Located at the tip of the Flordia Keys is the stunning Dry Tortugas National Park. It preserves seven breathtaking Dry Tortugas Islands. The most notable of these islands is home to the massive Fort Jefferson. These are the westernmost and most isolated of the Florida Keys and are stunning for learning about US military history and diving alike.
The coral reefs of these islands are the least disturbed of Florida Key's reefs and are famous for their abundant sea life and picturesque setting. The park is also home to legends of shipwrecks and sunken treasures and ghostly tails of the Civil War and the legacies of the pirates of the Caribbean.
Updated by Lauren Feather, 24 February, 2022: The Florida Keys are a completely different kind of world compared to the famous Florida coast. Popular with the more intrepid traveler in search of unique, peaceful escapades off the tourist trail, the Keys are a haven offering a serene vacation that entails quiet beaches, pristine marine life, and rich history - and one of the top places for all of that is Dry Tortugas National Park. Thanks to its sublime offerings that make for an extraordinary escape unlike that of the ever-bustling Florida coast, we've added even more reasons as to why this protected national park is worthy of your next adventure - in the hopes that, one day, you'll explore this stunning gem, fall in love with it, and enjoy every second of your trip.
About The Dry Tortugas National Park
While this is one of the stunning of America's National Parks, it's also one of the more difficult to reach. To get to it one needs a boat or a seaplane. It is also one of the least visited national parks welcoming only around 63,000 visitors annually.
- UNSECO Listed: Park Of The 1976 UNESCO Everglades & Dry Tortugas Biosphere Reserve
Today it is a stunning paradise to explore. Some of the activities include exploring Fort Jefferson, snorkeling, birdwatching, camping, scuba diving, fishing, and kayaking. See here for other Florida beaches you have never heard of.
Shipwrecks and Treasure
This has long been the waters of sunken Spanish treasure ships. National Geographic says,
"The Straits of Florida were dotted with Spanish treasure ships sailing between Cuba and Florida—a prime hunting ground of pirates. Later, “wreckers” made a living salvaging and recovering cargo from sunken ships. Wrecking became so profitable (and regulated) that Key West became one of the richest cities, on a per capita basis, during the 19th century."
- Tip: When On A Treasure Hunt With A Treasure Map That One Picked Up One Drunken Night At the Bar, Bring The Scuba Diving Gear
One of the most eye-catching parts of the national park is the massive but unfinished coastal fortress of Fort Jefferson. It is the largest brick masonry structure in all of the Western Hemisphere.
- Number of Bricks: Over 16 Million
- Third Largest American Fort: Fort Monroe And Fort Adams Are Larger
The fort had been built initially to counter piracy in the Caribbean (perhaps Captain Jack Sparrow and the Black Pearl? - Wasn't just the English who were fighting the pirates). To learn about the real-life ship used as the HMS Interceptor in the Pirates of the Caribbean and how to actually tour and sail it, see here.
In the Civil War, the Union occupied the fort to prevent the South from using it. During the war, they worked feverishly to improve the fort's security and defenses.
Some prisoners were brought to the island during the war. These were prisoner soldiers who had been sentenced to hard labor for mutinous conduct and the like. President Lincoln also replaced execution for desertion with imprisonment on these islands for some. By November 1864 there were 583 soldiers and 882 prisoners on the island.
Camping In The Park
Accommodation is extremely limited here, and overnight camping is limited to only 8 campsites at the Garden Key campground. These sites are primitive and just south of Fort Jefferson. The campsites are given out on a first come first served basis and reservations are not possible for the 6 person sites. Despite this, the NPS says, "All campers, once they arrive, will be guaranteed a place to camp."
- Camping: There Are Only 8 Campsites On The Islands
Remember these are primitive campsites so one must bring everything - including freshwater, and food. Additionally, all garbage must be carried out on departure. Facilities include toilets, but there are no showers, electricity, internet, or cell phone service.
- Note: Compressed Gas Canisters Are Not Allowed On The Ferry, Bring Charcoal For Gilling Instead
Explore Dry Tortugas Underwater
Less than one percent of Dry Tortugas National Park is actually dry, which means it's mostly a mystical world of underwater adventure. One of the best ways to explore this sensational national treasure is by getting wet and diving in - and there are a few dive operators who are licensed to take guests to visit its spectacular subsea sites.
Snorkelling in and around the national park is incredible alone, but for those who love a bit more adventure, scuba diving should be a top priority. Some of the popular dive sites are the Bat Caves, the Maze, Dante’s Inferno, Texas Rock, Little Africa, Pulaski Shoals, and Sherwood Forest to name only a few - and what's more, many dive centers even include a visit to Fort Jefferson as part of the day's diving trip.
And if all the usual dive sites' stunning underwater topography, colorful reefs, and abundance of tropical marine species on show aren't enough for divers, then the area's eerie shipwrecks might just do the trick. The waters of the national park are rich in history, and thus home to plentiful ghostly sunken vessels - some that even date back hundreds of years and were once manned by pirates. Many wrecks are accessible for recreational scuba divers, however there are also others that require more experience and higher certification levels, including technical diving licenses.
Of the most renowned diveable wrecks, the Windjammer is undoubtedly one of the most amazing in the area and is very popular with divers. However, one of the very first recorded wrecks in the region was the 117 ton Buen Jesus y Nuestra Senora del Rosario, which sank along with other treasure-laden ships en route back to Spain whilst a Florida hurricane obliterated the area.
Additionally, the region is home to the Araby Maid shipwreck that met its demise in 1868 - which is one of the more recent sinkings. Sadly the wreck was damaged when hurricanes Katrina and Wilma swept through the region in 2005, but it's still possible to explore it and marvel at what wonder there is left of it - although technical scuba diving certifications are required to do so.
Getting To The Park
In addition to bringing one's private boat, or going by seaplane, the main way is by ferry. The ferry company is Yankee Freedom who operates highspeed catamarans.
Costs Include The National Park Entrance Fee in total charges
- Day Trips Adult: $190.00
- Day Trips Child: (4-16) $135.00
- Camping Trips Adult: $210.00
- Child: (4-16) $155.00
- Note: If Camping The Park Service Will Collect A Campsite Free of $15.00 to $30.00 Per Night - Dependant On The Size of the Group
If visiting the Florida Keys then be sure to continue on go all the way to the Dry Tortugas National Park! It is a paradise away from the crowds and deep into the Caribbean. Enjoy the stories of the past and the stunning blue waters of this tropical environment.