Dry Tortugas National Park

Location: Florida

Park Tally: 19/59

Orientation: Dry Tortugas is incredibly unique and not what people usually think of when considering America’s national parks. Located 70 miles off the coast of Key West, Florida, the park is a water lover’s oasis. Dry Tortugas is comprised of 99% water and the remaining 1% is made up of seven major islands. Visitors can access the park via organized tours, a personal boat or via sea plane. There aren’t any roads in sight, just 100 square miles of pristine turquoise water.

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Most iconic view: Most visitors come to the park to see historic Fort Jefferson on Garden Key. Secluded on its own 47-acre island, the Fort was built in the mid 1800’s to protect the coastline of the United States. A moat surrounds the entire structure, providing the perfect walkway for visitors to explore the area and take in the magical island views.

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Accessible activity: An easy and fully organized way to explore the park is to take a day-tour from Key West on the Yankee Freedom III. Once arriving at Garden Key, visitors can opt to take a guided or self-guided tour of Fort Jefferson. On the guided tours, naturalists share information about the Fort’s history and the island’s ecosystem.

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Two of the best activities in the park are swimming and snorkeling – I mean look at that water! There are multiple white sand beaches on Garden Key for visitors to relax on or dip their feet in the shallow waters. Snorkeling around the key provides many opportunities to see interesting coral and colorful fish. We were very pleased to hear that the resident crocodile (for 14 years!) had been relocated back to the Everglades the week prior to our visit…

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For the adventurous: Dry Tortugas is a popular park for scuba diving and there are various tour companies offering trips out to the various diving spots. Wilderness camping on Garden Key is another option for those looking to get out of there comfort zone. The island does not have any facilities, water etc. (besides a compositing toilet) and campers must bring all their own supplies. There are limited camping sites and they book out months in advance – so get in early!

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Best photo opportunities: Take a walk around Fort Jefferson’s moat for ample photography opportunities of the colorful waters and white sand beaches. Get creative and explore the inside the Fort for images of the numerous archways and brick designs.

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Quick facts

  • Dry Tortugas was first discovered in 1513 by Juan Ponce de Leon. He named the cluster of keys ‘Las Tortugas’ because of the hundreds of turtles he witnessed. The area was later renamed ‘Dry Tortugas’ due to the lack of fresh water available on the islands.
  • President Roosevelt designated 47,125 acres as Fort Jefferson National Monument in 1935. In 1992 it was re-designated Dry Tortugas National Park.
  • Fort Jefferson was made with more than 16 million bricks, making it America’s largest masonry structure in existence.
  • More than 299 bird species can be found within the park, including numerous rare species like the golden warbler, shiny cowbird, Caribbean short-eared owl, brown pelican and the baby-footed booby.
  • Not surprisingly given the Park’s name, Dry Tortugas is a popular place for sea turtles to nest. Common turtle species found within the park include green turtles, hawksbill turtles, and loggerhead turtles.
  • Snorkeling and diving provide opportunities to view incredible sea life, including groupers, sharks, reef fish, barracudas, wahoos, tarpons, sea fans, sea anemones, sponges, and lobsters.
  • In 2016 the park had 73,661 visitors.

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