How to Plan for Dry Tortugas National Park


One of America’s most remote national parks lies 70 miles off Key West, Florida. There, awfully close to Cuba, you’ll find Dry Tortugas: a few lonely keys surrounded by turquoise water that’s so clear, you don’t have to snorkel to see a rainbow of coral and tropical fish. Unless you own a boat, there are essentially two ways to get there: hire a seaplane (which could bust your budget at $525 for the day) or hitch a ride on the National Park Service ferry, like the majority of visitors.

Assuming you’ll do the latter, here’s what you need to know:

Buy your ticket in advance. The once-a-day ferry from Key West to Dry Tortugas holds about 150 people and it does fill up, so plan ahead, especially if you’re going on a weekend during the high season (approximately December through April, i.e. the dry season). They do have to turn people away on occasion.

Know what you get for your money. At $170 round-trip ($190-ish if you’re camping overnight), this might be the most expensive boat ride you’ll ever take. Then again, it’s not for nothing. Your ticket includes the ferry ride itself (about two hours each way with nothing but gorgeous Gulf in sight), breakfast and lunch, coffee and tea, plenty of water, free use of their snorkel gear, entrance to the national park, and an excellent tour of the idiosyncratic, Civil War-era Fort Jefferson. Just to illustrate why you should take a tour at all, Fort Jefferson was home to an infamous prison and was one of the most dreaded, barren, fresh water-anemic, disease-ridden places around. Dr. Samuel Mudd, who treated John Wilkes Booth for a broken leg after Booth assassinated President Lincoln, was imprisoned there.

Plan for sun exposure. Definitely wear your bathing suit, and don’t forget sunscreen, sunglasses, and a hat. There’s very little shade on the keys that comprise the park, unless you go into the little visitor’s center (which resides inside Fort Jefferson) or back onto the docked ferry. You’ll also be glad to have a towel and long sleeves for the ferry ride, which can get breezy and cool.

Reconsider bringing snacks. Breakfast and lunch are ample, so you probably won’t need to weigh yourself down with extra snacks, and it’s nice to travel light because you’ll have to carry your stuff around (there are no lockers). Vegetarians should be fine with the breakfast and lunch provided, but don’t count on too many vegan or gluten-free options.

Save the entire day for this. For a day trip, you’ll have to check in around 7:00am and you’ll return around 5:30pm, just in time for one of Key West’s fiery sunsets. Campers check in at 6:30am.

What are your suggestions for a day at Dry Tortugas?


About Author

Sarah is the North America Editor for Go! Girl Guides and she wrote the New York City guidebook. Raised in rural Texas on mesquite barbecue and barrel racing, Sarah lived in Indiana for two years before moving to New York by herself. Some of her favorite experiences in North America include snowmachining outside of Anchorage, exploring Caladesi Island off the coast of Florida, touring a Cold War bunker in West Virginia, watching the sun set over Chicago from Lake Michigan, and taking an overnight train from Montreal to Halifax.

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  1. Pingback: Free Things to Do in Key West

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