For many the 106-mile journey down the world-renowned Overseas Highway on the southern tip of Florida is an adventure that ends in Key West. However, for those looking for more seclusion and adventure, we suggest continuing west for another 70 miles. You’ll find a small cluster of seven islands known as the Dry Tortugas. These specks of land, which are seemingly in the middle of nowhere, offer visitors an unparalleled experience in our National Park system. Visiting Dry Tortugas National Park is a chance to experience seclusion on a cosmic scale, see crystal clear waters teeming with life, and discover a storied history that dates back to when the Spanish first started to sail these waters. Read on for the top 9 reasons to make this amazing trek.
The Top 9 Reasons for Visiting Dry Tortugas National Park
For many visiting Dry Tortugas National Park, Fort Jefferson is the main attraction. It is the largest brick masonry structure in the Americas with 8′ thick walls and a moat. According to the Parks Service, it was constructed to house 1,500 men and to have 450 cannons. The structure contains more than 16-million bricks all of which had to be shipped to the island, some from as far away as Maine.
The fort covers 16 acres which is almost the entire landmass of Garden Key. It is an imposing three-story structure that was never fully completed. While designed to be self-sufficient, the vast majority of giant cisterns created to support this failed. The fort was to be the first line of defense against those who would threaten the ports along the Gulf of Mexico and the cities that line the Mississippi River.
There is much to be discovered when walking on, up, and around Fort Jefferson. There are signs all over the fort that help to understand the day-to-day lives of those who were stationed and imprisoned here. You’ll also learn about the strategic design and technology in the United States prior to the Civil War. The Parks Service provides an excellent guided walking tour worth following along.
#2) Discover the History of Fort Jefferson
Fort Jefferson was named after the United States’ third president and primary author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson. The fort never saw battle but the armorment and 360-degree field of fire was an overwhelming deterrent for would-be attackers.
According to our park guide, the Union commander who was stationed here at the outset of the Civil War was able to bluff his way out of a small siege by Confederates from Key West. The small Union force had arrived at the fort a day prior with no supplies and no way of defending the fort. Regardless, the commander provided two options. Threaten to sink their Confederate fleet of boats or have them deliver a warning to others. The warning was that if anyone sailed within 3 miles of the island they would be fired upon. The bluff worked and the fort was never again threatened by the Confederates.
Dr. Samuel Mudd
The technology developed during the Civil War made brick forts like Fort Jefferson obsolete. Rifled cannons with pointed ballistics allowed projectiles to rip through masonry structures. As a result, Fort Jefferson was never completed but instead transformed into a military prison. Many prisoners of war were held here; the most famous one was Dr. Samuel Mudd. He was convicted of being a conspirator of the assassination of President Lincoln.
Unlike four of his presumed fellow conspirators who received the death penalty, Dr. Mudd was sentenced to life. The proof of his part in the assassination conspiracy was circumstantial. He was a southerner who set John Wilkes Booth’s broken leg and gave him shelter while he recovered. It is likely that Mudd had no idea who Booth was at the time. Dr. Mudd’s character shown threw during his imprisonment when an outbreak of Yellow Fever killed the fort’s doctor. He took to looking after the ill and, as a result, his sentence was pardoned after four years.
#3) Discover the History of the Dry Tortugas
The islands were named Las Tortugas by Ponce de Leon in 1513 as a kind of market labeling for food supplies on the Spanish maps. The islands have an abundant sea turtle population. As gruesome as it sounds, turtles could be stored on the ship and saltwater occasionally poured over them to keep them alive throughout the long journey back to Spain. This would allow sailers to stock up on fresh meat for their Atlantic crossing. When the British took over the islands were renamed Dry Tortugas, to indicate the lack of fresh water on the tiny archipelago.
While the Spanish plied these waters they sent massive amounts of treasure mined from the New World back to Spain in huge armadas. In September of 1622, according to marinalife, one of these heavy laden armadas was overtaken by a hurricane and eight ships sank to the ocean floor. The lost ships laid hidden on the ocean floor until 1985 when Mel Fisher discovered the Atocha and a treasure estimated at 400 million dollars. Since then the remains of the Spanish armada have been found scattered from Marquesas Keys to the Dry Tortugas. Just be aware that Congress acted after Fisher’s discovery. Any future discoveries within the park are therefore owned by the park. If you find gold here you can’t keep it. However, you can see some of the Atocha’s treasures by stopping by the Mel Fisher Museum in Key West.
#4) Snorkel Garden Key
At 350′ miles long the Florida Coral Reef is the third largest reef in the world. This is a vital habitat for the health of our oceans. Dry Tortugas is the southern terminus for the structure that not only passes through all of the Florida Keys but actually starts north of West Palm Beach at the St. Lucia Inlet. The Florida Keys would not exist without this ancient reef. Cays, also known as keys, are islands that are created by the coral reef themselves.
With very little human influence over the past century, there is perhaps no better place to snorkel than in the Dry Tortugas. The sea life has taken full advantage of Fort Jefferson’s moat wall. Coral clings to the walls and sea life takes shelter in the nooks and crannies. It is easy to see all sorts of exotic tropical fish and crustaceans while lazily floating along the sea wall. The old pylons of the south coaling dock are also a great location to see a lot of aquatic life when snorkeling Garden Key.
Note: If you ride over on the Yankee Freedom III, snorkel rentals are included with your ticket. This makes it easy to spend a few hours in the water.
#5) Camp under Dark Skies
Some of my favorite places on the planet are considered Dark Sky locations. I love reconnecting with our place amongst the cosmos. The location of the Dry Tortugas makes them perfect for stargazing. They are exceptionally dark with the nearest cities of Key West and Havana, Cuba being 70-miles and 100-miles away. Add to this that there are no large land predators found in the Dry Tortugas and you are left with the perfect spot to lie underneath the stars. Just watch out for the rats near the campground and the massive hermit crabs as you wander around the exterior of the fort. Unfortunately, the fort itself isn’t open at night but this doesn’t detract from the beauty of the night sky. Some people even snorkel at night while visiting Dry Tortugas. As sharks tend to be nocturnal predators I leave that to braver individuals than myself.
#6) Bush Key Birding
In 1908 Theodore Roosevelt first protected Dry Tortugas by making them a National Bird Refuge. (Known today as National Wildlife Refuges.) This was a newly acquired executive power that was made possible when Congress passed the Antiquities Act. Roosevelt had good reason to protect the small archipelago as the Dry Tortugas are a nesting location for many species of migratory sea birds.
Today, when visiting Dry Tortugas you can spot sooty terns, brown and black noddies, brown boobies, roseate terns, double-crested cormorants, brown pelicans, herons, ibis, frigates, and many more. The best time for visiting Dry Tortugas to spot many of these beautiful birds is during the nesting season which runs from March to July. Although many species can be seen as early as January or staying as late as September.
During the nesting season, Bush Key is off-limits to humans. However, you can still explore the waters around the island and get some amazing views of these beautiful birds. The best way to do this is in a dingy or a kayak, but the birds are also easy to watch from the ramparts of Fort Jefferson. Currently, Bush Key is attached to Garden Key although this does change. (The keys tend to move as the sand shifts and at times join one another.)
#7) Visit Loggerhead Key Lighthouse
As you travel towards the islands of Dry Tortugas one of the first objects you will see rising out of the blue sea is not Fort Jefferson but rather a 157′ tall lighthouse that stands atop Loggerhead Key. This lighthouse began illuminating the waters around the Dry Tortugas in 1858. It was added to supplement the much smaller and weaker lighthouse that typically stands atop Fort Jefferson. The Garden Key lighthouse, when we visited in 2021, had already been completely removed and shipped to the mainland to undergo repair. One day, it will be shipped back and pieced together as part of the $6 million restoration project.
Getting to Loggerhead Key
The journey to the Loggerhead Key Lighthouse is a great destination when visiting Dry Tortugas. But it takes some effort as it is located 3 miles west of Garden Key. The water between gets as deep as 90 feet. If you travel to the park on your own boat it is an easy journey in a motor-powered dingy or there is also a mooring anchorage at Loggerhead Key. Another fun but more physically demanding way to visit is by kayak. If you come via the ferry just know in advance that only two kayaks are allowed on the Yankee Freedom each way making reservations very challenging. Good weather is essential for making the journey. The water rises quickly from the 90′ depth to only a few feet, creating large waves in very little wind.
We easily made the kayaking journey to Loggerhead Key in somewhat less than ideal conditions as the current and the wind were both blowing us in that direction. Ideal for getting there, but not ideal for traveling back. We arrived in just over an hour from our departure from Garden Key.
However, the day prior to our paddle a fellow kayaker sank and had to be assisted by the rangers. There are also horror stories of people flipping their kayaks and not able to right them in the strong waves. Traveling with a VHF radio is highly recommended as well as experience paddling in the open ocean. Also, make sure you let someone (ranger or fellow camper) know where you are going and when you plan to return. We lucked out and had a family who traveled over on a dingy offer to tow us back. We eagerly took them up on the offer.
#8) Snorkel Little Africa and the Windjammer Wreck
While you are visiting Loggerhead Key plan on snorkeling the reef on the west side of the island known as Little Africa. It is an especially beautiful area with giant corral heads, tropical fish, and crustaceans that call these places home. Even just looking at the shallow water from above the waves transfixes your gaze as you take in the beauty of the shallow turquoise sea. On a typical day, you will have this paradise all to yourself as few make the journey.
If, however, you are looking for even more adventure, head just a little further southwest off the tip of Loggerhead Key to a shipwreck teeming with life. The Windjammer refers to a class of ships that had three large sailing masts and a long hull about the length of a football field according to the Parks Service. The actual name for this wrecked vessel was the Avanti. It sank here in 1907 and lies in less than 20 feet of water. Out of nearly 300 known wrecks in the Dry Tortugas, the Windjammer is thought to be the best-preserved. The water is so clear during the summer that it is easily snorkeled but it is also a favorite for divers. The GPS coordinates of the wreck are 24 37.461 N, -82 56.564 W.
#9) Search for Sea Turtles and Nurse Sharks
The Dry Tortugas are literally named for the sea turtles that inhabit the archipelago. Loggerheads, hawksbill, and green sea turtles all call the Dry Tortugas home. While the turtles can be found swimming through the reefs all year round the best time to spot them is when they come to lay their eggs between May and October. They do this at night and nearly all the islands and beaches are off-limits during this period. During this time you can see a greater abundance of turtles around the islands. The water also tends to be calmer during these months making it easier to spot the ancient creatures.
Like the sea turtles, nurse sharks are more easily found throughout the summer. They mate in the early summer and then the baby sharks ply the relatively safe waters until October. While the nursery near Long Key is a protected zone that visitors are not allowed to enter, you can find a larger abundance of nurse sharks exploring the waters closer to Garden Key. Keep in mind they are nocturnal hunters so if you really want to catch a glimpse of them come prepared for night snorkeling.
Visiting Dry Tortugas
With a storied history, crystal clear waters, dark skies, and an abundance of wildlife in the air and water, a visit to Dry Tortugas National Park should be on everyone’s itinerary when traveling in the Florida Keys. However, getting to the small archipelago isn’t easy and takes a lot of planning. A simple day trip needs to be planned months in advance. If you really want to experience all 9 reasons for visiting Dry Tortugas then you will need to plan to camp on Garden Key. To be one of the lucky few who get to experience this wonder at night you will need to book nearly a year in advance. Don’t worry. We’ve got all the details you need to plan your journey to Dry Tortugas National Park in our Planning Guide.