What Awaits You At Dry Tortugas National Park?
Roughly 70 miles off the tip of Florida, Dry Tortugas National Park with its seven islands is not the easiest place to get to. It just might be the most remote national park in the Lower 48. But the effort to visit the park is well worth it.
What awaits you?
Dry Tortugas is known for coral reefs, sandy beaches, near-pristine sea grass beds that are robust habitats for marinelife and magnets for snorkelers and scuba divers. And then, of course, there's historic Fort Jefferson. There also are sunken treasures of ancient shipwrecks, and in spring and fall the birding can offer several species rarely seen nesting elsewhere in the United States.
The Tortugas’ maritime and military significance was first noted in the early 1600s when Ponce de Leon explored the New World, according to National Park Service historians.
The islands that border the main shipping channel between the Gulf of Mexico, the western Caribbean and the Atlantic Ocean have been mapped on nautical charts ever since.
Learn about voyages to Dry Tortugas National Park on the Yankee Freedom III at this page.
Your FAQs about the Yankee Freedom III and Dry Tortugas National Park are answered on this page.
Book your Yankee Freedom III reservations on this page.
Birders Won't Be Disappointed At Dry Tortugas NP
Surrounded by salt water, with no fresh water on land, Dry Tortugas National Park holds more than a few surprises for birders.
For starters, Brown Boobies don’t nest anywhere on the U.S. mainland, but they are reliably seen at Dry Tortugas. And while Masked Boobies weren’t historic nesters in the United States, they have been nesting on Hospital Key at Dry Tortugas for almost 30 years now. A third booby, the Red-footed Booby, is a very rare visitor to the United States, but when they do they show up they often make their appearance at Dry Tortugas.
Other species you might encounter at Dry Tortugas include the Sooty Tern and Brown Noddies. Come to the park in September and October and your odds increase for spotting sharp-shinned hawks, broad-winged hawks, merlins, and peregrine falcons.
Yankee Freedom III Gets You To Dry Tortugas National Park In Comfort
Seventy miles of water is a wide expanse to cover but the Yankee Freedom III safely crosses that distance from the dock at Key West to Fort Jefferson in a little more than two hours. For day trippers, that leaves you with four-to-five hours of free time to explore Dry Tortugas National Park.
The Yankee Freedom III is the official ferry of both Fort Jefferson and the national park. Once you board this sleek catamaran in Key West, Florida, your visit to the park gets officially underway and allows you to both enjoy the voyage and prepare for your time on the islands -- or beneath the surface of the surrounding waters.
This is part of your vacation so relaxation and exploration are key. Shortly after the ferry leaves Key West you'll be served a breakfast of fresh foods and juices. During the crossing you'll be able to go onto the ferry's upper deck or tiered bow to stretch your legs, enjoy the ocean air, or sit back in the seating area and just catch some rays.
Spend some time at the railing scanning the waters and you just might spy some of the sea turtles, dolphins, and other marine life that call them home.
As you approach Dry Tortugas your eyes will almost automatically fix on Fort Jefferson rising above the main island. Constructed with an estimated 16 million bricks this is the largest all-masonry fort in the United States.
Originally built to protect shipping access to the Gulf of Mexico, the fort was used as a military prison during and after the Civil War. Among the most notorious prisoners held in Fort Jefferson was Samuel Mudd, a surgeon who treated John Wilkes Booth's broken leg after Booth had assassinated President Lincoln.
During a tour of the fort -- either by one of the guides or on your own -- you'll be able to see where Dr. Mudd was held, gaze out to sea from the casements, and learn that at one point in the late 1800s almost 2,000 people -- prisoners, military, and families -- called this island home.
How did that many people survive on a chain of islands that lacked any source of fresh water? As long ago as the 1850s, a rainwater catchment system was built to catch any water that fell from the sky and store it in cisterns.
During your time ashore you can also head into the water to snorkel or roam the island at your leisure.
For those really seeking some time off the grid, bring camping gear as well as a kayak and pitch your tent on Garden Key for a few nights under the starry night skies. Just remember, though, that you'll need to bring your own fresh water for your intended stay and self-lighting charcoal briquettes placed in campsite BBQ units are the only fires allowed.
The crew on Yankee Freedom III is happy to help you get your gear to Dry Tortugas National Park but only has space for 10 campers on each trip coming and going, so be sure to call to make your reservation for the ferry as far in advance as possible.
Understanding The National Park's Research Natural Area
One of the wonders of Dry Tortugas National Park is the Research Natural Area that surrounds the island-based park. The natural area covers 46 square miles and complements the Tortugas Ecological Reserve of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, which spans 151 square nautical miles. While the ecological reserve is in deeper water, the natural reserve is more shallow and valuable as a nursery grounds for many fish species. It is hoped that if these nurseries prove to be more productive, the benefits could one day be felt as far away as the Florida Keys.
This area is a spectacular setting for snorkelers and scuba divers. Established in 2007, the Research Natural Area and the Tortugas Ecological Reserve established by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the state of Florida contribute to a region-wide effort to strengthen resource protection. Together the RNA and the larger Tortugas Ecological Reserve serve to ensure the success of both marine and terrestrial ecosystems while offering outstanding opportunities for scientific research and public education, notes the National Park Service.
Milling about the coral reefs that are found in the park's waters are more than 300 fish species that rely on the reefs for food and protection. Among the species, the Park Service notes, "are recreationally important gamefishes such as snappers, groupers and grunts, and non-gamefishes such as butterflyfishes and damselfishes. Spiny lobsters and pink shrimp contribute both ecological and economic value to the region.
"Because of its location, the Tortugas area plays an important ecological role in the larger Florida subtropical seascape. Currents flowing through the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean Sea, and the Atlantic Ocean interact to disperse larval and juvenile fish spawned in the Tortugas as far as Cape Canaveral on the Atlantic coast and Tampa Bay on the Gulf Coast," says the agency.