The Entrance to Fort Jefferson, Dry Tortugas
Dry Tortugas National Park
PO Box 6208
Key West, Florida 33041
Directions: Located 70 miles west of Key West, it can only be reached by boat or seaplane. Our favorite is the Yankee Freedom II ferry which takes 2 hours.
The Inside Florida Scoop:
- A comfortable 2 hour cruise gets you to Dry Tortugas
- Breakfast, lunch, and snorkeling gear are provided on the Yankee Freedom II
- Fort Jefferson is impressive, very photogenic, and huge
- Snorkel right off the beach in a few feet of water
- The water is crystal clear turquoise
- You will see many types of tropical fish, live coral, and other sea life
- Bring sun protection - sunscreen and a sun shirt work well
Dry Tortugas Name and History
The name for the cluster of islands comes from Ponce de Leon who visited in 1513 and was in awe over the abundance of sea turtles. He named this area “Tortugas” which means turtles in Spanish. The most common is the loggerhead sea turtle but you can also see green, hawksbill, and leatherback sea turtles nesting and swimming in the area.
In the 1600’s and 1700’s many pirates made this area home base while waiting to attack ships as they sailed pass.
Dry Tortugas Weather
The park is open year round with it subtropical climate the weather can change quickly. The winter season of December through March tends to be the windiest and have the roughest seas. April and May are very pleasant. June through November is considered hurricane season but you’ll also find the calmest seas while intense storms can come up at any time. During the summer months, it can get extremely humid and hot (drink lots of water, wear plenty of suntan lotion, and cool off in the turquoise waters.)
The Inside Florida team signed up for a full day excursion on the Yankee Freedom II to the Dry Tortugas. It was a fantastic trip aboard the Yankee Freedom with friendly and informative staff, air conditioned sections with table seating, breakfast and lunch buffets, and Captain Rick with his loyal yellow labrador, Salty.
The ferry has a 250 person capacity but Yankee Freedom limits it to 100 people so you don’t feel crowded at all. You can walk around the vessel’s decks, sit on on the upper deck with wide ocean views, and even hang out with Captain Rick during the 2 hour trip.
The naturalist also named Rick answered every question we had about the Dry Tortugas National Park and pointed out interesting facts along the journey. You’ll pass the treasure hunters as they continue to excavate treasure from the Spanish galleons’ Atocha and Santa Margarita that sunk during a hurricane in 1622. The galleons were filled with millions of dollars worth of gold, silver, jewels, and artifacts.
A tropical fish on the reef at Dry Tortugas
As you approach Fort Jefferson on the Yankee Freedom II, you’ll see how massive it is a few miles out. It’s architecture is impressive for a fort its size. The US Military started building Fort Jefferson in 1846 with the goal of protecting the waterways and ships headed for ports to the Gulf coast region.
After 16 million red bricks were laid into this 3 story, 6 sided fort, it was never completed. The development of more modern weapons made the fort obsolete. You’ll can take a 40 minute guided tour when you first arrive to Garden Key, home of Fort Jefferson.
Snorkeling in the Dry Tortugas
After a tour of Fort Jefferson, grab your snorkeling gear (Yankee Freedom provides it if you don’t have your own) and head to the beach. Make sure to also review one of Yankee Freedom’s snorkeling maps of the area.
Living coral reefs are typically 2 to 3 miles offshore from the Keys but at the Dry Tortugas you walk right into the white sandy beach and head to the wall around the moat to see beautiful brain coral, sea fans, schools of tropical fish, queen conchs, and huge sea urchins. It’s one of the most easy and beautiful places to snorkel. The depth is just a few feet to about 15 feet deep along the fort’s outer walls.
More experienced snorkelers can also enjoy the South Coaling Dock Ruins which are old metal pilings from the coal docks.
After snorkeling, head back to the Yankee Freedom for a fresh water shower. It is so refreshing!
The arches of Fort Jefferson, Dry Tortugas Florida
Dry Tortugas Camping
Our friends loved camping at the Dry Tortugas on the island of Garden Key with Fort Jefferson. One of the most amazing experiences is sitting on top of the 3rd floor of Fort Jefferson during sunset (bring a camera!).
It is a primitive campsite so you must bring everything including water. Yankee Freedom provides ferry transport for campers and allows you to bring 60 pounds of gear. You can also bring a kayak or small canoe for an additional charge. There’s only 11 campsites so you need to make reservations early. The ferries head out around 3:00 pm so the island becomes pretty empty which give the campers lots of peace and quiet while exploring and snorkeling.
Fishing is allowed but spearfishing and lobstering is prohibited. The mosquitoes are minimal because there is no still water for them to breed in.
Bird Watching on Dry Tortugas
During the months of February through September, a close by island called Bush Key is closed for nesting Sooty and Noddy Terns. Between March and September more than 100,000 sotty terns nest in the area along with brown pelicans, brown noddies, roseate terns, and double crested cormorants.
Dry Tortugas National Park
The park is open year round. Fort Jefferson is open from sunrise to sunset during daylight hours. Campers and private boaters are able to enjoy the quiet, pristine surroundings early in the mornings and the early evenings at sunset.
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