Plan Your Visit

Dry Tortugas National Park


How are you guys? Be very careful here. We have breakfast inside the main cabin. The area that we just pulled out of is known as the Historic Seaport. Or, the Lands End Marina. Very historic place for Key West. I do want to give you a run down of the itinerary. Now, keep in mind this is your vacation. And, today is your day to do as you wish with. We are going to be arriving at the fort at approximately 10:30. Once we get there, we are going to convene for a guided tour of Fort Jefferson. Otherwise, you can go in on your own time and do a self-guided tour. It is up to you. Well, welcome to Dry Tortugas National Park. My name is Chris Ziegler. I am the lead Interpretive Ranger and Historian for the park. Sooo, Dry Tortugas National Park began its life in the National Park Service back in 1935 as Fort Jefferson National Monument. Back then, it was set aside to protect the big fort here and the surrounding waters. However, in 1992, they elevated that status to national park. And, the main reason is this cluster of islands represents the end of the Florida reef system. That is approximately the third largest reef in the world. We became a national park because we are not only the end of it, but that also makes us the most pristine. Because it has had the least amount of human activity out here. So, we have some of the best coral you are going to find anywhere in the Florida Keys for snorkeling. It is very nice right here around the fort. But, we also have a lot of cultural resources. We have this magnificent fort. The third largest seacoast fort the United States ever built. We also have numerous submerged cultural resources and terrestrial archaeological resources. The centerpiece, of course, for most visitors will be Garden Key where historic Fort Jefferson is located. The large 19th century fortification encompasses approximately 10 acres. It is where your trip will spend most of your day as you are here. This is where the ferry boats as well as seaplanes tie up. Now, you are probably wondering, well why the heck would they build a fort out here of this size? Out here in the middle of nowhere, if you will. Well, if you think about it, when we left Key West this morning: Here is Key West. We got Cuba to the south of us and the Dry Tortugas is to the west of us, 70 miles. These islands that we are on right now are smack dab in the middle of that trade route. The U.S. wanted to occupy these islands so that nobody else could. So that they could continue to try to protect the coastline. As far as snorkeling goes today, this is going to be your best bet over here off of South Beach. Go to the right, follow that moat wall. You can go all the way around to the backside of the wall here. The other thing that I really like to do is get in off of South Beach and go to the left. And, you see those pilings that are sticking out of the water over there. There is a set here and a set over here off North Beach. And, you can go in either one. The water is clear, it is beautiful. Along the wall, there is a lot of soft corals and some hard coral heads out a little farther. But, we saw some purple fans. We saw a little Green Moray eel. A few fish. Tons of different kinds of mollusks on the bottom. We saw a Horse conch with a bright orange body. He was slowly moving his way across the bottom. Pretty neat critter. If you come out in the summer time, especially beginning in lets say May to June, that is when we have a great number of our sea turtles coming in. So, on the ferry ride or seaplane ride out, you are likely to see numerous turtles in the water. For those coming in the Spring and a few months even in the Fall, the migratory birds are really spectacular. So, we have many species of warblers. Occasionally even have the Burrowing Owl that frequents out here. We have, of course, the Sooty Terns and the Brown Noddys that inhabit the islands behind me and nest. The frigate birds are here year-round. In addition to that, we have a lot of other wildlife. Of course, the fish species here are just absolutely amazing. You will see some of the best coral reef fishes anywhere, just anywhere that you are going to find snorkeling from a beach especially. We have a great number of Nurse sharks that inhabit the bay behind me. It is actually one of the premiere areas for Nurse shark research. So, lots of different species of marine animals and pelagic birds that use the area. Dry Tortugas is definitely a unique national park. Out of all of them that I have seen. Just being on this island setting and the vast majority of it being this giant fort. The fort itself is actually a lot larger than what I was anticipating. The beaches are absolutely beautiful here. I would like to say to visitors that this is probably a pretty cool spot to camp overnight. Next time I come back here, I think I would probably plan a camping trip and stay overnight here. Well, we are here for the day. We are down from Montreal, Canada. And, just came in this morning and about to board the ferry and go back home soon. We took the tour of the fort this morning. We learned about the horrible life conditions that they had up here for many years as it seems. It was probably a pitiful place to be back in time. But, now it has become paradise I think. Well, when you land, you get a tour for about 45 minutes. And then, you get to walk around and do a little bit of what you like. And, have a bit of lunch on the boat. After that, we headed out to the beach, got our snorkeling gear on and went off into the water. The diving is amazing, the day is amazing, the water is amazing. It is a hard place to miss if you can get to it. If you are a visitor wanting to come and see Dry Tortugas, there is really three main ways you can get here. The most frequent way is our commercial ferry service that comes out. It is called the Yankee Freedom. You can purchase tickets and board that vessel at the Historic Bight in Key West, Florida. The other main option is the seaplane service that flies out daily from the Key West airport. It is a float plane. You take off on land at the airport and then you get to land on the water here at the fort. It is really a unique experience. A lot different than most of your commercial aircraft that you get to fly on. The normal seaplane tours, you are out here for about two hours. They offer a small, guided tour. And, once again, the day is kinda yours. You can explore the fort. Or, a lot of people like to snorkel and just take it easy. And, of course, the third option is to still come out on your own private boat if you are brave enough and have a vessel. Seventy miles out on open water, it does require a little bit of seamanship to get here and of course, the right equipment. But, for those that come out on their vessel, it is a rewarding experience in some of the most beautiful water you can actually come out and see in the United States. Camping is also provided. Campers that come out on the ferry are usually limited to three days due to the amount of gear that you can carry on the boat. However, the park service has a rule, you can actually stay fourteen days if you come out on something other than the ferry. Camping is very primitive. So, you have to pack in your own water and everything like that. As well as pack out all of your trash. This is my fourth day, three nights, four days leaving today. It is the DRY Tortugas so you have to bring your own water with you. So, you got to bring everything. You got to bring your own food. You got to bring your snorkel stuff, your clothes, your tent, your sleeping bag. You know, any kind of stuff that you need to eat with. Over the past four years, I have come here six times camping. Keep coming back because it is an amazing place. Amazing snorkeling with like tons of fish and really big fish. The fort is really neat just to wander around in. And then, also, when the boat is not here, there is like nobody here and you have the whole place to yourself. And, it is just really neat. At night, there is 18 gazillion stars. But, other than that, you are, like, stranded on a tropical island. The biggest challenge here for the park, of course, is protecting all of the resources. Most people are not aware. But, the National Park Service is the only federal agency whose primary goal is to be a steward of cultural and natural resources. No other agency has that mandate, has that responsibility. Our job is to take care of that for future generations to enjoy that which does not exist in the same form anywhere else. It is one of the most spectacular national parks I have ever been to. It is nothing like I expected. It is the setting, the history, the water, the reef, everything. I think it is something that not only a national park enthusiast, but I just think that everybody should see this. If you are coming down in the summer, especially anything from June up until August or September, expect very little wind, very smooth, glassy seas and wonderful visibility. But, quite warm. We are talking average temperatures in the low to mid 90s, high humidity and pretty much no breeze. Once you start to get into September and October, you start getting a little bit more wind coming in. And, by the time you get to late October and November, we are starting to have our cold fronts that come down from the north and can stir up the ocean a little bit. So, it can be a little interesting coming out on the ferry boat. But, always check with the ferry boat or the seaplane before you try to come out and make sure it is running. It is a very dynamic place. And, there is a lot of human history here that goes back to 1513. And, that is what a lot of visitors do not really understand is when the first Europeans were coming over here. So, it has a lot longer tale to be told than commonly gets shared with visitors.


Informational video about visiting and exploring Dry Tortugas National Park.


10 minutes, 15 seconds


NPS Video by Jennifer Brown

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