Explore Dry Tortugas National Park on a Day Trip from Key West

Dry Tortugas National Park includes Fort Jefferson, once used as a prison.

Dry Tortugas National Park includes Fort Jefferson, once used as a prison.


Above photo: Dry Tortugas National Park includes Fort Jefferson, once used as a prison.

Story and photos by Brad Clement

Brad is a photographer and filmmaker based in Boulder, Colorado.

The remote area in the Gulf of Mexico is a prime spot for snorkeling and diving.

On a recent impromptu road trip to Key West, Florida, I decided to take an excursion to Dry Tortugas National Park. The park is roughly 70 miles offshore from Key West, located in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico, and can only be reached by boat or seaplane. My budget favored the boat option, so I booked a trip through the park’s concessionaire.

The day after making reservations, I rode my Key West rental bike a short distance to the marina and boarded the ship Yankee Freedom III. The ship can accommodate around 180 people and offers air-conditioned rooms; or you can sit outside and feel the wind and water as the boat pushes westward from Key West. Breakfast and lunch are provided (as is a fully stocked bar) and the 2½-hour ride each way went by quickly while I watched dolphins and a sea turtle in the water.

The park itself is nearly 100 square miles in size, with only 104 acres of land spread across seven small islands. About 99% of the park is underwater and home to a piece of the Florida Reef, the world’s third largest coral barrier reef.

Dry Tortugas, one of the most remote national parks in the United States, is known for excellent fishing, diving, snorkeling, birdwatching and kayaking. The park also houses Fort Jefferson on Garden Key. Built before the Civil War in the 1800s, Fort Jefferson is the largest all-masonry fort in the United States. The Yankee Freedom III docks right next to the massive brick fortress, and visitors can explore the fort and learn about its history through self-guided tours. Used as a military prison during the Civil War, Fort Jefferson also held infamous civilian prisoners such as Dr. Samuel Mudd, who assisted John Wilkes Booth after the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.

With a few nice beaches and coral reefs nearby, and complimentary mask, snorkel and fins available, I decided to give snorkeling a try. The park staff warned us that recent storms and high winds had made the typically crystal-clear water a bit murky, but I was able to see fish (including barracudas), turtles and the almost-iridescent coral in the slightly cloudy water.

A few people on my boat ride were geared up to camp under the stars next to Fort Jefferson. After the boat departs for the return to Key West, campers are alone except for the park ranger on duty. Sadly, I didn’t have extra time, a tent or a sleeping bag, so after a few hours on Garden Key, I boarded the ship and set off for the return to Key West.

We arrived at Key West Ferry Terminal just in time for me to reach the famed Sunset Pier to end the day with a fresh seafood dinner and beautiful setting sun.

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