National Park Spotlight: Dry Tortugas National Park

Dry Tortugas National Park is one of the most remote national parks in the continental United States. It’s so remote, in fact, that in order to access this national park, you’ll need to take a seaplane, chartered boat, or ferry 70 miles west of the Key West.

In this national park spotlight, I want to show you why this tiny, little national park in the middle of the Gulf matters so much and why making the trip is so worth it. Let’s get started with a little history lesson, shall we?

A Brief History of Dry Tortugas National Park

Dry Tortugas National Park was first inhabited by foreign settlers in 1513 when the island was discovered by European explorer Juan Ponce de León. It would be his obsession with feasting on turtle meat that this island got its name.

Each map referenced this chain of islands as “Tortugas” to alert voyagers that there was a food supply on the island. “Dry” would be tacked on the beginning there a short time later to also let them know that the island was completely without fresh water.

Dry Tortugas would remain a safe harbor for Spanish sailors until it was acquired by the United States in 1822 via the Louisiana Purchase (if you can believe that). Almost immediately after, Fort Jefferson was in the works.

16 million bricks loaded and unloaded by hand and nearly 200 years later and the Fort is still under construction. Regardless, it’s still considered the safest and most fortified military bases in United States History.

As for the National Park, its foundation wouldn’t come for more than 100 years after construction of the Fort began. First, just Fort Jefferson was declared a preserved national monument until the park was drastically expanded to include more than 70 square miles of ocean in the early 1980s.

Today, more than 95% of this national park is submerged by the waters of the Gulf and is home to many different animal species including a wide variety of birds like the masked booby and the brown pelican.

What to See & Do at Dry Tortugas National Park

  • Snorkel — Dry Tortugas National Park is located along the third largest coral reef system on the planet. While it’s very beautiful and abundant, it has also caused quite a few shipwrecks that can also be explored while you’re snorkeling around the island.
  • Walk Around Fort Jefferson — You can either take a tour or do a self-guided tour around the Fort. Either way, make a point to visit all three levels of the fort including the historical interior grounds, the middle-level archways, and the scenic roof top level. There are no guardrails so proceed with extreme caution.
  • Lay on the Beach — There are two beautiful beaches on the island–the north beach and the south beach. Both offer shallow and calm swimming areas and plenty of open sand to spread your towel out on. Kick back, relax, and take in the sun.
  • Do Some Bird Watching — With so many different birds nesting year-round on Bush Key, Dry Tortugas National Park is one of the most popular destinations for birding. Take along a pair of binoculars and your bird identification book, and you’ll be able to spend hours exploring the nearly 300 bird species that call this island home.
  • Take in an Incredible Amount of Stars — There’s primitive camping available on the island and there’s no better place to see stars than on a remote island 70 miles away from civilization.

Important Tips for Visiting Dry Tortugas National Park

One of the most unique parts about this national park is its utter remoteness meaning there’s literally nothing directly adjacent to it except for Bush Key which is a tiny undeveloped island that sometimes connects to Dry Tortugas via a sandbar depending on the tides. (You can actually stroll over there during your visit if the tide is low!)

With that being said, you’re on your own in terms of eating and drinking while at the park. You’ll need to pack in your food and water for the day as there is unsurprisingly nowhere to buy snacks or meals on this tiny island. Then, you’ll either need to use the garbage cans around the fort and visitor center or pack out your garbage. (A clean island is a happy island).

Now, before you get your picnic basket out, hear me out–take the ferry. There are several different ways to get to Dry Tortugas including seaplanes, third-party tour-guide-led charter boats, and the Dry Tortugas Ferry (officially named the Yankee Freedom III).

However, with the price you pay for the ferry, you get all kinds of perks included like bathrooms, breakfast and lunch, use of complementary snorkeling equipment, entrance fees to the park and the fort, a 45-minute guided tour of the fort, and, best of all… a fully stocked bar that serves up piña coladas on the trip back to Key West. *swoons*

Enjoy Your Time at Dry Tortugas National Park!

Have so much fun exploring Dry Tortugas National Park! It truly is an experience you’ll never forget especially if you forget sunscreen.

Pro tip: don’t forget sunscreen.

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