Taking The Yankee Freedom II to Dry Tortugas National Park

The Yankee Freedom II is the only authorized concessionaire boat that runs visitors to Dry Tortugas National Park and historic Fort Jefferson. Top photo by David and Kay Scott, bottom photo NPS.

Greetings from Key West, Florida, the staging point for travelers interested in visiting Dry Tortugas National Park and historic Fort Jefferson.

It is a cool and windy day and the boat to Fort Jefferson remains at its dock. Our planned trip to Dry Tortugas last week was canceled because of high winds, just as it was the day before.

Since last year only a single boat, the Yankee Freedom II, is authorized by the National Park Service for public water transportation to Dry Tortugas and Garden Key, the coral island on which Fort Jefferson is located. The current concessionaire was awarded a 10-year contract in 2009. Prior to 2009, a second boat, the Fast Cat, was also an authorized concessionaire with a smaller, but faster boat. The Fast Cat has since been moved out of Key West.

The Yankee Freedom II can hold up to 250 passengers, but for administrative reasons carries a maximum of 149 people (we were told Homeland Security requires increased security measures for boats carrying 150 persons or more) on daily trips to the Dry Tortugas that lie nearly 70 miles west of Key West. The boat leaves the Key West Historic Seaport each morning (except Christmas Day) at 8:00 a.m. and returns at 5:30 p.m.

Each leg of the trip requires about 2 hours and 15 minutes, leaving 4 ½ to 5 hours for exploring Fort Jefferson and Garden Key. A short orientation is presented by the concessionaire upon reaching the fort. The remainder of the time is spent exploring the fort, which boasts magnificent brickwork, and snorkeling or swimming in the beautiful water surrounding the fort.

The $160 fare ($150 for seniors, students, and military, and $120 for children to age 4 to 16) includes breakfast, lunch, the orientation program, and snorkel gear. Reservations can be made up to a year in advance and cancellations are permitted up to 3 p.m. on the day prior to departure. For information call 800-634-0939, or visit this site.

For those on a tight schedule and with more money to spend, seaplane trips from the Key West Airport to the Dry Tortugas are available. The trip requires approximately 40 minutes each way. Half-day trips include approximately four hours of island time and cost $249 for adults and $199 for children up to 12-years-old. Full-day trips with 6 ½ hours of island time cost $435 and $349, respectively. For seaplane information call 305-293-9300, or visit this site.

Our experience is that the best time to visit Key West is from mid-November through the week prior to Christmas. The town is awash in Christmas decorations but the major winter crowds have not arrived yet. The boat to Dry Tortugas is especially busy from Christmas through New Year’s.