Known for its spectacular coral reefs teeming with aquatic life, Dry Tortugas National Park protects a seven-key (Garden, Loggerhead, Bush, Long, East, Hospital, and Middle) archipelago in the Gulf of Mexico. Nearly 99 percent of the park’s hundred square miles (64,700 acres) are submerged beneath crystalline waters. Stunning coral reefs ring Garden Key, home to Fort Jefferson (an imposing 19th-century military installation), a ferry dock, and the park’s campground and visitors centre. Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León named these low-lying keys Las Tortugas (The Turtles) for the green, hawksbill, leatherback, and loggerhead turtles he encountered here in 1513. During the summer, sea turtles return to the park’s sugar-white beaches to bury their eggs. And between roughly March and September, up to 100,000 sooty terns gather in Dry Tortugas to nest. This is a primitive island park with no running water, food concessions, or restrooms. Use the bathroom facilities on board the ferries docked at Fort Jefferson. Pack in all food and drinks. Pack out all trash and garbage.
Dry Tortugas, established on 26 October 1992, is located about 70 nautical miles west of Key West, Florida. Take the high-speed Dry Tortugas National Park Ferry (about two hours and 15 minutes one-way) or a seaplane (about 40 minutes one-way) from Key West to Fort Jefferson on Garden Key. A charter or personal boat (with permit) is required to visit most areas beyond Garden Key. The park is open year-round. The daily ferry schedule (arriving on Garden Key at about 10:15 a.m. and departing at 3 p.m.) allows for about a four-and-a-half-hour visit. Plan an April or mid-May trip to witness the spring bird migration (more than 200 species may be sighted), or visit in May or June to see the greatest concentration of sea turtles. Winter is warm (temperatures in the 80s), yet it can be windy, with rough seas. Summer is a prime time to visit, but there is always the possibility of a tropical storm during hurricane season (June to November).
Snorkel (rental gear is included with the ferry ticket) in the designated areas around Fort Jefferson to see massive coral heads and colourful reef life, including parrotfish, angelfish, and moray eels. Picnic and sunbathe on a beach. Take a self-guided walking tour or a 45-minute guided tour of Fort Jefferson. Walk along or swim around the fort’s moat wall (no swimming is allowed in the moat) to look for cultural artefacts, such as cement barrels and anchor chains, plus marine life that includes reef squid and nurse sharks. A sandbar land bridge intermittently connects Garden Key to neighbouring Bush Key. If the bridge isn’t submerged and it isn’t tern-nesting season (about February to mid-September), you can walk between the two keys
Tent camping is the only in-park option. There is a ten-site primitive campground on Garden Key (eight individual, one group, and one grassy overflow area). Individual sites and the overflow area are first-come, first-served. A tent is required. Reserve the group site (10 to 40 people). Campers must arrive by ferry (limit ten campers per day each way) or by private boat. Seaplanes cannot transport campers due to the added weight of camping supplies (including water, ice, food, and fuel). Credit: National Geographic Society.