Dry Tortugas National Park -Things To Do List Dry Tortugas National Park -Things To Do List

History of Dry Tortugas National Park – Things to Do

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Dry Tortugas National Park History

Escape to the pristine beauty of Dry Tortugas National Park, a hidden gem in the Gulf of Mexico. Explore the historic Fort Jefferson, snorkel in azure waters teeming with marine life, and bask in the serenity of secluded beaches. Discover the perfect blend of history and nature in this remote paradise. Plan your unforgettable adventure to Dry Tortugas National Park today.

Discovery and Naming of the Dry Tortugas Nation Park

Transport yourself to the captivating islands of the Dry Tortugas, a place steeped in rich history and natural beauty. Discovered by Juan Ponce de León in 1513, the archipelago earned its name due to the abundance of sea turtles found there. These islands, devoid of fresh surface water, hold the distinction of being the second oldest European placename in the United States. The Dry Tortugas are a collection of 7 small coral islands in the Gulf of Mexico, located roughly 70 miles west of Key West Florida.

Maritime History and the Tale of HMS Tyger

The Dry Tortugas are a treasure trove of maritime history, boasting a high concentration of shipwrecks dating from the 17th century to the present. One notable wreck is that of HMS Tyger in 1742, where the stranded crew lived on Garden Key for 56 days and even engaged in a battle with a Spanish sloop before eventually sailing to Jamaica.

Strategic Importance and Lighthouse Construction

Recognizing the strategic importance of the islands, the United States acquired Florida from Spain in 1819 and began construction of a lighthouse on Garden Key in 1825. Later, a more powerful lighthouse was built on Loggerhead Key in 1856. The Dry Tortugas also attracted the attention of renowned naturalists and explorers, such as John James Audubon in 1832 and Louis Agassiz in 1858. In more recent times, the area has become a site of significant archaeological discoveries. In 1989, a shipwreck believed to be part of the 1622 Spanish treasure fleet was explored, yielding a vast array of cultural artifacts.

Mel Fisher’s Historic Discovery and Archaeological Riches

The most famous discovery in the area was made by Mel Fisher and his company, who located the wreck of the Nuestra Señora de Atocha in 1985. The estimated $450 million cache recovered from the wreck, known as “The Atocha Motherlode,” included gold and silver coins, emeralds, and other precious artifacts. Additionally, remains of other nearby shipwrecks, such as the Santa Margarita and the Henrietta Marie, were also found.

Story of Fort Jefferson

dry tortugas national park

A Monument of Bricks and History

Fort Jefferson, a colossal yet unfinished coastal fortress, stands as the largest masonry structure in the Western Hemisphere, boasting an astounding construction of over 16 million bricks. Its planning commenced shortly after American acquisition, with construction commencing in 1847. By 1860, the fort was half complete and remained under Union control throughout the Civil War.

From Prison to Research Hub

Subsequently, it served as a prison until its abandonment in 1874. Notable prisoners held within its walls included Dr. Samuel Mudd, renowned for treating John Wilkes Booth after the assassination of President Lincoln, and Englishman George St. Leger Grenfell, a leader of the “Chicago Conspiracy.” The fort’s history also included a naval base, coaling and wireless stations, and a seaplane base during World War I. Additionally, from 1903 to 1939, the Carnegie Institution of Washington operated the Marine Biology Laboratory on Loggerhead Key, which became a prestigious hub for tropical marine research.

History of The Dry Tortugas National Park

lighthouse in fort jefferson dry tortugas

Establishment and Purpose

Fort Jefferson National Monument, now known as Dry Tortugas National Park, was established in 1935 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to protect the island and marine ecosystems of the Dry Tortugas. The park also aims to preserve Fort Jefferson, a historic fort, and submerged cultural resources like shipwrecks. Managed by the staff of Everglades National Park, Dry Tortugas offers regulated public access to its natural and historical wonders.

Key West’s Unique Response during the Government Shutdown

During the 1995-1996 federal government shutdown, Dry Tortugas, like other national parks, was closed. Concerned about the negative impact on their tourism-dependent economy, the residents of Key West, Florida, raised funds to keep the park open. Inspired by the Smithsonian Institution’s efforts to keep its museums open during the shutdown, Key West residents, under the Conch Republic micronation, sent a flotilla of boats to Fort Jefferson to reopen the park. However, officials attempted to enter the fort and were cited. The resulting case, The United States of America v. Peter Anderson, was dropped the following year.

Challenges and Humanitarian Concerns at Dry Tortugas

Dry Tortugas also faces challenges as a landing location for Cuban immigrants arriving in homebuilt boats called “chugs“. With limited resources and several hours away from the nearest Coast Guard or Border Patrol units, the park struggles to receive and house these migrants. Communication with Key West is done through a satellite-based voice-over-IP system and a radio relay system using an abandoned Air Force tower.

Despite these challenges, Dry Tortugas National Park continues to be a unique and significant destination, offering visitors a glimpse into the natural and historical wonders of the Dry Tortugas.

Things to Do in Dry Tortugas Nation Park

Dry Tortugas National Park offers a unique blend of natural beauty, historical significance, and recreational opportunities. Here’s a list of things to do when visiting Dry Tortugas National Park.

  1. Explore Fort Jefferson:
    • Wander through the massive and historic Fort Jefferson, the largest masonry structure in the Western Hemisphere.
    • Join a ranger-led tour to learn about the fort’s history, architecture, and its role during the Civil War.
  2. Snorkel in Crystal Clear Waters:
    • Dive into the vibrant coral reefs and crystal-clear waters surrounding the islands.
    • Snorkel to discover a diverse range of marine life, including colorful fish, corals, and other underwater wonders.
  3. Birdwatching:
    • Bring binoculars and explore the diverse birdlife on the islands.
    • Keep an eye out for various species, including seabirds, migratory birds, and shorebirds.
  4. Take a Boat or Seaplane Tour:
    • Enjoy a boat or seaplane tour to experience the breathtaking views of the islands from the water or air.
    • Capture the beauty of the archipelago and its surroundings.
  5. Kayaking and Paddleboarding:
    • Rent a kayak or paddleboard to explore the calm waters around the islands.
    • Paddle through mangrove forests or along the shoreline for a serene experience.
  6. Beach Relaxation:
    • Unwind on the pristine beaches of Dry Tortugas.
    • Enjoy the sun, soft sand, and the soothing sound of the waves.
  7. Camping Under the Stars:
    • Camp on Garden Key for a unique overnight experience.
    • Enjoy stargazing in the dark skies, far from light pollution.
    • The campground is a self-service fee area with a nightly fee of:
    • $15 per night, per individual site
    • $30 per night for the LARGE group site
  8. Participate in Ranger Programs:
    • Join ranger-led programs and talks to deepen your understanding of the park’s natural and historical features.
    • Learn about the wildlife, ecosystems, and ongoing conservation efforts.
  9. Photography:
    • Capture the stunning landscapes, wildlife, and historic structures with your camera.
    • The unique scenery provides ample opportunities for photography enthusiasts.
  10. Fishing:
    • Bring your fishing gear and try your luck in the waters around Dry Tortugas.
    • Be aware of fishing regulations and guidelines to protect the marine environment.
  11. Enjoy a Picnic:
    • Pack a picnic and relax at one of the designated areas.
    • Take in the scenic surroundings while enjoying a meal in the great outdoors.
  12. Learn about Maritime History:
    • Explore the maritime history of the area, including shipwrecks and the Spanish treasure fleet.
    • Visit the park’s museum to delve deeper into the historical context.

Book Your Trips:

dry tortugas seaplanes

Seaplane Adventures: Seaplane Tours to Dry Tortugas & Fort Jefferson
Morning, Afternoon or Full Day Tours.

Half-Day Excursion: This trip is just under 4 hours long, providing at least 2 1/2 hours of island time at Fort Jefferson/Dry Tortugas. Travel time is approximately 40 minutes each way. Departs morning & afternoon.

Adults: $451.00 Children 12 & under: $360.80 Children Under 2 : Free

Full-Day Excursion: This trip is just under 8 hours long, providing at least 6 1/2 hours of island time at Fort Jefferson/Dry Tortugas. Travel time is approximately 40 minutes each way. Departs morning only. (The Full Day is more expensive than the Half Day because we hold a morning & an afternoon seat).

Adults: $792.00 Children 12 & under: $633.60 Children Under 2 : Free

Yankee Ferry: Key West Ferry to The Dry Tortugas Nation Park. Complimentary Snorkeling is included.

Day Trips Start From 200$
Camping Trips Start From 220$
Camping Trips with Kayak 240$


  • Large, fully air-conditioned main cabin
  • Comfortable seats, three large restrooms and fresh water rinse showers
  • A full galley where you can purchase snacks, drinks and souvenirs
  • Upper deck open to the sea-air and sights and sounds of marine life
  • Spacious shaded and un-shaded sundeck seating
    Included with trip:
  • Breakfast snack and box lunch
  • Complimentary snorkeling equipment
  • Entrance fee to Dry Tortugas National Park and Fort Jefferson
  • Fully narrated 45-minute tour of the fort
  • Beach walking, snorkeling, swimming, or just relaxing in the sun

Most Asked Questions:

1) How to get to Dry Tortugas National Park?: By boat, seaplane or ferry.

2) What’s the Park Hours: The Dry Tortugas is open 24 hours, 7 days a week. This includes holidays.

3) Can you spend the night on Dry Tortugas?: Private boaters are able to stay overnight on their vessels while anchored in designated areas.

4) How much does it cost to go to the Dry Tortugas National Park?: The entrance fee for Dry Tortugas National Park is $15.00 per person and is good for 7 consecutive days. Any person under 16 years of age is exempt from paying an entrance fee.

5) Are there restaurants on Dry Tortugas?: There are no restaurants at the Dry Tortugas.

6) What is the cheapest way to go to the Dry Tortugas?:  Yankee Freedom Ferry provides the cheapest and best way of seeing Dry Tortugas National Park. 

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