Dry Tortugas National Park: Camping in the Tropical United States

In Destinations by Sally1 Comment

Key West, Florida gets a reputation as being the “southernmost” or most remote unique place in the United Sates. While Key West is definitely remote, it stakes a claim to those titles only because most people are unaware of Fort Jefferson and Dry Tortugas National Park.

Located about 80 miles west of Key West harbor is a tiny island among a string of keys, and the United States’ most remote and most intriguing national park.

View of the small harbor between Garden Key (where the fort is), and nearby Bird Key- a protected seabird nesting habitat.

View of the small harbor between Garden Key (where the fort is), and nearby Bird Key- a protected seabird nesting habitat.

After two amazing trips to the Dry Tortugas, I am still astounded that most Americans are pretty unaware of its existence. It is simply one of the most fascinating and beautiful places I have ever been, and the most visually un-American.

The actual National Park of the Dry Tortugas is a string of islands, or “keys,” in the Gulf of Mexico. The park gets its name from the abundance of sea turtles, tortugas, that were around the island when they were first discovered by Spanish explorers (we know how that turned out), and dry, for the lack of fresh water. The majority of the park isn’t even terrestrial- but a pristine marine reserve.

Dry Tortugas is accessible predominantly because of 2 things:

Your first view of Fort Jefferson as you arrive at the park.

Your first view of Fort Jefferson as you arrive at the park.

  1. Fort Jefferson. The “largest masonry structure in the Western Hemisphere,” and a fort dating back to the 1800s, established by the United States military when Caribbean pirates were still a threat. Fort Jefferson is a completely walled, pre-industrial era military fort, and sits on top of Garden Key.
    Garden Key contains a dock for incoming ferry and supplies ships, as well as small living quarters for Park Rangers and seasonal researchers.The rest of the island around the fort has been maintained and is walkable and accessible to humans (not the case with many of the keys). The history behind Fort Jefferson is interesting, but is definitely not what brings most people to the park.
  2. The Yankee Freedom ferrying service. Operating 365 days a year (weather permitting), the Yankee Freedom ferries about 250 passengers to and from the park each day. Most passengers are day visitors, but the smart ones come to camp out.

Why The Dry Tortugas is so Amazing

The United States National Park Service is legit. As Americans, we are incredibly lucky to have such a dedicated institution that both creates and protects nature reserves all around the country.

The National Park Service in the Dry Tortugas created a marine reserve around Fort Jefferson and many of the surrounding keys. The marine reserve protects a key breeding ground for the endangered nurse shark, and maintains some of the most pristine coral reef habitats you didn’t even know the United States had.

Above ground at the park, you’ll find a picturesque tropical island- white sandy beaches, crystal clear turquoise waters, tall date palms- but once in the water you’ll find a vibrant reef habitat, teeming with fish, from the enormous to the tiny and colorful.

How to Experience It

Camp
View of the campgrounds from the top of Fort Jefferson. Most sites are nested away among the greenery. You could do a lot worse for a public campsite!

View of the campgrounds from the top of Fort Jefferson. Most sites are nested away among the greenery. You could do a lot worse for a public campsite!

For us everyday folk, the Dry Tortugas is essentially a tiny island. But it’s still a National Park, and so it contains about 15 campsites available for public use. If you make your reservation well in advance, you’ll have no problem getting a campsite, and can plan your awesome vacation from there!

While camping is primitive, if you’re a seasoned backpacker like us, it will seem like luxury. Most campers come over on the Yankee Freedom ferry, which allows you to bring more than enough gear and food to make your stay comfortable.

The downside is that there are no showers on the island. If you take some time to explore the history of the island, you’ll find out that lack of fresh water has always been a problem for residents (note: scurvy), so the residential employees of the park rely on minimal water brought in from the supply ships. Bonus – there are composting toilets available for campers. These are cleaned daily by the park service and are more than enough to get the job done.

Read more about Camping at the Dry Tortugas National Park here.

Snorkel
Clear waters and plenty of sunlight make for great visibility under water- and there is plenty to look at.

Clear waters and plenty of sunlight make for great visibility under water- and there is plenty to look at.

The highlight of any trip to the Dry Tortugas. In addition to the natural reefs in the waters surrounding the islands- coral have spent the past hundred or so years using the remains of the fort’s port infrastructure as their habitat. Some of the best snorkeling in the park can be easily found along the outer walls of the moat and the old pilings on both the north and south sides of the island.

The reefs have both permanent residents, as well as visitors that pass through to feed on algae blooms or visiting schools of fish. From our experience, the south beach and pilings contain smaller (note: adorable) fish, while the north beach pilings are prone to more variety, with both large and exotic species.

Both provide some amazing snorkeling sessions, and if you can’t decide which one to choose, sometimes its best to just pick whichever is getting the most sun at that time of day- warmer water and more visibility.

Read more about Snorkeling the Dry Tortugas here.

Kayak
Exploring some of the park in a 2 person sea kayak really enhances your trip!

Exploring some of the park in a 2 person sea kayak really enhances your trip!

For the really adventurous (because camping in a saltwater environment for days with no shower isn’t adventurous enough!) you can rent a kayak in Key West and bring it along for your trip.

A lot of park visitors bring kayaks to try their hand at fishing, which is permitted in certain areas, but a kayak is great for all around, splishy splashy fun time.

Just kidding. The kayak is so you can spend a day at the even more remote Loggerhead Key, which is about 3 miles away from Fort Jefferson and Garden Key.

The journey will take you about 1 hour to 1 hour and a half one way, but once there, your reward is a pristine, tropical island all to yourself. There are living quarters for sea turtle researchers on the island, but they’re usually not there, so once you set foot on the beach, you really are the only person around.

Loggerhead Key is significantly larger than Garden Key, and its skinny shape means most of the island is a beach. Combined with its size and the fact that it sees virtually no human traffic, the reefs and underwater habitats have more activity.

Read more about Kayaking the Dry Tortugas National Park here.

 

Overall, a trip to the Dry Tortugas National Park is an incredibly rewarding and eye-opening trip for a variety of reasons. For adventure and nature enthusiasts, there’s so many amazing ways to spend your day, and if you just want to relax- hey! you’re already on a tropical island!

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