Skip to Content

Dry Tortugas Day Trip: How to Make the Most of One Day on Garden Key

An aerial view of a six-sided fort on a small island in the ocean

NPS Photo

Even if you have limited time, there is a lot to pack into a Dry Tortugas day trip. I don’t think I’ve met anyone who doesn’t want to visit Dry Tortugas National Park. Additionally, I don’t think anyone who has been had anything bad to say.

Considering everything Dry Tortugas National Park has to offer, it makes sense. This incredible national park has something for everyone. Are you a nature lover? Dry Tortugas features some of the best snorkeling on earth. Do you enjoy history? You can visit Fort Jefferson and take a tour with a knowledgable guide. Hoping for solitude? You can camp in one of only ten primitive sites on Garden Key. Or, perhaps you’re an avid bird watcher? This park is heaven for you.

The trick to all of this happiness? You just have to get there. Whether you’re lucky enough to camp or have to settle for a day trip to Dry Tortugas National Park, you’re guaranteed to have the trip of a lifetime.

This post was updated on March 30, 2020. This page may contain affiliate links.

Connect with other national park enthusiasts by joining The National Park Travelers Network on Facebook.

How to Get to Dry Tortugas National Park

A woman walking on the moat wall of a brick fortress

This is by far the most difficult aspect of visiting Dry Tortugas. Due to this park’s remote nature, it is only accessible via boat or aircraft. The Yankee Freedom Ferry is the most popular option.

Getting tickets for a Dry Tortugas day trip can be tricky, as reservations are usually made well in advance. When I visited in February 2014, we called a week before and got the final two spots for the week. You should call the office as soon as you know your travel dates.

An even more difficult task includes finding yourself among the lucky few with camping reservations. I wanted to visit Dry Tortugas again in January 2018, this time to camp on Garden Key. I called in September and the dates I had in mind were already full. For my trip in January 2020, I called in November and all of the camping reservations were already full. I called again in December, and we got extremely lucky with two openings. I don’t recommend gambling when it comes to securing dates for camping. Make sure you plan ahead!

Yankee Freedom Ferry Details

A white boat with red writing and trim. The name of the boat is Yankee Freedom III. It's resting at a dock near an ocean beach.

Phone Number: 800-634-0939

Cost: Day trips to Dry Tortugas are $180 per adult. Camping is $200 per adult. This includes the National Park entrance fee. If you show your National Parks America the Beautiful Pass upon arrival, you will receive a refund for the entrance fee ($15 per person). For more rates, click here.

Book Online: click here

Parking: There is a city parking garage located at 300 Grinnell Street, across from the ferry terminal. It costs $32 per day to park here.

Address: The ferry terminal where you will check-in and board the ferry is located at 100 Grinnell Street.

Yankee Freedom Ferry Official Website: click here

Dry Tortugas National Park Official Website: click here

How to Handle Rough Seas

I visited Dry Tortugas for a day trip in 2014, and I almost didn’t. The swells were out-of-this-world, and half the passengers opted for a refund. We were feeling a bit more adventurous and stuck to our plans. This was our only chance to see the island on that particular trip, and we didn’t want to miss out. I took my motion sickness medicine in preparation (typical Riley) and was ready to go. I offered some to my friend, who politely declined and explained he had never experienced motion sickness before and would be fine.

This is the part of the story where the narrator with the extremely low voice chimes in with: “He would not be fine.” Take the medicine, folks. Even if you don’t think you need it. The worst thing that happens is you won’t get sick.

PRO TIP: As I’ve mentioned already, the ocean can rage. This typically means it’s windy onshore as well. Prepare for rain, wind, and chilly nights, particularly if you’re visiting in the winter.

Taking a Day Trip to Dry Tortugas via Seaplane

A sea plane on the shore of a sandy beach

For a Dry Tortugas day trip, you can also take a plane if you’re hoping to avoid the ferry. This is not a viable option for campers, however, as they will not transport camping gear.

As with Yankee Freedom, there is only one authorized tour company for flights to Garden Key.

There are two options for arriving via seaplane: half-day or full-day sightseeing flights. Advance reservations for both are required.

Cost: $356 per adult for a half-day or $625 per adult for a full-day. This does not include the $15 park entrance fee, which you must pay in cash when you check-in (or show your America the Beautiful pass).

Duration: The flight is about 40 minutes each way. On the half-day trip, you can expect about 2.5-hours of island time. On the full day trip, this is extended to 6.5 hours.

Departures: There are half-day trips in the morning and afternoons. For full-day trips, the only option is a morning departure.

Official Website & Bookingclick here

What to Pack for a Dry Tortugas Day Trip

An image of a young sea turtle swimming in the ocean. The text on the image is encouraging you to download a checklist of what to pack for a Dry Tortugas day trip by signing up for e-mail notifications.

A collection of items to pack for a day trip to Dry Tortugas, including snorkeling gear, a hat, reef-safe sunscreen, flashlight, towel, and more.

  • Cash for optional ferry crew gratuities. There is also a small store on the island that sells souvenirs. They do accept credit/debit cards, but their internet can be unreliable.
  • Food: The ferry only provides one breakfast and one lunch. Other than that, you must bring your own meals and snacks.
  • Water: There is no potable water available on the island.
  • Camera
  • Snorkeling gear: You can bring your own or rent in Key West. The ferry also provides gear, and rentals are included with your ticket. You may keep the gear overnight if you’re camping.
  • Swimsuit
  • Extra dry clothes to change into
  • Towel
  • Comfortable footwear: Consider tennis shoes or hiking boots and a pair of sandals or flip-flops.
  • Binoculars
  • Passport book for collecting your national park stamps.
  • Rain gear: Consider an umbrellarain jacket, and rain pants. Thankfully, thunderstorms are unlikely at Dry Tortugas.
  • A light jacket: It can be chilly in the evenings. You should also prepare for windy conditions.
  • Sun protection: sunscreensunglasseshat
  • Hand sanitizer: There are no sinks in the bathrooms on Garden Key, but they do have sanitizer dispensers. I like to play it safe and bring a small travel-size one with me as well.
  • Insect repellant: Mosquitoes are rare, but there may be other insects about and you should be prepared.

How to Spend One Day in Dry Tortugas

Overlooking the Fort Jefferson courtyard from the roof.

There is certainly plenty to do here at Dry Tortugas in one day. There’s plenty to do here for weeks! The activities may seem similar, however, each day brings something brand new. Who knows which birds will fly over today versus land here tomorrow? Which sea creatures will we see while we snorkel? The possibilities are endless. Don’t forget to search for crocodiles!

Activities include: Tour of Fort Jefferson by the Yankee Freedom staff, swimming, snorkeling, diving, boating, fishing, wildlife viewing, kayaking, beachcombing, and more!

There are also other islands protected nearby as part of Dry Tortugas National Park. However, the ferry will not take you there, so visiting them is even more difficult. If you’re able to bring your own canoe or kayak to head out there, I’m sure it would be worth it! Just make sure to alert the ferry crew well in advance.

Fort Jefferson

The front of Fort Jefferson, a large brick fortress. There is a bridge leading to the entrance over the water-filled moat and a sign welcoming visitors.

We began our day trip with a guided tour of Fort Jefferson. This was worth the time. We learned fascinating facts, including that the Fort features more than 2,000 archways. These areas were some of my favorites to photograph. Additionally, we discovered that despite its construction lasting nearly thirty years from 1846-1875, it was never completed.

The tour will take at least two hours, however, if you’d rather spend time exploring the island there is a brief 20-minute introduction before the full tour begins. Visitors are encouraged to participate in this if they don’t want to go on the full tour.

After the tour, we were free to walk around the fort ourselves. I enjoyed this part most of all. We walked to the top and explored with a birds-eye-view and then walked along the walls that make up the Fort’s moat. The moat itself is yet another amazing element here. It is filled with all kinds of beautiful fish and sea creatures, like sharks and crocodiles! We even saw two sea turtles in the moat on our trip in 2020.

Garden Key

A black lighthouse head against a lightly clouded blue sky

After the Fort Jefferson Tour and lunch on the boat (which is provided on the ferry for those on a day trip), we headed to the beach. This Floridian decided it was way too cold for swimming or snorkeling, but I did still stick my feet in and wave to Cuba. I enjoyed the little hermit crabs running around my feet, too.

Don’t forget to watch for Sooty Terns! Dry Tortugas National Park is home to their breeding grounds, and it’s difficult to spot them anywhere else. These birds are actually known to take 1-2 second naps while flying. Talk about a creature after my own heart. Magnificent frigate birds are also common.

Some of the best snorkeling at Dry Tortugas National Park is along the walls of the moat. You can snorkel on the outside, but not the inside. There are also two snorkeling areas near the beaches and old docks. The staff on the Yankee Freedom can help you plan your snorkel and provide you with free gear.

Heading Back to Key West

A small hermit crab peeks out of his shell in the grass

Before you know it, it’s time to head back to the mainland of Key West, Florida. I opted to take additional medicine for the return journey, and I recommend you do as well. My friend took some this time and was fine on the ride back. I even took a little nap after a long day in the sun. It was sad to leave without having the opportunity to camp. But, there’s always next time!

Have you ever been to Dry Tortugas National Park? Did you take a day trip or camp? Tell me about your trip in the comments.

Pin Dry Tortugas Day Trip Guide

Even if you have limited time, there is a lot to pack into a Dry Tortugas day trip. Download your free checklist of things to do and learn how to get there. | Dry Tortugas Day Trip | Day Trip to Dry Tortugas | #drytortugas #nationalparks #florida Even if you have limited time, there is a lot to pack into a Dry Tortugas day trip. Download your free checklist of things to do and learn how to get there. | Dry Tortugas Day Trip | Day Trip to Dry Tortugas | #drytortugas #nationalparks #florida Even if you have limited time, there is a lot to pack into a Dry Tortugas day trip. Download your free checklist of things to do and learn how to get there. | Dry Tortugas Day Trip | Day Trip to Dry Tortugas | #drytortugas #nationalparks #florida Even if you have limited time, there is a lot to pack into a Dry Tortugas day trip. Download your free checklist of things to do and learn how to get there. | Dry Tortugas Day Trip | Day Trip to Dry Tortugas | #drytortugas #nationalparks #florida

Camping at Dry Tortugas National Park: The Ultimate Guide

Monday 17th of February 2020

[…] a day trip to Dry Tortugas offers its own beauty and seclusion, nothing will compare to camping at Dry Tortugas National Park. […]

50 Cool Places to Go in the US (From Someone Who's Been Every State)

Saturday 23rd of March 2019

[…] Exploration: Everglades National Park, Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida Keys, Miami, Kennedy Space Center, Tampa, Orlando, Wizarding World of Harry Potter, […]

Comments are closed.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.