Full of marine life and one spectacular fort, the Dry Tortugas is one of the least visited national parks in the US…but a truly worthy day trip from Key West.
Seventy miles west of Key West, there’s an expanse of tropical water that contains seven tiny islands, scarcely more than a series of dots on a map. These are the waters and islands of Dry Tortugas National Park, one of America’s most remote national parks. And as we all know, where people don’t go, animals come in droves. A day trip to the Dry Tortugas’s remote and pristine wilderness that teems with marine life offers all of the adventure of Caribbean island–hopping – snorkeling, diving, even a formidable fort to explore – minus the passport. Hop on the ferry that departs from Key West, take your own boat, or take the ultimate transport with a the best view (seaplane) – no matter how you get there, you’ll return sun-kissed, a bit salt-encrusted, and with plenty of memories.
What to Do in Dry Tortugas National Park
Florida’s Best Birding
With 300 species of birds spotted within the perimeter of the park, Dry Tortugas National Park is one of Florida’s best places to get your birding on. Species like the frigate bird and sooty terns nest nowhere in the continental United States other than the Dry Tortugas. Another species to keep an eye out for include the white-tailed tropicbird. Spring and fall migration periods are an ideal time for birdwatchers, as the Dry Tortugas is the perfect layover spot for birds making the trip north or south.
Safari by Snorkel
Because the foundation of the Dry Tortugas islands and park is ancient coral reefs topped by a shallow basin stacked with another layer of living coral reefs, the area is positively teeming with marine animals just below the water’s surface. Sharks, live corals, lobsters, squid, octopus, reef fish, and grouper are common sights. The Dry Tortugas is also home to green and loggerhead turtles, who nest on the sandy beaches of the park’s islands. If you’re lucky enough to see any of the remarkable marine life we’ve mentioned, it goes without saying: Savor the moment, but keep your distance. Little Africa off Loggerhead Key and Texas Rock to the north of Garden Key are prime snorkeling areas that can be accessed by chartered boat.
Dive a Dry Tortugas Shipwreck
The coral reefs aren’t the only underwater draw in the Dry Tortugas. There are many shipwrecks that beg for a dive tank and a few hours of your time. One of the most popular shipwreck dives in the park is the Windjammer. The three-masted, iron-hulled sailing ship ran afoul on Loggerhead Reef in 1901. At the visitor’s center on Garden Key, grab a laminated underwater map of the dive site for a self-guided tour of the wreck. There’s a small piece of the wreckage that breaks the surface, but the most interesting marine life hangs out 20 feet down.
Snorkel or Dive Fort Jefferson’s Moat Wall
Fort Jefferson, one of the nation’s largest nineteenth-century forts, sits on Garden Key. While many come for the docent-led tour or to enjoy Garden Key’s beaches, we think there’s one Fort Jefferson adventure that warrants special mention: snorkeling or diving the moat wall. Keep your eyes peeled for the creatures that venture out from the coral playground built up over years on the underwater bricks. You’ll find octopus, decorator crabs, squid, and basket starfish, as well as anchor chains and cement barrels, relics of the fort’s eclectic history.
What to Bring For a Dry Tortugas Day Trip
This national park is strictly pack in/pack out, so you’ll need to bring everything you need for your day. That includes food and plenty of water, sunscreen, clothing, towels, and any equipment you might need for activities in the park. Also, don’t expect to be checking your email here; this is as off-the-grid as it comes.