Dry Tortugas National Park is one of the most remote and secluded National Parks in the US. It is located about 70 miles west of Key West in the Gulf of Mexico and the only way to access it is by seaplane or boat. This National Park is home to the massive Fort Jefferson, a large brick structure built in the 1800s to help protect the shipping lanes in this part of the ocean and then later used to hold Civil War prisoners. This park preserves not only Fort Jefferson but also the seven Dry Tortugas islands, the most western of the Florida Keys. This island is surrounded by the clearest blue water and is well-known for its excellent snorkeling and scuba diving. You can visit this National Park for the day or stay at one of the 8 primitive campsites overnight. We recommend spending at least a morning or an afternoon exploring this park, if not more time. Here is our quick guide for visiting Dry Tortugas National Park.
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How to get to Dry Tortugas National Park
There are two ways to get to Dry Tortugas National Park
Both options have their pros and cons but we highly recommend taking the seaplane, which is what we did.
Fun Fact: Last time we were on a plane this size was when we met 7.5 years ago in Belize. Crazy how a plane ride can change your life forever!
Why take the Seaplane
The seaplane takes 35 minutes each way whereas the ferry takes 2.5 hours each way. If you take the ferry, you will be spending 5 hours of your day on it where conversely, on the seaplane, you will only spend a little over an hour. This allowed us our whole morning to explore Key West prior to going to Dry Tortugas as we went on the 2pm-6pm seaplane trip. The plane ride to/from Dry Tortugas goes by very fast as well . On the ride, the pilot is either pointing out different wildlife and viewpoints or an educational recording about the park is playing. You’ll be at the park or back in Key West before you know it.
The Views from Above
The views from above on the seaplane are really neat! You fly at 500 feet elevation so you can see into the water quite well from the plane. Our pilot pointed out sharks, dolphins, stingrays and sea turtles along the way which were all very fun to see. You’ll also see some sunken shipwrecks and other islands on the way to the park. Our favorite view was seeing Fort Jefferson from above before landing on the water at the park.
Avoid the Crowds
Further, when you visit on the 8am or the 2pm seaplane trip, you will almost completely have the island to yourself. The only other people at the park at those times will either be from one of the two small 10-person seaplanes or campers on the island (there are only 8 remote sites). If you visit on the ferry, it carries up to 175 people and it will certainly feel more crowded during your visit. Be sure to book the seaplane in advance and book the 8am or 2pm trip to avoid any crowds.
The seaplane is about twice the cost of the ferry (which is still expensive) but with all the pros to taking the seaplane, we think the extra cost is well worth it.
Other Seaplane Logistics
With the seaplane you have the option to do a full day trip (8 hours total, with 6.5 hours at the park) or a half day trip (4 hours total, with 2.5 hours at the park). We did the half day trip and felt it was adequate to tour Fort Jefferson and do all the snorkeling we wanted around the Fort. However, if you are looking to spend more time relaxing on the island or want to snorkel for more than an hour, you may want to book the full day tour. Keep in mind though, the full day tour is twice the cost of the half day tour.
Included with your seaplane trip is the use of snorkel gear for the day as well as a cooler of soft drinks of your choice to enjoy on the island. Both of these were added perks. It was especially nice to not have to pack or purchase our own snorkel gear for the trip.
Caution: Beware of Motion Sickness
If you are prone to motion sickness (like Natalie), you may experience it on the seaplane. Prior to our trip, one pro that sold us on the seaplane was being told it was a way to avoid the motion sickness sometimes experienced on the ferry. However, on our trip, we did not find that to be the case. Our pilot did several banking 360 degree turns to show us different creatures on our trip to/from the park. Although these turns provided us some stellar wildlife views, they did not bode well for Natalie’s stomach.
If you take meclizine for motion sickness, try to take that before the flight to/from the island. Also, make sure you are hydrated and are dressed cool as the plane tends to be quite warm (which does not help with any motion sickness). See, coming soon, How to Prevent Motion Sickness While Traveling. Again, we recommend taking the seaplane over the ferry and would both take it again but just be aware that it may be a bit of a roller coaster ride for your stomach.
What to do at Dry Tortugas National Park
The snorkeling at Dry Tortugas National Park was hands down the best snorkeling we have ever done. The water here is crystal clear and the coral reef growing around the moat of Fort Jefferson is so colorful. We saw many different colored and sized fish while snorkeling around the moat. If you are a more experienced snorkeler, you can also snorkel in some deeper water on the North and South Beach of the park which is supposed to be stunning as well. We highly recommend spending at least an hour, if not more time, snorkeling while visiting the park.
Tour Fort Jefferson
At the park, you can take a self-guided tour of Fort Jefferson. This took us about 45 minutes to do. On the tour, you can read history about different aspects of the Fort. It was also really astounding to walk through this brick fortress as it was built at this very remote location with such limited resources in the 1800s. The architecture of the Fort is really pretty. From the top of the Fort, you get great views overlooking the park as well.
Relax on the Beach
The beach here is pristine. If you have time, enjoy a beverage overlooking the clear blue water while on the white sandy beach.
Where to Stay when visiting Dry Tortugas National Park
We opted to stay in Key Largo and take a day trip to Key West (about 2.25 hours from Key West) to visit Dry Tortugas National Park. Going to Dry Tortugas this way does make for a long day (we left at 6am and got back to our place around 11pm). If you want to spend more than part of a day exploring Key West, in addition to visiting Dry Tortugas, you will want to stay in Key West or another one of the more southern Florida Keys such as Marathon.
We stayed at a cute Airbnb, perfect for two people, right on the Atlantic in Key Largo and would highly recommend it if looking to stay further up in the Florida Keys. On our trip, we also visited Everglades National Park (see Everglades National Park Quick Guide), Biscayne National Park (see Biscayne National Park Quick Guide) and Miami in addition to Key West, the other Florida Keys (see Florida Keys/Southern Florida Quick Guide) and Dry Tortugas National Park so we wanted a more central homebase than one of the more Southern Florida Keys.
We hope this guide helps you plan your trip to Dry Tortugas National Park. Anything you’d add to our guide? We’d love to hear your feedback and questions. Please leave us a comment!
And remember, Always Have A Trip Planned!