Dry Tortugas National Park Day Trip from Key West, Florida

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Are you a boomer traveler who enjoys a national park adventure? What about a remote trip that includes sailing to an off-the-beaten-path island in Florida? If so, you’re in luck. Guest contributor, Erika Nelson, is here to share her tips for a Dry Tortugas day trip. It’s the perfect addition to a Florida Keys road trip.

Plan a Dry Tortugas day trip for adventure in Key West

Snorkelers enter the water from a sandy beach on a Dry Tortugas day trip.
Snorkeling is part of the fun on a Dry Tortugas day trip

After a couple of days enjoying the fun things to do in Key West, Florida, adventure was calling. My husband and I are big National Park people, and one of the more remote parks is the Dry Tortugas, about a two and a half hour boat trip from this southernmost U.S. city. 

If you’re visiting Key West and want a little adventure, a trip to Dry Tortugas National Park might be the thing to do. The park is 70 miles west of Key West at the end of the Florida Keys in the Gulf of Mexico.

It’s a haven for snorkeling, along with birding, and civil war history. If you’re looking for a quiet, remote escape, The Dry Tortugas fits the bill.

The Dry Tortugas are named for the turtles that early Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon found on the islands. Later, the English added the word Dry since there is no fresh water on the islands.

How to get to Dry Tortugas National Park

A seaplane lands in the Gulf of Mexico's aqua-colored water.
A plane arrives at Dry Tortugas

You can reach the islands either by buying tickets on the Yankee Freedom III, going by private or chartered catamaran or taking a sea plane trip. We went on the Yankee Freedom III—official ferry service to Dry Tortugas for the National Park Service—which added some adventure to the trip

White ferry ship pulled up next to a small dock at Dry Tortugas National Park.
The Yankee Freedom III is the official Dry Tortugas National Park ferry.

The Yankee Freedom III leaves around 8 AM to reach the remote Garden Key. It is worth arriving ahead of time to get an early boarding number. This is especially true if you want to sit on the open top deck. If you prefer sitting under cover, choose the inner deck.

Your ticket includes breakfast and lunch. Enjoy breakfast on the beautiful sail to Dry Tortugas. After arriving at Garden Key, lunch is served and can be eaten on the boat or on the island. If you decide to enjoy lunch on the island, be aware that Garden Key is a carry in-carry out place so you’ll need to bring trash from lunch back to Yankee Freedom III.

The boat leaves around 3 p.m. for the sail back to Key West. At that time the bar opens for drinks (not included) and snacks.  

My husband and I enjoyed several hours at Fort Jefferson on Garden Key. A 5-hour sailing trip on a beautiful late February day, round-trip  from Key West, added to the fun.

Explore Civil War history on a Dry Tortugas tour

The brick exterior of Fort Jefferson surrounded by Gulf of Mexico.
Fort Jefferson

Fort Jefferson is an important Civil War fort built on Garden Key. Although it never saw any battle action, it was the fort where Dr. Samuel Mudd was imprisoned for his alleged part in the Lincoln assassination by John Wilkes Booth.

Dr. Mudd treated Booth for injuries sustained from jumping out of the Presidential box after shooting President Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre. This made Mudd a national traitor. He was imprisoned on the island until 1869. After helping fight a yellow fever outbreak that infected the island, Dr. Mudd was released.


History fans, especially Civil War buffs, should take advantage of the full fort tour that’s offered daily. If you only want a bit of Fort Jefferson’s history, there is also a shorter tour available. Both tours work around the Yankee Freedom’s schedule.

The coral beaches around the fort make fantastic snorkeling if the weather is good. The Yankee Freedom III provides snorkeling equipment. If you come on your own, either by boat or seaplane, you would need to bring your own equipment.

Things to do at Dry Tortugas National Park if you don’t snorkel

White seabirds on a post
Birds are everywhere!

If you don’t snorkel, you can walk around the fort and even see some fascinating sea creatures just by looking down into the water. One thing to remember is that coral beaches are made of rough coral, not smooth sand, so you’ll want some decent sandals or beach shoes for walking.  From the beaches you can even see some of the other keys across short stretches of the Gulf of Mexico.

Black seabird with white head flying in the sky
Don’t forget to look up

One thing I discovered while cruising out to Garden Key was how many birders visited this park. This is the one place in the entire lower 48 states where you can see semi-tropical birds such as Magnificent Frigate bird, Brown and Black Noddies, as well as nesting Sooty Terns.

Sotty Terns spend more of their time out over the open waters, but up to 80,000 come here to nest on Bush Key from January through the summer. The key is closed to visitors during nesting season—March to September. If you bring binoculars, you may be able to spot them from Garden Key. 

Staying overnight on a Dry Tortugas trip

Lighthouse surrounded by palm trees
In the Gulf of Mexico

Since these islands are run by the National Park Service, limited primitive camping is available. The Dry Tortugas National Park website, recommends making reservations 8-12 months in advance. Also check for details about length of stay.

Campers should bring everything needed, including water —remember, these are the Dry Tortugas—as there is no food or drink service on Garden Key. Don’t forget equipment that you will need. Yankee Freedom III is your ride to this off-the-beaten-path camping experience.

If you’re looking for a boomer travel adventure in the Florida Keys, pack a bathing suit, sunscreen, towel and a camera for a fun national park experience like no other.

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