How To Plan The Perfect Day Trip To Dry Tortugas National Park

We are full-time RVers who have been traveling North America full-time since 2021 to visit as many National Parks and beautiful places in nature as possible.

A stunning group of islands in the Gulf of Mexico off of Key West, Dry Tortugas National Park was one of the most special parks we have visited and is definitely at the top of our list of the best parks in the U.S.!

With its remote nature and jaw-dropping views, this is a park you definitely don’t want to miss!

Here is everything you need to know about planning your perfect day trip to the Dry Tortugas, including how to get there, how much it costs, and what to do once you arrive:

About The Dry Tortugas

The brown national park sign in front of the large brick structure of Fort Jefferson in Dry Tortugas National Park

When we decided to RV in the Florida Keys, we knew we wanted to cross the three Florida National Parks off our bucket list!

So we spent 2 weeks camping in Everglades National Park, visited Biscayne National Park, and made our way down the Keys to take the ferry to Dry Tortugas National Park!


The park is located 70 miles from Key West in the Gulf Of Mexico and is made up of a small groups of 7 coral islands.

So far removed from land, the only way to access the park is by boat or seaplane!

This makes the park feel completely different than most other National Parks that might come to mind and creates a much more laid-back environment with only a limited amount of visitors allowed each day.

Best Time To Visit

The best time to visit Dry Tortugas for calm waters is summer.

Being an island in the Gulf of Mexico, weather at Dry Tortugas National Park can be a bit predictable and change quickly.

As fair-weather RVers, we found ourselves visiting the Florida Keys in the winter months (November-January) to avoid the cold winter weather covering much of the rest of the country.

While winter months bring warm and pleasant weather in the Keys, this is also the strong wind and rough seas season in the waters around Florida.

Winter months are still a popular time to visit the Dry Tortugas (and we had a perfect trip in December), but you will have to be prepared for the chance of high winds and rough seas (which could potentially cancel your trip).

Summer will have calmer waters, but the weather can be quite warm. Honestly, any time you choose to visit the park will be a good time if you can get lucky with the weather!

No matter when you visit, we highly recommend booking at least a couple of months in advance. This is a popular destination throughout the year!

What is the cheapest way to get to the Dry Tortugas?

Two yellow kayaks, a white seaplane, and the white Dry Tortugas Ferry arriving at the bright blue waters and sandy beaches of the Dry Tortugas

The cheapest way to get to the Dry Tortugas is by taking the Yankee Freedom Ferry from Key West.

There are 3 ways to arrive at Dry Tortugas National Park:

By Ferry

The white Yankee Freedom Dry Tortugas National Park ferry boat in the water seen through an opening in the bricks of Fort Jefferson

The Yankee Freedom is a National Park concessioner that offers a boat ride between Key West and the Dry Tortugas. This is a 2.5-hour ferry ride each way. Trips leave from the Key West Ferry Terminal at 8 am and arrive back in Key West around 5:30 pm.

Dry Tortugas Ferry Cost

The ferry to the Dry Tortugas is not cheap by any means, but it will be cheaper than booking a seaplane to get to the island.

  • $210 per person ($195 per person if you have a National Parks Pass).
    • Price includes: Breakfast and lunch, complimentary snorkel equipment, a boat ride to and from Key West, a narrated tour of Fort Jefferson

If you are willing to pay a bit more, you can take an epic seaplane ride to the park!

By Seaplane

A white seaplane with blue and red stripes parked on a beach with bright blue waters in Dry Tortugas National Park

Key West Seaplane Adventures offers morning, afternoon, or full-day tours to Dry Tortugas National Park. Travel time is cut down from 2.5 hours to just 40 minutes.

Dry Tortugas Seaplane Cost

  • Prices range from $450-$792/adult for half and full-day tours.

By Private boat

You can also arrive at Dry Tortugas on your own boat. You will need to receive permits from the NPS to dock at Dry Tortugas National Park, but if you have the means visiting here with your own boat can give you much more flexibility to explore all of the islands here!

Dry Tortugas Day Trip Things To Do

Super clear and bright aqua blue waters meeting a pristine sand beach just outside the brick walls of Fort Jefferson at Dry Tortugas National Park

Dry Tortugas National Park is made up of 7 islands, but there are 3 main keys to see and explore while visiting:

  • Garden Key: This is where the ferry to Dry Tortugas will dock, where Fort Jefferson is located, and where you will find the swimming beaches and snorkeling areas
  • Busch Key: Directly adjacent to Garden Key, this is the premier spot for tropical bird watching, but it is closed seasonally for nesting (February to September). Sometimes this key is accessible by land bridge, and other times it is only accessible by kayak or canoe
  • Loggerhead Key: The largest of the 7 islands, this key is the site of several shipwrecks and has a lighthouse on it. Located 3 miles from Garden Key, you can only get here by private boat or with a canoe or kayak that you have arranged to bring on the ferry with you.

During your day trip to Dry Tortugas, you will only have about 4.5 hours to explore the park. And trust us, this time goes by way too quickly!

In our experience, this time went super fast and we highly recommend having a good game plan of what you want to do on the island so that you don’t waste any time upon arrival.

These are the best things to do with your day trip to the Dry Tortugas:

Snorkeling & Swimming

A long strip of white sandy beach with crystal clear blue waters gently coming up to shore and the brick structure of Fort Jefferson out in the distance
South Swim Beach was our favorite spot on the island

With only 1% of Dry Tortugas National Park being dry land, the best way to experience this park is in the water.

Our main reason for visiting the park was to get the chance to snorkel in the bright blue waters and see the marine life living in this section of the third-largest reef system in the world.

The National Park states, “due to the remote location, and easterly flowing gulf current just south of the park, you are sure to discover a much greater abundance of marine life and often much larger versions than anywhere else in the Florida Keys.”

Don’t miss the chance to get into the water at this unique park!

A couple giving thumbs up while snorkeling in the bright blue waters of the Dry Tortugas

To avoid stirrup that can happen with increased activity along the beach and afternoon winds, we highly recommend making snorkeling your first experience in the park.

Just be sure not to forget your reef-safe sunscreen… Zach paid for that mistake with a lobster red back for about a week 😅

The best spots for snorkeling will be around the dock ruins and the moat and you can see great marine life from either North Swim or South Swim beach (we checked them both out).

Map courtesy of the NPS

After snorkeling while camping at Bahia Honda State Park, out at Looe Key, at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, and at Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park, we can confidently say that we saw the largest number of fish and the most diversity while snorkeling in the Dry Tortugas.

Our favorite encounter was coming face-to-face with a Goliath Grouper 😲. If you are lucky, you can also spot one of the 5 species of sea turtles that can be found in the park!

We spent about 2 hours total snorkeling and swimming.

Snorkeling Safety Tips:

  • Never snorkel alone
  • Don’t touch any coral, fish, or artifacts (you can harm them and yourself)
  • Be alert for dangerous animals, including fire coral, jellyfish, sea urchins, or the exotic venomous lionfish (there will be signs about this around the ferry)

Tour Fort Jefferson

A couple standing on the edge of the upper level of Fort Jefferson, a large brick fort located in Dry Tortugas National Park with bright blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico out behind

As you approach Dry Tortugas National Park (whether by sea or by air), you won’t be able to miss the large brick hexagonal fort that takes up most of Garden Key.

Fort Jefferson covers 16 acres and was constructed with over 16 million bricks and is the largest brick masonry structure in the Americas.

A black cannon sitting on the top level of a brick fort with fort walls and a black lighthouse out in the distance behind the cannon

The fort served as a strategic military outpost during the 19th century, playing a crucial role in protecting U.S. interests in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean.

It was also used as a military prison and even housed 4 civilian prisoners who had been convicted of conspiracy to assassinate Abraham Lincoln.

After drying off from our snorkeling adventure we headed to the fort to wander around the mesmerizing arches, warily peered over the edge of the top of the fort where the cannons sit, and strolled along the outer moat.

Be very careful when exploring the top of the fort, there are no guides or railings up there!

A seemingly unending hallway of rounded brick archways through the corridors of Fort Jefferson in Dry Tortugas National Park

You can take a self-guided tour or join a narrated tour with a guide offered through the ferry service in conjunction with the park (they offer a short version and a long version).

We spent about 1.5 hours touring Fort Jefferson and the surrounding grounds on our own.

Relax on the beach

The waters surrounding the Dry Tortugas look like something out of a movie.

Sparkling and blue, washing up to some of the brightest and pure white coral beaches you will ever lay your eyes on.

There are 2 main beaches on Garden Key where you can relax, swim, and snorkel:

  • North Swim Beach
  • South Swim Beach
Bright blue waters surrounding a small strip of sandy beach on the north side of Garden Key at Dry Tortugas National Park
North Swim Beach

We found South Swim Beach to be quieter, more protected, and less rocky, than North Swim Beach during our visit in December.

Both of the main beaches make for the perfect place to relax in the sun, enjoy a picnic lunch, and enjoy the epic blue water views all around.

Wildlife Viewing & Bird Watching

Large pelicans sitting on rusty metal pylons of an old pier coming out of the bright blue waters surrounding Dry Tortugas National Park

The islands of the Dry Tortugas are a popular layover for birds moving between the United States and South America.

We highly recommend bringing a pair of binoculars and a camera with a telephoto lens in order to snap some pictures of the island wildlife.

Birds you can find at the park include:

  • Sooty Tern
  • Brown Noddy
  • Black Noddy
  • Magnificent Frigatebird
  • Masked booby
  • Gulls
  • Pelicans

Dry Tortugas Camping

Bright blue waters surrounding a brick moat wall guarding the outside edge of a brick fort at Dry Tortugas National Park in Florida

If there was one thing we would change about our day trip to Dry Tortugas, it is that we only went for the day!

Camping at Dry Tortugas National Park would be an amazing adventure to enjoy the park almost completely to yourself, complete with dreamy sunsets and dazzling night skies.

Reservations are not accepted for the 8 individual camping sites. All campers, once they arrive, will be guaranteed a place to camp (there are overflow camping areas available if needed).

Secured a reservation for the ferry to Dry Tortugas? This provides you the opportunity to camp on an island paradise 70 miles away from civilization!

Campsites include:

  • Picnic Tables
  • Elevated grills for charcoal fires
  • Hooks to keep items above the ground

If you want to camp at Dry Tortugas National Park, you must arrive by ferry or private boat, as seaplanes are unable to carry the extra weight of camping gear.

Camping Cost (the campground is a self-service fee area and can only be paid with cash or check upon arrival):

  • $15 per night, per individual site
  • $30 per night for the group site


Book your ferry: The Yankee Freedom 

Or book a seaplane ride: Key West Seaplane Adventures

Book a local place to stay in Key West using or VRBO

Or reserve your camping stay at one of the great Florida Keys State Parks or RV Parks

Plan a day of fun in Key West before or after your day trip to the Dry Tortugas! There is so much to do in Key West and you definitely don’t want to miss the southernmost point, the wharf, Duval Street or the sunset celebration at Mallory Square!

What to pack:

  • Bathing suit
  • Towel
  • Sunscreen, hat, sunglasses
  • Water & snacks
  • Waterproof phone case or underwater camera
  • Camera
  • Binoculars
  • Dry clothes for the boat ride back

What facilities do the Dry Tortugas have?

Dry Tortugas National Park is remote and has very few services. If you take the ferry over you will have access to food and drink and bathrooms, but you should expect to be fairly self-reliant on this trip!

  • Small Visitor Center on Garden Key with souvenirs
  • No cell phone coverage
  • No public phones, Wifi, food, or water
  • No bathrooms (composting toilets available for campers overnight only
    • you can use the bathrooms on the ferry at any point throughout the day
  • No fuel for boats
  • No trashcans or trash disposal (you must carry out ALL trash with you when you leave the island)

We also highly recommend visiting these other great East Coast Destinations:

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