Visiting Dry Tortugas National Park
Dry Tortugas is one of the United States’ most interesting national parks, featuring a historic fort, excellent snorkeling and bird watching, and even a group of shipwrecks to explore. However, it’s also one of the least visited parks. That’s because this park, located 70 miles off the coast of Key West, is only accessible by plane or boat. If you’re willing to take the trip, however, Dry Tortugas is well worth a visit and makes a fantastic day trip from Key West. As a side-trip you can visit Everglades National Park which is 130 miles away.
History of Dry Tortugas National Park
The Dry Tortugas National Park is made up of 7 small islands about 70 miles west of Key West and 183 miles from Miami where you can rent an RV. Europeans first came to the islands in the 16th century, when Ponce de Leon named the islands “Tortugas” after the many sea turtles he caught there. Travelers to the Americas have left a number of shipwrecks around the islands, which are still visible to snorkelers and divers today. In the 19th century, the United States saw the Dry Tortugas islands as a strategic point from which to defend the Gulf of Mexico. They began building Fort Jefferson, a massive brick fortification, in 1846, but construction was delayed by the Civil War. The fort was never completed, but even in its partial state, it is the largest brick masonry building in the Western Hemisphere. Visitors to the island can tour the fort and enjoy its expansive views over the ocean.
What to Do on Dry Tortugas
In addition to touring the fort, the main attraction on Dry Tortugas is snorkeling. Bring or rent snorkel or scuba equipment, and explore the coral reefs around the islands. Visitors frequently see turtles, fish, and aquatic plants. There are also shipwrecks you can safely explore close to the shore, or other shipwrecks you can explore with scuba gear. The National Park is also home to almost 300 species of birds, making it a favorite spot for bird watchers. Most of these birds are transients, migrating through the area, so the best time to see them is April through May.
Camping on Dry Tortugas
There are no hotels or luxury accommodation on Dry Tortugas, and most visitors come just for the day. However, there is a group of small campsites. The facilities are simple: picnic tables, charcoal grills, and composting toilets. There are no showers, electricity, or Wi-Fi. If you’re looking for a primitive spot to get away from everything, this can be a lovely camping site. If you’re visiting Dry Tortugas National Park by RV, you’ll need to choose an RV park in the Key West area and then travel to the islands.
Getting to Dry Tortugas
Most people travel to Dry Tortugas via ferry from Key West. The ferry provides breakfast and lunch, but you may want to pack any additional snacks and water you need – don’t expect to find any restaurants on the island itself. The ferry trip leaves about four hours to explore the island, which should be enough time to check out the fort, walk around some of the beach, and do some snorkeling. You can also choose to take a sea plane out to the park, but this will cost more. The ferry books up weeks in advance, so make sure to plan your trip ahead of time. Visiting the island is weather-dependent, so as your visit approaches, keep an eye on the forecast.