January 13, 2024

Visit Dry Tortugas National Park with me


A visit to the Dry Tortugas isn't something you can just decide on the night before. Located 70 miles off the coast of Key West, FL, Dry Tortugas National Park can only be accessed by private boat, seaplane, or ferry - The Yankee Freedom, a high-speed catamaran. Though still pricey, the ferry is the least expensive mode of transportation to get you to this remote national park made up of a chain of seven small islands. However you choose to travel to Dry Tortugas National Park, you'll need to plan ahead and secure your tickets months in advance. I booked our tickets four months in advance, and by the time we arrived in Key West, the ferry was sold out every day for the month of January. Each day, hopeful travelers line up before dawn at the ferry terminal on the off chance that a ticket holder doesn't show up thus opening up a last-minute spot.

Some planning needs to go into a day trip to the Dry Tortugas as once you get on the ferry, all you have the rest of the day is what you brought with you. Cell phone service is lost within 15 minutes of departure, and then it's just you and whatever you brought to amuse and clothe yourself for the day. Below you'll find lists of what I took with me for a day at one of the most remote National Parks, what I wished I'd brought, and what I definitely could have left behind in the hotel room.

What I took, What I wish I'd brought, What I wish I'd left

What I Took

1. camera bag (with rain cover) containing my Canon 6d Mark ii, 24-70mm lens, 70-200mm lens, GoPro hero 7 silver with underwater dome, and a waterproof cell phone pouch
2. A 20L dry bag with a long sleeve rash guard (the water temperature was 73°), an XXL microfiber beach towel, snorkel mask in a neoprene pouch, water socks, a lightweight rain jacket, and joggers and a hoody for the ride back.

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I also brought

3. A 3L dry bag to hold my wallet, polarized sunglasses, and sea bands (it's a bumpy 2.5 hour ferry ride)

4. A bottle of water

What I wore - not pictured

1. Lands End swim shorts, T-shirt, converse sneakers, reef-safe sunscreen, pre-braided hair (it's hella windy), and a scopalamine seasickness patch (this was CLUTCH for the return trip)

What I wish I'd brought

1. A deck of cards for the boat ride. It's a 2.5 hour ride each way and it gets boring. My husband ended up buying a deck of cards from the little store on the ferry and we played Gin for over an hour of the return trip.

2. A few snacks. The Yankee Freedom provides breakfast and lunch and sells food and drinks on the ferry for the ride back, but it would have been nice to have had a few things already.

3. Good soled sandals instead of my water socks & converse

4. A 2 gallon Ziploc to hold the wet items on the return trip

What I should have left in the hotel

1. The rain jacket. There was plenty of covered seating available on the ferry.

2. My wedding band. The water was so cold that my fingers shank and I almost lost my ring twice.

What I did on the island

As soon as we disembarked onto Garden Key, we scouted around the island (walking along the moat) to see which snorkeling area was most protected from the wind. Once we decided where we wanted to snorkel, I popped into the changing rooms located on the dock to put on my rash guard. Then we picked up our lunch that was included in the ferry ticket (a choice of Jersey Mike's subs, chips, a cookie, and a drink) and snorkel gear (the fins are optional, but trust me, you want the fins). We quickly ate our lunch and then worked our way into the very chilly water.

We spent a good 30-45 minutes snorkeling along the north side of the moat at the North Swim Beach admiring the various fish and coral types and then swam out along the jetty where I spotted a barracuda hiding under a large stone as well as assorted tropical fish.

Eventually, I needed a break from the cold water, so we decided to explore Fort Jefferson. It's such a cool place with a really interesting history.

Fort Jefferson  is a six-sided building constructed of 16 million handmade red bricks. In 1825 a lighthouse was built on Garden Key to provide warning to sailors about the dangers of reefs and shoals surrounding the Dry Tortugas. Fort Jefferson was also used as a prison during and after the Civil War. The most famous of these prisoners was Dr. Samuel Mudd, who was imprisoned for his involvement in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. You can find more information about the history of Fort Jefferson here.

We'd planned on heading to another snorkeling spot on the north side of the island after exploring the fort, but storm clouds were rolling in and it had begun to thunder pretty consistently. We decided to scrap that idea because we didn't want to risk being in the water if it started lighting. Instead, we utilized the changing rooms on the dock to change into the dry clothes we'd brought. Then I pulled out my camera and wandered around the South Swim Beach and photographed some of the pelicans and Magnificent Frigate Birds.

Time to head back

at 2:45pm it was time to board the ferry

Many people worry that the four hours the ferry allows you on Garden Key aren't enough, but honestly, it was kind of perfect. Don't get me wrong, I've added "camp overnight at Dry Tortugas National Park" to my Bucket List, but we had a great visit! The ride back was more subdued than the ride over. Over half of the people on board were asleep within the first half hour of the trip. I was glad for my hoodie as being in the water had chilled me and it was nice to snuggle into my warm sweatshirt and take a nap

Camping at Dry Tortugas National Park