Head south on U.S. Route 1 in Key West, Florida. When you think you can’t go any further, imagine traveling another 70 miles west through the Atlantic. Picture a massive fort surrounded by glamorous, blue waters, crowds of birds and a squad of snorkelers. This is the scene of Dry Tortugas National Park.
Fort Jefferson In The Distance
Our trip to Dry Tortugas was the most unique experience of our travels thus far. Anytime your options to arrive at the park are by either boat or seaplane, you are bound to have an experience of a lifetime. Dry Tortugas was no exception. We loved our experience and time spent in this park. We felt close to the history of the fort and a sense of excitement, feeling like we were, quite literally, in the middle of the ocean.
Fort Jefferson From Above
Although means of getting to the park are not the norm, it is actually fairly simple. We choose the more economical option of floating out on the Yankee Freedom III. You can find options for transportation on the NPS site. Just be sure to be mindful of times for departure, because there is only one opportunity each day for the ferry ride.
The Yankee Freedom III Ferry
The process is extremely smooth once you arrive to the dock for the Yankee Freedom. To say that this isn’t their first rodeo, is an understatement. The entire crew are experts on the process and has the timing down to a T. You are instructed with where to go and how to, from the moment you walk into the building. Also, you get reimbursed for the park admission fee, when you show a valid America the Beautiful Pass at check-in! Some positives and negatives we experienced from the ferry ride itself:
1. Free breakfast and lunch included
a. Breakfast: bagels, fruit and yogurt
b. Lunch: sandwiches, chips and cookies (DRINK WATER)
2. History/tour information while riding
4. Views from the deck (which are spectacular)
5. Meeting new people
6. Snorkeling gear included in ticket price
1. Motion sickness
3. Motion sickness
5. Motion sickness
Our advice is to take Dramamine before leaving. Remember, this is a preventative, not a reactive medicine, so it is important to take before you start feeling sick. The Yankee Freedom sells Dramamine onboard for just $1 a dose. Even if you have some experience on boats, we recommend still taking some. Trust me, better safe than sorry. I was great on the way there and enjoyed going outside to see the open ocean and feel the fresh air. However, on the way back, we had to go through some big waves; creating a group of sea-sick sailors riding in the back of the ferry.
The Beautiful Water, From Within Fort Jefferson
Even though I did not enjoy the ferry ride back from Fort Jefferson, I still loved the experience itself. Not to mention, the crew on our ferry was absolutely amazing. They helped over a dozen people safely move to the back of the boat, where the swaying is lessened, and you are in fresh air. They were attentive, helpful and didn't make me feel like an idiot for trying to tough out the nauseous feeling while sitting indoors.
Number 4 on the cons list is vertigo. This is something, again, that only I experienced (Colin felt only slightly motion sick during the ride back). For about a week after our ferry ride, it would feel as though I was on a boat, during random periods of time throughout the day. I would stand up and feel rocky, sit down and feel rocky, it wouldn’t go away. It was definitely not the greatest feeling. However, I googled it and realized that this was actually something quite common after being on a cruise or ferry ride. It lessened a few hours after the ride and completely went away after a few nights of sleep in my own bed.
Walking The Moat At Fort Jefferson
All this chatter about the negative side effects may make it seem as though I didn’t enjoy my time at Dry Tortugas. However, it is quite the opposite. In fact, I am often saying “Dry Tortugas is my favorite so far” with the added “well minus the almost throwing up over the side of the boat.”
*Important note: throwing up over the side of the boat is just a figure of speech. It is actually very important to throw up in the bags they provide as you never know which way that wind is going, if you catch my drift.
So, let us address the positives of the park and why it continues to be one of our favorites. For starters, the view is unimaginable. Every photograph you snap once you are on the largest island, Garden Key, is breathtaking and frameable.
Fort Jefferson at Dry Tortugas National Park
Dry Tortugas National Park’s area is a majority in the Gulf of Mexico waters. And by majority, I actually mean 99%. Docking at Garden Key and looking around, gives you the impression of a smaller park. There are between 5-7 islands within the park’s border, depending on tide and waves. You will see plenty of birds and hopefully sea turtles (after all, the name of the park is “Dry Turtles”. “Dry” because there is no source of freshwater, and “turtles” because of the abundance of sea turtles in the area). Sadly, we didn’t see any sea turtles.
While riding out, you will hear the different options you have for exploring the fort. You can explore on your own throughout the day, or you can go on a guided tour. There’s a half-day tour and a 1 hour consolidated version. We opted to do our own thing for a few reasons. 1) We wanted to allow ourselves enough time to snorkel and swim. 2) We, Colin, walks much faster than a typical tour. And 3) We didn’t want to feel limited on time for experiencing our favorite parts. With over a 2 hour ride both there and back, plus lunch, plus swimming/snorkeling, you will run out of time very quickly. Have an idea of what is most important to you before arriving, and give yourself enough time to see it all. Once you get to the island and disembark, the path leads you right into Fort Jefferson!
The Entrance To Fort Jefferson
Exploring The Fort
The fort itself will bring out the history nerd in just about anyone. Walking through the fort feels like you are walking through time. The fort was built by the U.S. to try and control ships sailing through the Gulf of Mexico. While the fort was never finished due to design and material issues, it was used as a prison for a short time.
Cannon Atop The Fort
If the history of the park isn’t enough to make you excited, the view might be. One of the coolest parts of the park was the “roof top” of the fort. The top of the fort remains one of my favorite spots ever. The water is the blue color that you imagine when you think of a tropical vacation. It was GORGEOUS. The fort is completely open for you to explore on your own between all 3 levels. The views from the top were so pretty, that we went back a second time to get a few more pictures and capture the view before we had to head back to the ferry at the end of the day.
Beautiful Garden Key
The Halls Of Fort Jefferson
As if the views weren’t enough, this park also allowed us to go snorkeling for a second time during our Florida National Park Trifecta. During the ferry ride out, you will be instructed on how to sign up for gear if you would like to take advantage. Colin enjoyed the snorkeling more than I did, but I loved just sitting in the water and relaxing. We did both go along the moat wall to see some colorful fish and coral.
Fish & Coral Within Dry Torgtuas
Snorkeling The Moat Wall
Combine the atypical experience with the views, snorkeling, and history, and this park is a home run. There is even an option to stay the night on the island. You have to bring your own water and all of your gear. While we didn’t do this however, it is something we would recommend if you’re able to. This is an amazing option for two reasons. One, I am not sure when else you would be able to experience the solitude of sleeping 70 miles from land. We can only imagine the stars and ocean sounds. Two, there is limited sleeping arrangements in Key West, especially on a budget. One of our (mostly mine) least favorite parts of the entire trip to Florida National Parks was sleeping on an Airbnb boat. It was our most cost-effective option, however it wasn’t the best choice of lodging for our type of trip. It was an experience we are glad we had, but it was definitely something we would have enjoyed more on a different type of trip. So, if camping on the island is an option for you, I’d say do it!
Even if you aren’t able to stay the night, this park is definitely a true must see. While in the area, it may be a good idea to also hit Everglades National Park and Biscayne National Park. Follow the respective links to see our posts about our visits.