Getting Lost in the Dry Tortugas

Fort Jefferson, the southernmost US Naval Fort, sits in crystal clear blue Caribbean waters off the southwest coast of Florida.

“Tortuga, Jack?” – Mr. Gibbs
“Yes, general rule: it’s never not a good idea to sail to Tortuga.” – Captain Jack Sparrow

While the Tortuga mentioned by Captain Jack Sparrow and these Tortugas are undoubtedly different, it’s a fitting quote for this southern gem. It took my family and I about 5 years to make it to Fort Jefferson, but we finally went. When you’re at Fort Jefferson, you are truly isolated and it is gorgeous. I am so glad I had the chance to see this historic landmark in person; photos truly do not do it justice. Thinking about taking a trip to our southernmost National Park? Read on for some of my take-aways from the trip.

Fort Jefferson is an island in the middle of beautify blue ocean.

Fort Jefferson at Dry Tortugas National Park is a gorgeous piece of our tumultuous naval history. First designed to be the biggest and baddest of all the Union Forts, Fort Jefferson ran into problem after problem after problem. From building a faulty rain catchment system to malaria outbreaks and prison escapes, construction was neither quick nor easy. While rich in history, the Dry Tortugas are poor in resources. Outside of fantastic views and unlimited seafood, there isn’t much to work with. Rain is the only source of fresh drinking water and the weather is consistent with what you would expect of hot, subtropical islands. Add to that the common Union uniform of the times, a wool suit with long sleeves and pants, and you’ve got yourself a pretty uncomfortable situation.

Map of south Florida and the Caribbean, illustrating the remote location of Dry Tortugas National Park

Getting to Fort Jefferson requires a little bit of pre-planning because it is located 70 miles west of Key West, FL; it is not an easy place to venture! Most people travel to the National Park via high-speed ferries operated by a vendor contracted by the National Park Service for $170 per adult but you can also take a personal vessel or a sea plane charter. You’ll want to arrive in Key West the night before because you need to check in for the ferry at 7:00AM for a 7:30 departure. I recommend checking the major events happening in Key West prior to scheduling your adventure … or else you may accidentally book your family trip the final weekend of Fantasy Fest. It was a life experience for sure, but wow. That’s all I have to say about that.

For the modern visitor, the ferry quickly transports you to the island and includes breakfast, lunch, bathrooms, drinking water, and snorkeling equipment because you still can’t get any of those items on the island. The National Park Service has done a fabulous job at preserving Fort Jefferson’s remote nature. If you’re a visitor, keep this in mind and enjoy the solitude. There is no cell service, no concession operators, extremely little electricity (reserved for park staff only), and no wi-fi. Enjoy it.

A young women sits on the deck of a boat, enjoying a margarita.Things to know:

  1. The ferry ride is 2.5 – 3 hours long in good weather and you’ll spend approximately 4 hours on the island.
  2. Bring your own non-drowsy motion-sickness medicine and start taking it at least 24 hours in advance. Trust me on that one…
  3. Bring and wear plenty of sunscreen. While you’re at it, bring a hat and sunglasses as well.
  4. Trips are not cancelled for poor weather. Plan accordingly and go in good spirits. It rains in Florida, life goes on.
  5. It is illegal to fish or spear-fish in National Park waters. Don’t do it.

Unlike most of our National Parks, you really can see most of the Fort in the two – three hours you’ll have on the island. However, if you want to snorkel or explore the islands other natural attractions you may want to stay overnight. Primitive camping is permitted on the Dry Tortugas but as mentioned previously, you must bring everything with you. This includes water, firewood or cooking supplies, and food. While there are some fire rings and primitive restrooms, read: semi-permanent porta-johns, the rest of the experience is completely primitive. 

A tour guide shows off Fort Jefferson's imposing brick walls.Personally, I can’t wait to return for a two-night camping excursion. Visiting for a few hours provided just enough history and scenery to make a primitive camping trip on a National Park island sound perfect to me. If you are interested in seeing some unique Americana, a gorgeous island, and the Florida Keys then I highly recommend taking the ferry out to Dry Tortugas National park for the day.

If you’re the adventurous type – go camping and let me know how it is. I would love to hear what you thought of the experience!

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