With its breathtaking ocean views, vast night sky, and incredible array of marine life, Dry Tortugas National Park camping offers an experience like no other. If you’re thinking about spending the night at this remote treasure, you’ve come to the right place!
What to Expect When Camping at Dry Tortugas National Park
Imagine spending your days swimming in warm, pristine waters off sandy beaches, exploring the world’s third-largest coral reef system, and learning about the rich history of a unique architectural site.
Nearly seventy miles from Key West, Dry Tortugas is America’s most remote national park. Camping at Dry Tortugas is primitive, transportation limited, and an overnight trip requires careful planning. But rest assured your efforts will be rewarded by the spectacular beauty and tranquility of this magical place!
Where to Camp
There is only one overnight campground available for Dry Tortugas National Park camping. Located not far from the ferry landing, eight campsites accommodate up to three tents and six people each. Each site is partially shaded by trees and includes a picnic table and a grill for charcoal fires.
Although there is no reservation system for the individual sites, the Park Service limits the number of campers arriving on the ferry each day, and there is ample room at an overflow campground should a regular site be unavailable. Remember that private boaters may stay overnight as well, so you should be prepared to be flexible about site availability.
There is no running water, but composting toilets with toilet paper are available at the campsite. Be sure to bring hand sanitizer or sanitizing wipes.
Individual Campsite Cost: $15 per night for individual campsites. Camping fees are paid directly to the Rangers, so be sure to arrive with enough cash for your fee.
Group Campsite Cost: $30 per night. This site can be reserved and accommodates from 12-20 people. Individual campers are allowed to use the group site as an overflow area provided it has not been reserved.
Getting to Dry Tortugas National Park
Because of its remote location, Dry Tortugas National Park is only accessible by boat or seaplane. The seaplane cannot accommodate camping gear, so your best bet for transportation is the Yankee Freedom Ferry, which departs each day from Key West for the 2.5 hour journey to Garden Key.
Each camper is allowed 60 pounds of gear on the ferry, not including water. The ferry fee includes breakfast and a packed lunch to take with you on arrival. The boat also has rinsing showers, modern toilets, and beverage service.
You can bring your own kayak or small canoe on the Yankee Freedom for an additional fee. This can be a great way to fish and explore the waters around Garden Key. Kayak rentals are available in Key West if you don’t have your own.
Ferry Fare: $210 per adult and $155 per child between the ages of 4 and 16.
Due to high demand and limits on visitors, you’ll want to make reservations as far ahead of time as you can (6 to 12 months in advance, if possible).
What to Bring and Know
There are no concessions or amenities available while camping at Dry Tortugas National Park, so you’ll have to bring everything you need with you. Luckily, the campground is just a short walk from the ferry and the park provides convenient rolling carts for you to transport your gear to your site.
Food and Water
When Juan Ponce de León visited the archipelago in 1513, he named the area “dry” because of its lack of fresh water, and visitors still need to bring their own hydration. The Park Service recommends two gallons per person per day, with an extra day’s supply in case of ferry cancellation. There is no limit to the amount of water and ice you can bring on the ferry.
If you plan to cook, you’ll need to bring match-light charcoal, as liquid fuels are not allowed on the ferry.
The ferry service provides a great list of recommended camping supplies, along with tips on how to pack for the boat. Some things you definitely want to bring are:
- A hard-sided food storage container. (There are critters on the island that will invite themselves to your food if they can get to it).
- A portable charger (there is no cell service, or WiFi anywhere near the park, and no electrical outlets).
- Cash to pay the camping fee.
- A headlamp and extra batteries.
- Plenty of (reef-safe) sunscreen and a brimmed hat.
- A tent (the Park Service requires all campers to use tents).
Pets are not allowed on the Yankee Freedom ferry. If you come by private boat or charter, remember that dogs need to be on a leash at all times.
Although Fort Jefferson is only wheelchair-accessible on its first floor, the National Park Service is committed to making Garden Key as accessible as possible for disabled persons. The Yankee Freedom has a wheelchair lift at its Key West dock as well as a ramp at the park dock, and staff is available for assistance. Service animals are allowed in national parks provided they meet certain criteria.
The Weather and When to Visit
During its “coldest” months (December through March), the average low temperature on Garden Key is about 67° F (about 19° Celsius). However, strong breezes can cause a wind-chill effect that makes it seem a bit colder, so some light layers are recommended. The water is usually rougher in the winter as well.
Summer is not just hot, but humid, with heat indexes well over 100°F. You’ll want to bring light clothing and plenty of sun protection.
The spring migration season is the best time of year for bird-watching.
The best time of year for Dry Tortugas National Park camping really depends on your interests and availability; there is no bad time to visit!
Things to Do
Dry Tortugas National Park includes some of the most beautiful coral reefs in the US. Tropical fish are abundant and the snorkeling areas are easily accessed from soft, sandy beaches.
A special treat for adventurous people camping at Dry Tortugas with an underwater light is night snorkeling along Fort Jefferson’s moat wall. You will see marine life not visible during the day, including the octopus, coral shrimp, and basket starfish.
The Yankee Freedom Ferry will provide you with snorkeling gear for the duration of your stay if you don’t have your own.
Of its 47,000 acres, only 1% of Dry Tortugas National Park is dry land, so the best way to enjoy your Dry Tortugas National Park camping trip is to get in the water! Garden Key has a number of swim areas featuring soft sand beaches from which to enjoy swimming and snorkeling.
At least 300 species have been spotted at this world-class birding destination, and the spring migration season is a spectacular opportunity for birders. The park also contains the only nesting areas in the entire continental US for some species, and a Sooty Tern rookery can be observed from Fort Jefferson during nesting season.
The waters surrounding Garden Key contain a vast array of species, including Snapper, Permit, Grouper, Bonefish, and Jacks. Fishing is allowed in many areas. Keep in mind that a Florida saltwater fishing license is required.
Paddling your own boat is a great way to venture out beyond Garden Key while camping at Dry Tortugas. Fish from your kayak within the designated areas, or adventure out to Loggerhead Key and enjoy its beautiful beach, lighthouse, and secluded snorkeling.
Touring The Park
The park’s most visible feature is Fort Jefferson, which is the largest brick masonry structure in the Americas. Essentially a massive gun platform, the fort was a protective post for American ships patrolling the Gulf of Mexico.
One of the benefits of visiting a national park is having ready access to ranger-guided tours, and Dry Tortugas National Park has a wide variety of programs to choose from. Park Rangers are ready to show you the rich and fascinating history of Fort Jefferson, take you on ecological walks along the moat, and help you explore the night sky. Be sure to check in with a Ranger when you arrive to take advantage of all of the great options!
What Are People Saying?
The Dry Tortugas National Park camping experience gets rave reviews. Here’s what some visitors have said:
“The real fun begins when the Yankee Freedom with all the tourists leaves at 3:00 pm… that’s when the island gets truly beautiful… when it’s quiet.” Angel B., Miami, FL.
“One of those once-in-a-lifetime visits that you have to do if you make it down to Key West.” -Paul N. Honolulu, HI
Once you are on the island, you will be completely stunned by its beauty. It is so peaceful and quiet with beautiful views from all around. –Alay P. Los Angeles, CA
Final Thoughts about Dry Tortugas National Park Camping
Dry Tortugas National Park camping is a unique and unforgettable experience. Start planning now and prepare for the adventure of a lifetime!
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