99% of this Florida National Park is Underwater - and it's Breathtaking
Travel trends come and go, but national parks never lose their appeal. The only way to access the park is by seaplane or boat from 70 miles away and 99 percent of the park is underwater? National parks don't get any better than that.
Rich Report will be taking you to one of the country's most unique national parks, the Dry Tortugas National Park.
Among the three national parks designated in Florida is Dry Tortugas National Park, one of the most remote in the entire United States. A faraway tropical location, fascinating 200-year history, and mind-blowingly blue waters make this park special.
As anyone who has been there can attest, it isn't your typical national park. Do you want to be one of them? Find out how to get there, what to know before you go, what to do on the island, and when to visit.
Planning a Trip
There are seven small islands in Dry Tortugas National Park, but most of the park is water - mesmerizingly blue, crystal-clear water worthy of your wildest tropical dreams. Among the main attractions of the Dry Tortugas are swimming and sightseeing.
Its beauty lies not just in the underwater wonders, but also in the variety of natural features it has to offer (e.g. coral reefs, sand shoals, marine life, birds).
This park exists primarily because of these natural wonders. As the National Park Service explains, it is an ideal outdoor laboratory for observing "how and why natural systems change over time, and what amount of change is normal."
Due to the encompassing Dry Tortugas Research Natural Area, established in 2007 to protect the park's marine ecology, it is a particularly valuable resource. According to the National Park Service, this 46-square-mile preserve protects species that are threatened by fishing and habitat loss in this region of the Gulf of Mexico.
In some of the most pristine waters in the world, even non-scientists can enjoy boating, diving, and snorkeling as a result of this important research effort. There is also the 14-acre Garden Key, the second-largest island in the Dry Tortugas, which is home to historic Fort Jefferson.
Originally constructed in the 1800s as a masonry fort, Fort Jefferson has seen many changes throughout its history. Warships have coaled here, ships patrolling the Gulf of Mexico and Straits of Florida have resupplied and refitted here, and even Union deserters were held there during the Civil War. Although Fort Jefferson acted as an intimidating warning to enemies, it was never attacked.
With 2,000 stunning arches and decorative brickwork, it's today a preserved piece of American history, linking international trade routes, wartime life, and hundreds of shipwrecks.
Things to Know Before You Go
Dry Tortugas National Park is one of those places where the most challenging journeys reap the greatest rewards. While its remoteness makes it appealing, it requires a bit more planning than your average spur-of-the-moment national park trip.
Fuel, water, charcoal, and food are not available at the park, so it's essential to arrive prepared for the duration of your stay. Getting to know the Dry Tortugas is best done on a day trip.
As well, supplies aren't available in the park, and the only restrooms are on the Yankee Freedom ferry (so they are only accessible when the boat is docked). There is a composting toilet available for overnight campers from 3 p.m. until 10:30 a.m. every day.
The Dry Tortugas National Park does not have cell coverage, internet access, or Wi-Fi. The park's off-the-grid nature makes it special in today's overconnected world, but you must be prepared for an off-the-grid experience.
It's also an all-day commitment since there are few ways in and out. If you're not feeling it, you can't just change your mind and head home.
It might not appeal to you to "strand" yourself (for a day) on a tropical island with limited food, water, and bathrooms. You're in for a treat if you're up for an adventure.
How to Get There
Dry Tortugas National Park lies 70 miles west of Key West, the southernmost point in the continental United States, so getting there is part of the fun.
Ferries, private boats, charter boats, and seaplanes are all possible ways to reach Dry Tortugas National Park. It is possible to charter a fishing or dive boat heading to the Dry Tortugas from both the Florida Keys and Naples.
In spite of this, traveling to the Dry Tortugas by seaplane is probably the most scenic and memorable option.
“Getting there by seaplane was the highlight of our trip,” says Daniel Jenkins, a Florida resident who visited Dry Tortugas National Park recently. “The water is the most unreal blue color that almost glows as you fly overhead. I lost count of all the dolphins, loggerhead sea turtles, stingrays, and sharks we spotted from the air, and you even fly over two shipwrecks,” he recalls.
“It’s a fraction of the travel time, which means you can spend more time snorkeling and exploring the island, and the small cabin size allows for only 10 passengers at a time.”
NPS-approved Key West Seaplane Adventures offers half-day excursions to Dry Tortugas for $361 per adult. Approximately 40 minutes are spent on each flight. Private boats are the only way to explore areas beyond Garden Key and Fort Jefferson, but permits are required.
Best Way to Visit
There are a number of ways to get to Dry Tortugas National Park, and some are more affordable than others.
It's certainly an unforgettable trip to take the seaplane route from Key West, but most people opt for the ferry route, which takes about two hours round trip. On the Yankee Freedom, which departs Key West at 7:30 a.m. returning at 5:30 p.m. Includes breakfast, lunch, a 45-minute Fort Jefferson tour, complimentary snorkeling equipment, and park entrance fees. In case you want to kick back with a rum runner, frozen drinks are also available.
Ticket prices for day trips start at $200; overnight trips with primitive camping and a kayak start at $240. If you don't have a friend with a boat who won't charge you for gas, this is the cheapest way to get to Dry Tortugas National Park.
Snorkeling, swimming, and other activities at Dry Tortugas National Park
Camping on the island is a great option for those who wish to spend more than a few hours exploring Dry Tortugas National Park.
Visitors usually spend only one day at Fort Jefferson, taking part in activities such as diving, swimming, snorkeling, ranger-guided tours, wildlife spotting, and touring historic buildings. It is also possible to go geocaching, fishing, and paddling, though kayaks and paddleboards must be brought.
There are a number of islands within Dry Tortugas National Park that can be explored by boat, including Garden Key, which is where ferry and seaplane passengers are dropped off. If you have your own boat, exploring the other islands is also an option.
Loggerhead Key, the largest island of the park, is located three miles west of Garden Key and is perfect for snorkeling and beach visits. In the breeding season (February to September), up to 80,000 sooty terns and 4,500 brown noddies take up residence on Bush Key, a 16-acre undeveloped island. As these are the only significant breeding colonies of the species in the entire country, Bush Key closes to visitors during this time.
Visiting Dry Tortugas National Park at its best
The subtropical climate of Dry Tortugas National Park makes it possible to visit it year-round. The weather is generally warm and sunny throughout the year. There is a tendency for rough seas in winter (December through March), but the temperatures are mild and dry. During the summer, it is hot and humid. It is hurricane season in the Atlantic from June through November, so storms may occur during that time. It is still possible to enjoy a picture-perfect day in Dry Tortugas National Park at any time of the year.