• Molly Gone Wild

The Perfect 3-Day Itinerary for Dry Tortugas National Park

Coral reefs ring the islands, old wrecks play host to schools of brightly colored fish, and shy sea turtles poke their heads above the surface as you sail by.

tropical island
Garden Key in Dry Tortugas National Park.

Dry Tortugas National Park is a remarkable place. Located about 70 miles west of Key West, a cluster of islands sits isolated from the development and crowds of its eastern cousins. Called the “Dry Tortugas” for their abundance of sea turtles and lack of fresh water, the islands were first added to marine charts when the Spanish mariner Ponce de León came upon them in 1513.


In the 1820s, the United States realized that control of the islands would mean control of navigation around the Gulf of Mexico, so they began to fortify the islands. Fort Jefferson still stands today, a red brick behemoth built to the very edge of Garden Key and surrounded by a large, murky moat. Construction of the Fort began in 1846 and continued for nearly 30 years. Despite the effort, the Fort was never finished, although it was used as a prison for Union army deserters during the Civil War. By 1874, the Army had abandoned the Fort.


The islands were designated as a wildlife refuge in 1908, a national monument in 1935, and finally a national park in 1992. Today, you can explore the Fort, as well as the old buildings on nearby Loggerhead Key, but the true attraction is the abundant marine and birdlife. Coral reefs ring the islands, old wrecks play host to schools of brightly colored fish, shy sea turtles poke their heads above the surface, Goliath Grouper and lemon sharks patrol the piers, and the skies are dotted with frigate birds, brown boobies, pelicans, and terns.


If you’re looking for a remote, adventurous, tropical island getaway, this itinerary is for you.


When To Visit:


Dry Tortugas National Park is located approximately 70 miles from Key West, FL. It’s best to visit the park outside of hurricane season, so plan for sometime between December and May. Regardless of the season, be sure to check the weather before you visit to ensure conditions are favorable and safe.


How To Get There:


The only way to reach the park is via private vessel, seaplane, or ferry. The ferry departs from Key West and arrives at Garden Key each day at 10:30am. Passengers can explore the island and fort before the ferry departs at 2:30pm. During the ferry’s visiting hours, Garden Key can be a bit crowded but once the ferry departs for the day, the key is blissfully quiet with only a handful of campers in the campground or boaters come ashore to wander.


Seaplanes also shuttle passengers back and forth between the Dry Tortugas and Key West, if you’re looking for another option.


The best way to access the park is by private vessel. With your own boat, you’ll be able to explore beyond Garden Key to other islands and snorkeling sites within the park. Visiting by boat allows you to fully immerse yourself in the rich and vibrant nature of the park.


Where to Stay:

If you'd like to stay overnight in the park, there are two options: 1) in the campground on Garden Key, or 2) on a private vessel. Individual campsites cost $15.00 / night. Be prepared to pay with cash.


pelicans by the water
Pelicans off Loggerhead Key.

3-Day Itinerary for Dry Tortugas National Park


Day 1: Arrival at Garden Key

If you’re traveling by boat, you can sail overnight from Key West or make a stop at the Marquesas Keys on your way to Dry Tortugas National Park. Stopping at the Marquesas Keys allows you to get a good night of sleep before continuing on to the Dry Tortugas. If you depart from the Marquesas Keys in the morning, you’re likely to arrive in the Dry Tortugas in the late afternoon.


Chart your course towards Garden Key, the home of famous Fort Jefferson and the ranger post. Boats are allowed to anchor anywhere within 1 mile of the light on Garden Key and most vessels seem to congregate in the bay just off the main dock. Once you’ve set your anchor, head to shore to register your vessel and pay your park fees. The entrance fee is $15.00 / adult and grants access to the park for seven consecutive days. You’ll be asked to record your vessel information and drop your park fees in an “iron ranger.” You may or may not see the ranger while you’re checking in, but if you do, be sure to ask whatever questions you have. The ranger post also provides daily printed weather and wind forecasts so you can access this vital information even without cell service.


Once you’ve checked in, enter Fort Jefferson and find a staircase to the top of the fort. Watch the sunset from your perch on top of the brick behemoth but remember that the fort does close at sunset, so don’t linger too long. As dusk falls, head back to your boat. Enjoy the peace and quiet of the protected harbor and, once the sky is dark, treat yourself to some truly spectacular star-gazing.


Day 2: Loggerhead Key

In the morning, pack a lunch, beach chairs, and snorkel gear, and head for one of the two mooring balls at Loggerhead Key. Outside the 1-mile boundary around Garden Key, boats are not allowed to anchor (anchors can damage fragile seagrass and coral), so the park has installed mooring buoys at the most popular destinations and dive sites.


Depending on the draft of your boat, you can choose between the mooring on the east or west side of the island. The mooring ball on the east side of Loggerhead Key accommodates boats with deeper drafts. Hook the ball and go ashore to admire the old lighthouse and outbuildings. Follow the path to the west side of the island where you’ll find absolutely picture-perfect beaches. Wander the shore until you find the perfect spot, then set up your chairs and recline by the edge of the crystalline water. Swim, explore, and enjoy lunch before heading back to the boat.


Continue on to the mooring ball at the Windjammer Wreck to the southeast of Loggerhead Key. The wreck, awash in a brightly-colored flurry of fish and coral, is located in relatively shallow water making it perfect for snorkeling. Hundreds of small fish school and hide in the nooks and crannies of the wreck as sea fans wave lazily in the current. Keep your eyes peeled for shimmery Rainbow Parrotfish, graceful Ocean Triggerfish, endearing Porcupinefish, blue and yellow Butterflyfish and Tang, and the dazzling Queen Angelfish. You may even spot a shark or two.


If you’re traveling with dive gear, continue on to the mooring ball at The Maze. The site is better suited for scuba diving with coral formations starting at 29 feet and deeper. Once you’ve had your fill of ocean exploration, begin your journey back to Garden Key. Enjoy sunset from the boat or go ashore to stretch your legs during golden hour.


Day 3: Garden Key


After a leisurely morning on the boat, pack your things for a day at the beach on Garden Key. Pull your dinghy ashore to the right of the pier (you’ll see a dinghy sign) and follow the path to the beach on the north side of the key. Pick your favorite spot and settle in for a day of reading and lounging.


When you’re ready for a bit of activity, grab your mask and snorkel and head for the ruins of an old coaling dock. You can walk to the end of the beach and enter the water nest to the old pilings. Coral and sea fans coat the old pilings and fish swim about beneath the rusty poles. It looks shallow, but you can sneak over and around the pilings as you float on the surface. If you’re lucky, you’ll see the hefty Rainbow Parrotfish and Barracuda that hang out amongst the decaying structure.


Once you’ve had enough of the beach, stow your gear and venture into Fort Jefferson. Follow the winding paths of the fort as you embark on the 40-minute self-guided tour. You’ll learn all about life on the island and what it took to create such an imposing structure in the middle of the ocean.


Walk the wall of the moat at sunset before biding the island farewell. Head back to your boat where you can bask in the silence of the night and the brilliant wash of twinkling stars across the sky.


old brick fort
Fort Jefferson on Garden Key.

Responsible Travel in Dry Tortugas National Park


Traveling with a Dog:

If you’re traveling with a dog, good news - you can bring your pup with you to the Dry Tortugas. Dogs are allowed, on a leash, on Garden Key. They are welcome in the campground, as well as anywhere outside the Fort, so they’ll have plenty of space to sniff and stretch their legs. Be sure to pick up after your pup and be mindful of giving campers their space.


Environmental Consciousness:

The Dry Tortugas National Park protects delicate and endangered species and ecosystems, so it’s best to abide by all park rules and regulations during your visit. In these remote islands, practice Leave No Trace to ensure your presence does not harm the species that call the park home. Do not disturb or feed wildlife, and do not remove anything from the park. Let your pictures be your souvenirs. There are no trash facilities in the park, so plan to pack out whatever you bring in with you. Fishing is allowed only from the dock on Garden Key. Be sure you have a Florida fishing license and an understanding of which species and size fish you can take in which seasons. If you travel with your dog, be prepared to pack out all waste. If you’re boating, use the provided mooring balls to avoid damaging the fragile seagrass or coral with your anchor. By traveling responsibly, we can ensure that the Dry Tortugas flourish for decades to come.


#responsibletravel #sustainabletravel #naturetravel

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