Dry Tortugas National Park and Fort Jefferson

When it comes to awesome biodiversity, The Dry Tortugas Islands is one of the most impressive national parks in the United States, comparable to Yellowstone or Yosemite. The seven islands of the Dry Tortugas are connected by a coral reef containing hundreds of different marine species.

In today's world, nearly everyone drives a personal vehicle to a national park for day outings or camping, but at Dry Tortugas, the only way to visit is by seaplane or ferry. You will appreciate this fact when you visit. You should not miss this place.

Undisturbed tropical ecosystem

The Dry Tortugas Islands are a marvelous place with scores of birds, almost 300 species in total, as well as pristine blue waters, wonderful beaches, and tremendous scuba diving, boating and fishing opportunities. The one hundred square mile national park is 90 percent water.

The Dry Tortugas islands are located almost 70 miles from Key West, the furthest west of the islands in the Florida Keys. The Spanish explorers gave the islands their name: “Dry” intended to communicate that the islands had no fresh water. “Tortugas” is Spanish for “turtles.” Visit Dry Tortugas and marvel at the undisturbed marine environment, the impressive Fort Alexander and the amazing snorkeling and bird watching opportunities the islands offer.

Dry Tortugas Islands Activities

Visitors are welcome throughout the year, and park officials invite everyone to experience the beauty and adventure here. When visitors come by seaplane, the pilot flies at 500 feet so the passengers can see the historic Spanish galleons visible beneath the waves, as well as the sharks and other large sea creatures. The seaplane also provides a birds-eye view of the magnificent Fort Jefferson. Every passenger gets a window seat on the seaplane. If visitors choose to arrive by ferry, they enjoy a two-hour cruise from Key West by the beautiful Marquesas Keys and on to the Dry Tortugas.

Activities on the island include:

  • Snorkeling
  • Picnicking
  • Birdwatching
  • Camping
  • Scuba Diving
  • Saltwater Fishing
  • Kayaking


Visitors can book a camping trip for up to three nights on Dry Tortugas. Campsites are limited, and only six people can use one campsite. Campers remain behind after all the other visitors leave in the afternoon. The handful of campers left behind can enjoy the beaches, the snorkel diving and Fort Jefferson by themselves, with a handful of staff around. Like other wilderness camping experiences, each camper is limited to a sixty-pound pack, not including fresh water bottles. You must take away every piece of trash you produce on the island and leave the site immaculate, so be prepared to clean up your campsite.

In the summer months, campers can enjoy hours of snorkel diving or birdwatching alone with the beauty of the islands and the reefs.

Complimentary Lunch

The plane and ferry provide complimentary snorkel equipment and meals with the price of the ticket, and the ferry is a cool respite from the hot sun when travelers get weary of hiking, birdwatching or snorkel diving. Without running water, the island offers portable latrines. There are half day and full day excursions available, and the island provides more than enough activities for a full day excursion.

Fort Jefferson

Seafarers for centuries opined that the Dry Tortugas was the perfect place to launch an invasion of Florida, so the US government built an impressive fort to communicate that the US would challenge all invaders. Sources say the monumental fort is the largest masonry building in the western hemisphere, and though impressive, it was never completed. 16 million bricks compose its structure. The impressive defensive bulwark is an engineering wonder, but interestingly enough, the fort has never seen action.

The Union Army posted at Fort Jefferson at the outbreak of the Civil War continued to operate it all through the war. It became a prison for deserters. Tours of the Fort include the cell of the famous Dr. Mudd, a Maryland native who conspired with John Wilkes Booth to assassinate President Lincoln. There are also large powder magazines, the fort lighthouse and more to see on the site.

Sunken Wrecks

The reason Fort Jefferson is such a great defensive position was that it sat in the middle of a shipping lane between New Orleans and points east, so many ships passed close by. That is why sunken Spanish galleons are within site of the fort. It’s a famous treasure diving spot. Divers seek historic artifacts and rich treasure in the wrecks today.

Kayaking, Fishing and Bird watching

Another favorite activity is kayaking, and the ferry transports kayaks for visitors to use when exploring the coral reefs and the waters of the Dry Tortugas National Park. The area also has tremendous fishing opportunities. The island's birds attract many people. Almost 300 species live on the island, and to the birdwatchers, the species come in abundant numbers.

Scuba Diving

The large seabird colony, including the Sooty Terns, Brown Noddy, Masked Booty, magnificent Frigate Birds and many other species makes the Dry Tortugas Islands a popular bird-watching destination. Private excursion boats frequent the area, carrying scuba divers who explore the reefs or look for artifacts in nearby shipwrecks like the Baja California and sunken Spanish galleons. They lodge on board the commercial boats.


Snorkeling is a great adventure on the islands because the waters of Dry Tortugas National Park are shallow. Snorkel divers easily access the shipwrecks and the marine biology on the reefs.

After a day at Tortugas National Park, visitors come away awed by the biodiversity, the defensive fortifications of Fort Jefferson and the many things to do in this remote national park. Check for opportunities to visit the Dry Tortugas Islands by contacting the national park services. It’s a popular destination and getting a seat on the seaplane or the ferry requires a reservation.