What makes this park special is that it’s comprised of a chain of islands close to 70 miles off the coast of Key West. Sitting in the Gulf of Mexico with nothing but beautiful turquoise water surrounding it lies Fort Jefferson, the largest all-masonry fort in the U.S. This mid-19th century sprawling military fort takes up much of the land area of Garden Key, one of the seven islands of the Dry Tortugas chain.
It’s an intriguing sight when you finally spot the outline of Fort Jefferson off in the distance. I still remember slowly pulling up to the dock at the shores of this impressive landmark and silently marveling at its existence. Seemingly in the middle of nowhere, it piqued my curiosity, and I couldn’t wait to go exploring!
Despite feeling like you're lost in an endless ocean, the park is actually located between the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean Sea, and the Atlantic Ocean. It was an important passageway and navigational marker for early Spanish explorers and later became a strategic shipping channel. The vast reefs lining the islands have also been the site of numerous shipwrecks, leaving behind even more stories and clues.
1. You get to be an explorer for the day
We had no idea what this experience would entail when we decided to book the day trip out of Key West, but that’s part of the fun of it! Adventure is the spirit of wanting to travel to new places and see what’s out there and what it’s like. And that’s exactly what we did!
Surprisingly, the power catamaran ride over to the fort was just as memorable as the destination itself. It was a rough trip out aboard the Yankee Freedom III (the official ferry service for Dry Tortugas). With swells reaching more than 5 feet, our hair was whipping everywhere in the wind, and we were hanging on to the nearest railing! Despite the wild ride, the vessel is recognized worldwide for safety and performance, so you can rest assured that you’re in good hands.
Once there, my partner and I chose to explore the fort on our own so that we could go at our own pace, but if you’re looking for more in-depth information or you’re a big history fan, you can also opt for 45- to 60-minute guided tour.
2. It's one of the best snorkeling destinations in North America
As the website states, “The Dry Tortugas is home to some of the most vibrant coral reefs in the United States, and is a snorkeler’s wonderland.” And it’s not just a top snorkeling destination in the U.S., but in all of North America!
The snorkeling here is like no other, in terms of the amount of sea life, color, and movement you will see underneath the clear waters of the Gulf of Mexico. — Dry Tortugas Info
Unfortunately on the day of our trip, the weather wasn’t on our side. It was quite windy and overcast, meaning the waves stirred up the sand to a degree that made it difficult to see much of anything underwater.
However, it was still nice to swim and float in the warm water, and there are a number of designated beaches around the island that make it easy to do that. Even if you don’t have the best snorkeling conditions, the pristine beaches are reason enough to visit.
3. You have the option to camp on a remote island paradise
I think Dry Tortugas Camping said it best:
Imagine sleeping under the stars, on an island 70 miles from civilization, with the warm tropical breezes blowing through palm trees and the rhythmic sound of the ocean waves playing in the background.
Camping in a remote location like this would no doubt be an experience you’d remember forever, and a bucket list item for adventurers with a high tolerance for being totally without amenities. Travel + Leisure magazine says to “be ready for a totally off-the-grid adventure” if you choose to camp here overnight.
Although we didn’t opt to camp on our first visit, it’s definitely something we’d consider if we make it back to Dry Tortugas someday. One thing is sure, though: no matter how you choose to spend your time while there, it’s a destination that will captivate you from the moment you arrive.
Whether you find the history, the stunning landscape and beaches, the coral reefs, or the marine life most attractive, you’re sure to find something you love about this special place.
Photo: Taken by Author