activities include sunset sails, jet skiing, parasailing, skin diving, and deep-sea fishing. Key West is home to Ernest Hemingway’s house and Truman’s Little White House where our 33rd president spent many vacation days during his presidency. Guided tours are offered at both locations. Other interesting attractions include an eco-discovery center, an aquarium, and a butterfly conservatory.
As a major tourist destination, Key West offers a wide variety of accommodations including approximately 80 bed and breakfasts. Two upscale hotels we enjoyed are Reach Resort and Casa Marina, the latter being one of railroad baron Henry Flagler’s destination hotels. Bed and breakfast inns we have tried and found inviting are Cypress House and Rose Lane Villas. Both are near Duval Street, the central tourist artery of Key West’s Old Town. Chain motels are along Roosevelt drive, although staying in one of these would require driving to Old Town where the harbor and most activities are located. Keep in mind that Key West is not a cheap place to visit.
It is always worthwhile to gather and study information about a place where you will be going for the first time. The park’s website at www.nps.gov/drto offers a good overview of activities, the fort’s history, and other things you need to know prior to a visit. You might also want to gather information about Key West, the departure point for boats to the Dry Tortugas. Visit www.fla-keys.com/keywest/ for Key West tourist information.
Dry Tortugas National Park: www.nps.gov/drto
Dry Tortugas info (commercial site): http://drytortugasinfo.com
Excellent Fort Jefferson photographs: www.terragalleria.com/parks/np.dry-tortugas.html
Florida Keys Tourism Council: www.fla-keys.com/
Florida state parks: www.floridastateparks.org
David and Kay Scott are authors of The Complete Guide To the National Park Lodges, which currently is in its sixth edition. They are frequent contributors to the Traveler