America’s National Park system is full of awe and wonder. Jaw-dropping views seem to exist everywhere you look, and there’s always something to learn and do. Thanks to our Every Kid In A Park Pass, we’ve been hooked on discovering and exploring these national treasures with the kids, and we have no intention of slowing down.
While parks like Yellowstone or Rocky Mountain get much of the attention, parks like Virgin Islands and Cuyahoga Valley are equally magnificent, only lesser known and smaller.
Some parks like Dry Tortugas are downright obscure and hard to get to. Their remoteness makes them more difficult to visit, and people often overlook them or put off visiting until they have seen some of the bigger, more famous siblings first.
This is precisely why you should visit Dry Tortugas National Park with kids!
A large part of the adventure with this park is in the journey to get here, and we promise, you won’t be disappointed.
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Dry Tortugas National Park is a remote park located 70 miles west of Key West, Florida. It consists of 100 square miles of mostly open water and seven islands. Its most striking feature is the mighty Fort Jefferson – the largest brick structure in the America’s.
Start your adventure in Key West
Key West, Florida will be your starting point to get to Dry Tortugas, so why not take some time to explore it for a few days? We had a great time during our visit, so be sure to check out all the kid-friendly fun in our post - Things To Do in Key West with Kids - More Than Just Pie!
How to get to Dry Tortugas National Park
Your choices for getting here are boat or seaplane – both out of Key West. The ferry Yankee Freedom III leaves in the morning and arrives at the park roughly 2 hours later. Seaplanes leave from Key West airport and take passengers on half-day and full-day excursions to the park.
Dry Tortugas Seaplane with Key West Seaplane Adventures
We didn’t take the ferry (because we waited too long to book tickets during a holiday weekend), but we can assure you, it isn’t as awesome as the seaplane. Book it! It will cost more, but you will get more time in the park and spend much less time transiting back and forth. The trip by plane is 40 minutes, as opposed to the 2 hours for the ferry, seriously cutting down on transit time back and forth.
And the views…
You won’t believe the views as you fly past old shipwrecks, reefs, underwater sand dunes, and emerald water so clear you may spot a shark or stingray, or even a sea turtle out the window. Even for nervous flyers, the seaplane is the way to go. It flies at a low altitude and is a smooth ride.
Schedule: Planes operate every day for half and full day excursions. Flights leave in the morning and afternoon. Check their site here for information on what to bring and what’s included in the trip. Trips are 40 minutes each way.
How to book: Bookings can be made via email or over the phone. Click here for details.
Dry Tortugas National Park Ferry
The Yankee Freedom III operates out of Key West Harbor and is an official concessioner of the National Park Service, meaning they operate on behalf of the park. Their catamaran takes 175 people per day to the park and back, and because of the length of the trip, there is only one ferry per day. One-way trip time is about 2 hours.
The ferry is air-conditioned and outfitted with bathrooms, a galley with snacks, and cushioned seats to make the trip comfortable. A lunch buffet is included with the ticket as well as a 45-minute guided tour when you arrive.
This is the only Dry Tortugas National Park ferry, but arriving by privately chartered boat is also an option.
Schedule: The Dry Tortugas Ferry operates once per day and space is limited. Click here for information about day trips.
How to book: Bookings can be made online here.
What to see in Dry Tortugas National Park
Exploring Fort Jefferson
The dominating feature of Dry Tortugas (besides the jewel-like water) is Fort Jefferson. Built with over 16 million bricks, it towers above all else. It’s one of the largest 19th-century forts, covering 16 acres, and is the largest brick masonry building in the America’s.
Fort Jefferson resides on Garden Key, the park’s second-largest island. Garden Key is also home to the park’s visitor center, headquarters, camping, snorkeling, and other activities.
Once you arrive, head to the visitor center for a map and to get your park passport stamped, and then head out to explore.
You’ll marvel at the incredible brickwork and the massiveness of the entire building. Be sure to head up to the top level to check out the cannons and take in the breathtaking views from around the fort.
Swimming and snorkeling at Dry Tortugas
Once you’ve explored the fort, you’ll likely be ready for a dip in the water – it can get blazing hot out there and shade is hard to come by. Fortunately, Dry Tortugas snorkeling is some of the best anywhere. Snorkeling gear is included with your seaplane trip, so use one of the bathrooms to change into your swim gear and head to one of the beaches on Garden Key.
There are several places to snorkel, but an easy one for kids and parents is along the moat wall. Here you can see all kinds of aquatic life and the protected area makes it easy do. For families with older kids, snorkeling around the Historic Coaling Pier Pilings would be a fun way to spend some time.
Don’t forget plenty of sunscreen!
Sun Bum is our favorite. It works great, has a nice scent, and is hypoallergenic and paraben free. Most importantly, it’s made with reef-safe ingredients which is now more important that ever – especially if you’re going to be snorkeling around coral.
The water surrounding nearly the entire fort is open for swimming and snorkeling, so take advantage. With only 1% of this National Park on land, getting in the water is the best way to explore it!
Other Kid-Friendly activities at Dry Tortugas National Park
Because of the remoteness of the park, visitors are often limited on time by the ferry or seaplane schedules. However, you can camp at the park if you’d like, and you can make arrangements to bring gear including watercraft and paddling equipment to the park with you. Although it was hot, we did see a few tents in the park while we were there. For a more comfortable visit, wait until winter when the temps are lower.
If you’re interested in more than just a half-day in the park, be sure to check out these other activities.
Explore Loggerhead Key and Windjammer Shipwerck
Planning a trip to Dry Tortugas National Park
Weather: Dry Tortugas weather shifts depending on winter and summer. Winter runs from November to April and is typically windy with rough seas. This makes snorkeling more challenging and less clear, but temperatures are cooler and there are less people visiting the park.
Summer runs from May through October and receives higher temperatures and very little wind. It also encompasses the Atlantic hurricane season, so be aware of that as you plan your trip.
Transit: The cheapest way to get to Dry Tortugas is the ferry. Seaplane is another option, and private boat charter is a third.
Things to bring: The sun here is intense so sunscreen is a must. Hats and sunglasses will keep the sun off your face, and be sure to bring swim suits for changing into. Public restrooms are available for changing.
Dry Tortugas Park Fees: Entrance to the park is $15. However, park fees are included in the price of your ferry ticket.
Ready to Find YOUR Park?
Because of its remoteness, Dry Tortugas is not a frugal park to visit, and that’s a definite drawback for families. We think it’s also an asset, however. It creates a sense of adventure, stirs some excitement inside, and once you see those incredible views, you’ll forget about what you paid for those tickets to get there.
The tropical climate and desert-island setting makes this an easy win for families looking for an exciting side trip that the kids will be talking about for a long time. Next time you’re in Key West, set aside a day to visit this park. You’ll be glad you did!
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