Florida’s Dry Tortugas National Park spans 100 square miles (25,900 hectares) of open water, protected coral reefs, and seven small islands in the Gulf of Mexico only accessible only by boat or air. Dry Tortugas is famous for its blue waters, wildlife, and Fort Jefferson—a 16-acre (6.5-hectare) coastal fortress.
With a name derived from the Spanish word for “turtles,” it might not come as a surprise that wildlife is the main attraction at Dry Tortugas National Park. Escape to these secluded islands on a high-speed catamaran cruise from Key West, during which you can swim and snorkel with dolphins and sea turtles around the park’s coral reef, explore 19th-century Fort Jefferson on Garden Key, and learn about your surroundings from an on-board naturalist. Avid scuba divers can head to Loggerhead Reef, made famous by the Windjammer Wreck—the remains of a Norwegian ship that sank in 1907. If you like bird-watching, take a boat ride to Bush Key, a nesting site for seabirds such as sooty terns and brown noddies.
Things to Know Before You Go
- Plan to drink plenty of water during a day trip to the Dry Tortugas; tours can last 10 hours or more, and it’s easy to get dehydrated without even feeling thirsty.
- Bring sunscreen, a hat, and sunglasses.
- Some charter boats are wheelchair accessible, but visitors should give advance notice. Fort Jefferson has three floors, with only the first accessible to wheelchair users.
How to Get There
Dry Tortugas National Park is located roughly 70 miles (113 kilometers) west of Key West, Florida. It is accessible only by boat or seaplane. Public ferries and seaplanes depart regularly to the park, and fishing and dive charters can be booked from the Florida Keys and Naples. Private boats and seaplanes must acquire a permit before entering the park.
When to Get There
The park is open year-round. Most visitors choose to visit in winter and early spring to avoid summer’s high temperatures and humidity. During the rainy season (May through October), warmer waters and crystal-clear visibility make for superb snorkeling, swimming, and diving. The Middle and East keys are closed from April through October for sea turtle nesting, while Bush Key is closed from January through September for bird nesting.
The Windjammer Wreck
The history of Dry Tortugas National Park resides both above and below its waters; here, shipwrecks are almost as abundant as marine life. The most famous of these is the Windjammer Wreck. Built in 1875, the Norwegian Avanti—a triple-masted, iron-hulled sailing ship—wrecked on Loggerhead Reef in 1907. Today the site is a perfect spot for both snorkelers and experienced scuba divers. Because it serves as an artificial reef attracting dozens of species of fish, the site is a veritable aquarium of reef-dwelling, free-swimming, and bottom-dwelling life.