A few years ago, my husband and I decided to complete a dream vacation: exploring the Florida Keys by driving along Route 1 from Miami. For many, the trip ends at Mile Marker 0 in Key West. For us, it ended seventy miles west on a small desert island named Garden Key. Garden Key is one of seven coral islands that make up Dry Tortugas National Park, the westernmost islands of the Florida Keys.
That’s right! I said a desert island. It sounds like the start of a thought-provoking question. What one music album could you not live without? Who is the one person you could be stuck with? It is not a place many people expect to be, let alone picture as being part of the United States.
Dry Tortugas National Park is quite unique when compared to other parks in the national park system. The islands are so remote that they are only accessible by seaplane or boat. There is no driving Route 1 to these islands! Of the 100 square miles the park covers, only a small fraction is actually above water. There are very few trees and no fresh water, yet the island waters are teeming with marine life.
Given the park’s location and size, a day at Dry Tortugas can quickly turn into a forgettable day if you do not come prepared. To help maximize your experience and turn your trip into an adventure to remember, here is a checklist to consider:
1. Seaplane or cruise?
The biggest impact to your day will be determining if you would like to take the cruise or seaplane to Dry Tortugas. There are advantages and disadvantages to both. The cruise, which is done through Yankee Freedom Ferry, is a two-hour trip each way. It really does turn your trip into an all-day affair. However, there are wonderful perks. The ferry provides breakfast and lunch. You can purchase other snacks and beverages (including the adult variety) from the snack bar. On the trip out, park rangers give educational lectures and answer questions about the islands and the wildlife you’ll see. The ferries also have restrooms! This is key since there are no public restrooms on Garden Key. While a seaplane doesn’t provide the same amenities as a cruise, it does offer a big plus: It’s quick (30-45 minutes each way), which lets you beat the cruise crowds to the incredible views. However, a ticket on a seaplane isn’t cheap and there are weight limits, which can impact how much you can bring. When we weighed the options, we decided to take the cruise. We enjoyed it and will do again next time we visit.
2. Pack the essentials.
There is nothing worse than showing up to paradise unprepared. Pack a bag the night before with plenty of sunscreen, light snacks, towels and bottles of water (either in a cooler or in bottles that will keep your water cold. My current favorite is the Hydro Flask). Did I mention sunscreen? There is very little shade on the island. So unless you plan to spend all of your time inside the fort, bring plenty of sunscreen. You will be happy you did. The cruise does sell these items on board. You will pay a premium for it though.
Other items to consider bringing if you have them are a foldup shelter or compact umbrella and binoculars. They’re not essential, but could make the trip more pleasant if you plan to stay on the beach all day and bird watch.
3. Grab snorkel gear and an underwater camera bag.
With less than 1 percent of the Dry Tortugas above land, the best way to experience everything the park has to offer is to get in the water. As I mentioned before, this island park is packed with incredible marine life. The highlight of the day for us was watching eels chasing each other around the pylons of the boat docks dating to the 1800s. It was awesome! But you won’t see any of that without snorkel gear. The park service does have gear (mask, snorkel and fins) available when you arrive so there’s no need to rush out to the store to buy everything. We decided to bring our own mask and snorkel and grab the fins there.
Given that most of the wildlife and probably most of your time will be spent in the water, picking up an underwater camera or phone bag is a great item to have. REI sells several different kinds. Just make sure to test it out before your trip to insure that it works with your device. Trust me, when you see the photos of your underwater adventures, you’ll be happy you had it.
4. Put your phone in airplane mode.
One of the best things about Dry Tortugas National Park is its isolation. You are completely disconnected from the world. There are no TVs, no radios. All you can do is relax, have fun and explore paradise. However, this also means that there is no cellphone service. So if you would like to post those awesome beach selfies when you arrive back at Key West, conserve your cell battery while on your trip by putting your phone in airplane mode. You’ll still be able to use it as a camera.
5. Take the tour of Fort Jefferson.
Dry Tortugas National Park offers so much more than just its natural beauty to enjoy. It boasts a rich history that is not to be missed. Fort Jefferson is the largest masonry structure in the western hemisphere. The fort was used as a federally controlled prison camp during the Civil War. Imagine being stuck in paradise as a prisoner of war with no fresh water or food. It was the unfortunate situation many Union deserters and Confederate captives found themselves in. The fort was also used as a refueling station for the American Navy during the Spanish-American War. Park rangers give fabulous guided tours of Fort Jefferson throughout the day covering all of this. The best part is that it’s free. So why not do it?
If you are like my husband and me, a one-day trip to Dry Tortugas is just not enough. There are so many different ways to explore the islands, and how far you take it depends on how adventurous you feel.
Want to spend the day kayaking to the different islands? You can do it! Charter a boat to get yourselves and your kayaks out there and back and spend the day exploring. Kayakers are allowed to visit the nearly empty beaches of the other islands, but make sure to get your permits from the park service first. Only so many people are given permission to visit the other islands each day.
If camping is more your thing, consider spending a night or two on Garden Key. The sunsets are specular and the stargazing will leave you speechless. The preparation is a lot like camping in a place like Yellowstone. It’s just on a beach instead of in the woods. So pack the usual: tent, sleeping bag, food, and tools. There are tables, charcoal grills and composting toilets available in the camping area. The one major rule: you are not allowed to hang anything from the trees. That means no hammocks or portable showers. But honestly, wouldn’t you rather rise off in the crystal clear water anyway?
Bottom line, Dry Tortugas National Park is not to be missed. With a little bit of planning, you can turn a day or overnight trip into an adventure of a lifetime.