Camping at Dry Tortugas National Park off the Florida Keys takes some time, money and effort, but, wow, does it pay off.
The challenges: There’s a two-and-a-half-hour ferry ride. It costs $195 each. You must bring everything, including your own water .
The payoff: Not much compares with wandering the Civil War-era Fort Jefferson in the late afternoon when you can be absolutely alone with the history and the ghosts. Or looking up at night at the black night sky to see the Milky Way – stars I last saw as a child. Or seeing the sunset from a beach where there is no chance of a crowd or manmade noise. Or watching 20 magnificent frigatebirds soar overhead with their 7-foot wingspans.
The Dry Tortugas, 70 miles west of Key West, can only be reached by ferry or seaplane, making it perhaps the hardest to reach of all national parks. Unless you camp, the ferry or seaplane give you only a few hours on the island to tour the historic fort and snorkel in its dazzling clear Caribbean waters.
We’re not avid campers — as my story will demonstrate– but I wanted more time to experience that sand speck in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico. I wanted to see if the poem was right: “If once you have slept on an Island, You’ll never be quite the same.” (See full poem at the end.)
We found our experience on the Dry Tortugas to be as memorable as we had hoped.
After wandering the moody and evocative Fort Jefferson alone in the late afternoon after the ferry had left, we went back the next day for the daily guided tour.
The fort, built with 16 million imported bricks from 1846 to 1876, was used primarily as a prison during the Civil War, when its most famous resident was Dr. Samuel Mudd, who was convicted of conspiracy in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.
The island that now houses a few dozen a night was then a city of 1,500. Today the fort is huge, falling apart and has one of the world’s best collections of Civil War cannons. And that’s just the start of what makes it fascinating.
The other remarkable element of the Dry Tortugas is the natural environment. Located far from land and its runoff, the water is aquarium clear with a profusion of coral and sea life visible right from the beach. The snorkeling was phenomenal. Overhead, dozens of magnificent frigatebirds (that’s their name AND their apt description) soar in elegant circles. During our October visit, migrating peregrine falcons swooped and dove around us and there were flocks of ruddy terns along the shore.
Few places combine such natural beauty and historic significance. Here’s a previous story about the Dry Tortugas from Florida Rambler with some good background.
Getting to the Dry Tortugas
Unless you have your own boat, campers have only once choice: the Yankee Freedom ferry, which leaves from the Key West Seaport. Adult campers pay $180 round-trip. Reservations are limited for campers because there are only 11 campsites on the island, so you must reserve early. Camping is limited to three days if you arrive via the ferry.
Campers must load all their gear onto the ferry before it fuels in the morning, which means: Be there at 6:30 a.m.
The two-and-a-half hour ferry ride starts with views of Key West and neighboring islands and then continues over open water that can get choppy. We traveled on a windy day and I was concerned about seasickness. I took all the advice: A Dramamine before leaving and I stationed myself on deck staring at the horizon the whole way. Happily, I had not a moment of queasiness. (I saw only one or two greenish people coming or going. The ship, at 100 feet long and 60 feet wide, is quite stable.)
The ferry leaves around 8 a.m. and arrives on the island around 10:30 a.m. It departs again at 2:30 p.m. While at the Dry Tortugas, you need to pay to park your car at the nearby Key West city parking garage.
Packing to camp on the Dry Tortugas
Camping here is a test of packing skills. You must bring everything, but you also have to keep your belongings condensed in tote bags or bins and you must be able to load it on and off of the ferry yourself.
Most campsites have some shade, so I would not bother with an additional shade structure unless you are going with a group that would share it. Each site provides a picnic table and grill.
Camp sites are divvied up on a first-come basis, so it makes sense to get off the boat and claim your preferred site quickly. (Those who stay more than one night have the option of upgrading their site when departing campers pack up for the day.) Bring $3 per person exact change for the camping fee.
There is no fresh water or ice, so freeze everything you can in your cooler, including some of your water. (I made black-bean chili and froze it. Worked well.)
Coming by ferry, you are provided with one lunch on board (deli type sandwiches) and you can designate which day it will be. I recommend you save it until your last day, when you’ve used up most of your supplies. (Also, since you have to check out of your campsite before the ferry arrives, it’s easier to eat on the boat after you packed your gear.)
Camp stoves and lighter fluid are not allowed. You are limited to self-lighting charcoal or Sterno. This is the situation that left my husband and I feeling like characters in “The Stupids Go Camping.”
I bought a fresh bag of Publix self-igniting charcoal and an ample supply of matchbooks and wooden kitchen matches.
What more could you need?
Well, let me tell you: If there’s a steady 20-mile-per-hour wind, you cannot light that charcoal with a match. I didn’t count the matches, but I estimate we tried 300 times, using them all up. Figuring we’d just eat our chili cold, my husband and I took wine to the beach to watch the sunset.
Afterwards, I went to other campsites and discovered adept campers with actual fires. I asked if I might acquire two hot coals and the friendly souls took pity. Even with their butane campfire lighter, those “self igniting” Publix briquettes refused to ignite. Thankfully, our fellow campers also brought Sterno, which they slathered on our coals with a stick. This, finally, started our campfire.
Lesson for you: Buy high quality self-igniting charcoal, don’t rely on matches alone and bring a can of Sterno as a backup.
We fared far better with packing water. We brought enough for our one-night stay, but departing campers often donate their surplus to those arriving. As a result, we had enough fresh water to luxuriously douse ourselves to wash off the salt water. (Also note: The ferry allows you to shower off on the boat on your return trip.)
Other camping logistics:
Snorkel gear can be provided to campers by the Yankee Freedom, or you may bring your own.
Carts are available at Fort Jefferson’s dockhouse for transporting your gear to the campground.
“Don’t miss” experiences and tips on the Dry Tortugas
- Take some bread and feed the fish off the dock during the day. Shine your flashlight into the water from the dock at night. (This is a good way to attract small fish that attract sharks and bigger fish.)
- You are warned there will be rats. We saw none, although it is still wise to hang your food from the provided post. What you will see and hear are hordes of hermit crabs that scuttle out to eat whatever drops to the ground.
- Watch your step inside the fort, particularly if you bring kids. The second level was never finished, and there are no walls or railings to keep you from stumbling over the edge.
- Go to the top level of the fort and hang out. You won’t need me to tell you that this is a view worth savoring. The color of the water is so intense it looks Photoshopped.
- Do not miss the snorkeling, especially along the pilings that are the ruins of the coal docks. The Yankee Freedom distributes a map marking the best snorkeling, and it’s good advice. If you like snorkeling, try as many of those locations as you can. We thought we’d seen it all and then the sea life around the coal docks surpassed it.
- If you are camping during winter, you’ll want a light wet suit as sea temperatures dip to 69 or 70.
- If you have a Florida saltwater fishing license, bring your gear. Other campers caught their dinner that way.
- Don’t miss the second floor room above Fort Jefferson’s sallyport (the entrance.) Oddly, it is not marked, but it is the room that housed Dr. Samuel Mudd. In the floor, there is a small, excavated trench that he and other prisoners made to drain water so that they could sleep on a dry floor. His story, which you will learn at the fort, is fascinating.
- Look for the stalactites and stalagmites formed inside the fort as water dripped through the bricks over the last 150 years.
- Birders love springs on the Dry Tortugas, which are an important stopover point along the flyway between North America and South America for migratory birds. Each year some 100,000 sooty terns gather on Bush Key, an adjoining island to which access is limited in spring and summer because of these nests. Spring visitors include a great variety of songbirds. Peak months are April and May. In the fall, migrating raptors make a stop – thus our peregrine falcons.
- The island was named Tortuga – Spanish for turtle – by explorer Ponce de Leon. The name “Dry” was added by later mariners to note there was no source of fresh water. The waters around the islands are filled with shipwrecks dating back to the 1600s.
Kayaking on the Dry Tortugas
You can pay Yankee Freedom $20 to transport a kayak if you arrange ahead. Only three kayaks are allowed on the ferry per trip. The kayak can be no longer than 15.5 feet. It must be an ocean-going kayak and it is recommended that you have a handheld marine radio. Kayaking here is for experienced paddlers, as most destinations are over open water. Loggerhead Key has great beaches and snorkeling, but it takes several hours to paddle the three miles to it. Here are details on kayaking from the park service.
Renting kayaks: A friendly guy named Marty Stonely has rented kayaks for transport on the Yankee Freedom for years and arranges to drop them off and retrieve them. (Call Marty at 305-741-1934.) He rents the largest kayaks the ferry will carry, includes marine radios and makes sure kayakers understand all the safety essentials. He also suggests where to kayak, depending on wind conditions. He will rent only double kayaks (for safety reasons) or a single along with a double. His rates are $135 for a tandem for two days and $175 for three days. Singles start at $125 for two days.
And finally, one of my favorite childhood poems:
If Once You Have Slept On An Island
If once you have slept on an Island,
You’ll never be quite the same;
You may look as you looked
And go by the same old name
You may hustle about in street and shop
You may sit at home and sew,
But you’ll see blue water and wheeling gulls
Wherever your feet may go,
You may chat with neighbors of this and that
And close to the fire keep,
But you’ll hear ship whistle and lighthouse bell
And tides beat through your sleep,
And you won’t know why and you can’t say how
Such a change upon you came,
But once you have slept on an island
You’ll never be quite the same !
Indeed, many will attest that the magic of staying on the Dry Tortugas has a lasting effect.
Planning your trip to Dry Tortugas
- Yankee Freedom ferry
- Dry Tortugas National Park official site
- Camping at Fort Jefferson (PDF fron park service)
- History of Fort Jefferson from Wikipedia
- Complete bird list from the Tortugas (PDF file.)
- Fishing in Dry Tortugas (PDF)
- Kayaking in Dry Tortugas
- More from Florida Rambler on Dry Tortugas
- Here’s an account of taking the seaplane to the Dry Tortugas. (Warning: You’ll want to book your ticket after reading this.)
- Video: Plan your trip.