Due to the park’s remote location 70 miles west of Key West in the Gulf of Mexico, experiencing Dry Tortugas National Park in one day certainly seems more challenging than other parks. However, visiting the park’s main island, Garden Key, can be easily accomplished with some simple advance planning. In this post, we go over everything you need to know when exploring the Dry Tortugas. From transportation options, to what to pack, to where you should go once you arrive, even fun places to visit before or after your visit in the Florida Keys. With our help, you too can plan an essential one-day itinerary, and make the most of your visit to Dry Tortugas National Park.
A one day visit to Dry Tortugas National Park begins in Key West. Whether you are taking the ferry to the park, or arriving via seaplane, both forms of transportation leave from Key West. If you road trip to Key West, like us, you’ll likely want to make a stop or two along the 2.5-hour drive along Highway 1. While the Keys have no shortage of roadside stops, mostly kitschy tourist attractions, they also have a number of great Florida State Parks. A few good options include John Pennekamp Coral Reef, Long Key, Curry Hammock and Bahia Honda State Parks. We chose to stop at Bahia Honda State Park because it broke up the travel distance nicely.
Bahia Honda State Park
Bahia Honda State Park is one of Florida’s more popular state parks. It has large, public beaches and fascinating history. Running directly through the now state park, the Florida East Coast Railway connected the Florida peninsula to Key West. While the railway’s Bahia Honda Bridge was destroyed by a hurricane in 1935, portions of the old bridge are accessible to park visitors, providing you with a panoramic view of the Bahia Honda Key. We planned to swim during our visit. But due to an abundance of seaweed on the beach, we opted for a picnic lunch followed by a hike.
Much of the park’s foliage was damaged in 2018’s Hurricane Irma. The famous palm trees that once shaded the bayside beaches have all been stripped on their fronds. Nevertheless, the park was stunning and the views from the bridge cannot be beaten. Definitely worth the stop if you are road tripping to Key West.
Exploring the Town
After driving over 1500 miles, it was only fitting that our first stop commemorates reaching the Southernmost Point of the Continental US. The line for this quintessential Key West Photo op can get quite long. Thankfully, on the day we visited the wait was less than 15 minutes. Nevertheless, Joe and Emily were not amused to wait in 90° heat for a photo next to a buoy.
To appease the kids, our next stop was for some key lime pie.
Followed by a little souvenir shopping. Because every kid needs an overpriced seashell, right?
Since we were getting up early the next day for our trip to Dry Tortugas, we opted for an early dinner at the Half Shell Raw Bar. The food, drinks and key lime pie did not disappoint. Best of all, the Half Shell Raw Bar was incredibly kid-friendly.
After driving all of the way to Key West, we had to make a trip to the beach. But while Key West is known for many things, we wouldn’t say that beaches are one of them. In fact, the city only has 4 public beaches. The longest and most popular of which is Smathers Beach. Lucky for us, this picturesque beach was just across the street from our hotel. So after our early dinner, we headed straight for the surf.
Smathers Beach is a manmade beach, created with fine white sand brought from the Bahamas. The beach is lined with beautiful coconut palms, which provide a nice amount of shade. And there is plenty of space for kids to play. Moreover, it is exceptionally clean, so we felt comfortable letting the baby crawl around.
Since our hotel was a short walk from the beach we did not utilize the facilities. However, restrooms and showers are available free of charge. As well as free parking.
Dry Tortugas National Park
Yankee Freedom III Ferry
Dry Tortugas National Park is comprised of a small group of islands at the end of the Florida Keys, approximately 70 miles west of Key West. Due to its remote location, the park is only accessible by private boat, charter boat, seaplane service, or the park’s official daily transportation service, the Yankee Freedom III ferry. Most visitors, our family included, opt for the latter option due to convince and cost. While the Yankee Freedom III website has an excellent FAQ page that answers pretty much answers any question one might have, we have added a few additional tips for the ferry ride to Dry Tortugas.
Passengers board the Yankee Freedom III in order of ticket pick-up at the ferry terminal. We arrived shortly before the 7:30 am boarding time, whereas most people arrived much earlier. Thus, we boarded the ferry after some 200 other passengers. If you are concerned about where you will sit on the boat, we recommend picking up your tickets early. This ensures an earlier boarding time. That said, we had no trouble finding two tables for our family of 7.
Use Your America the Beautiful Pass
If you are a National Parks annual pass holder you can have the Dry Tortugas entrance fee ($15 per person) deducted from your ferry ticket price. However, you MUST present your pass when you pick-up your tickets. Sadly, we left our pass in our parked car and we were out $75.
Don’t Worry About Bring Meals
Your ferry ticket includes two meals: breakfast and lunch. Breakfast is served immediately after boarding and lunch is served while the boat is docked at the park. With a hundreds of passengers on board, the line for the buffet-style meals can get very long, but rest assured that they provide plenty of food.
Bring Travel Games & Activities
The boat ride to the Dry Tortugas takes approximately 2-2.5 hours. Exploring the catamaran ferry takes approximately 10 minutes at best. Therefore, we highly recommend packing travel games or activities…coloring books, games, books, anything to keep your kids occupied.
Go Swimming & Snorkeling
Upon arriving at Garden Key in the Dry Tortugas, you basically have two options: head for the beach or visit the fort. During our visit, most people seemed to choose the latter. Likely because of the ranger-led tour that began shortly after we arrived.
We, on the other hand, headed directly to the beach. There are two main beaches on Garden Key: one on the south and another on the north side of the island. We chose the southern beach because it appeared to have more trees and hence more shade. While we were correct, be forewarned, the trees are fairly shrub-like and provided filtered shade at best. Thankfully, we also packed a small beach tent which not only provided additional shade but a place for us to quickly change in and out of swimsuits.
While the little kids played in the sand, the older boys and I walked along Fort Jefferson’s moat wall. The water is so clear that you’re able to see quite a few fish and coral from above.
But, without a doubt, the best way to view Garden Key’s marine life is snorkeling. Using the complimentary fins, snorkels and masks provided by the ferry, we snorkeled off of the beach and around the Fort’s moat wall where we saw tropical fish, conch, urchins and plenty of coral! When we emerged from the water, we found the beach to be nearly three times as busy as when were first arrived. It seems as though everyone who has visited Fort Jefferson first, was now looking for the last remaining bit of shade. So if you don’t mind taking a pass on the ranger program, our best advice is to visit the beach and snorkel first!
Explore Fort Jefferson
After snorkeling, the boys and I spent the remainder of our time on Garden Key exploring Fort Jefferson. Covering 16 acres of the island, this massive fortress is the largest all-masonry fort in North & South America, containing over 16 million bricks!
We skipped the ranger-led tour of Fort Jefferson in favor of claiming our spot on the beach. Thus, we relied on placards for information regarding different aspects of the fort’s history and design. You can read more about both here and here. Of the places we visited within the fort, the boys particularly liked the moat, the spiral staircases, and artillery on the roof. Indeed, walking along Fort Jefferson’s roof provides unrivalled views of the fort, Garden Key and surrounding keys.
Honestly, we did not allocate enough time for exploration of Fort Jefferson. The fortress and the islands that comprise the Dry Tortugas have an incredibly rich history. The 4-5 hours afforded by a day trip to Garden Key is simply not enough time to thoroughly explore the fort and island. If we return, which we would very much like to do, we will consider camping overnight. Camping on Garden Key is a highly memorable experience that provides so much additional time for exploring this very unique park.
More of Key West
A Quick, Casual & Tasty Spot for Seafood
After the 2.5 hour boat ride back to Key West, we were all starved. But with five tired (& a few cranky) kids, we weren’t exactly in the mood to wait for a table at a restaurant. Thankfully, we happened upon the Eaton Street Seafood Market & Restaurant just a short walk from port. They serve all of our seafood favorites: lobster rolls, crab cakes, stone crab, and of course Key West shrimp. We had the shrimp tacos, which didn’t disappoint. Best of all, the restaurant is counter service. You seat yourself at table outside, which is perfect when you are feeding five kids.
You Can Never Have Enough Key Lime Pie
After dinner, Luke took the girls back to the hotel, while the boys and I went in search of more pie. First stop was Kermit’s Key West Lime Shoppe, followed by the Key Lime Pie Co. Both were excellent, but the latter won our vote for the best key lime pie because they had”extra tart” pie, which the boys loved.
Mallory Square Fun
We ended our night with a trip to Mallory Square to watch the street performers. But we found ourselves watching Matthew, who was pulled into one of their acts. I’m not going to lie, it did make me a little nervous. Especially when the gentleman had him toss juggling pins doused in lighter fluid while he rode a unicycle. I was ready to snatch my son at a moment’s notice, hence the lack of any photos. But Matthew thought it was great fun and all of the boys left with a fond memory from Key West.
Regardless of your mode of transportation, or whether you are visiting for the day or camping overnight, a trip to the Dry Tortugas is no walk in the park. Visiting this national park involves many hours of travel via boat or seaplane. This can be tiring for just about anyone, but if you are visiting with kids it will most likely be one exhausting day. We suggest getting plenty of sleep the night before your visit.
The park offers minimal services and facilities. There are no restaurants on the island. The Yankee Freedom III provides a complimentary lunch while docked on the island. However, you might consider bringing your own snacks. The park operates a small gift shop within Fort Jefferson. But again, the offerings are minimal. Thus, we recommend packing any items that you might need for a day at the beach. These will include sunscreen, swimsuits, towels, hats, and jackets during colder months. The key is to pack the necessities, but little more as you will be carrying it with you for the duration of the day.
Timing is Everything
If you are visiting with children, we urge you to be aware of timing. First and foremost, there is only one road to Key West, US Route 1. This highway can get very congested depending on the time of day and the day of the week. Plan on traveling on US 1 during low-traffic times. Also, check for road closures. We learned this the hard way. When we missed the closure notification for the 7 Mile Bridge Run we had to wait over 90 minutes on US 1 for the race to finish. Second, restaurants in Key West can get very busy during peak dining times. If you are traveling with kids, we suggest dining at off-hours to avoid long waits.
Eat Lots of Pie!
If you travel all of the way to Key West, you might as well eat lots of Key Lime Pie. We ate pie daily. In fact, I ate this pie when waiting on US 1 for the bridge run to finish.
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