Dry Tortugas National Park | PARK AT A GLANCE

Fort Jefferson on Garden Key

Fort Jefferson on Garden Key

PARK OVERVIEW

Dry Tortugas National Park is the most remote National Park in the lower 48 states. It is comprised of seven islands, or “keys,” about 70 miles west of Key West, Florida. These keys represent the end of the Florida Key reef system. The park can be reached via a daily ferry or seaplane service run by authorized concessionaires (both leave from Key West), or in your own boat or seaplane.

Of the seven keys in the park, most people only visit Garden Key. This is the island where the ferry and seaplanes drop off passengers, and it is the only island with tourist amenities and attractions. Here you will find the park’s Visitor Center, Fort Jefferson (which occupies about 85% of the island), a campground and picnic tables, and plenty of places to swim and snorkel. Fishing is also allowed from the island.

Bush Key is the second most visited key because it is right next to Garden Key and is often connected to it by a thin sandbar. However, it is open only from October through January due to shorebird nesting season.

Of the remaining keys, only Loggerhead Key is open to visitors. All others are closed due to wildlife nesting. Other than Garden Key, and possibly Bush Key if the sandbar exists, visiting any other island requires you to have your own boat.

The Dry Tortugas area first gained significance after the War of 1812. The British had easily blockaded and captured coastal cities along the east coast, and even burned Washington, D.C., to the ground. After the war, the United States government realized that coastal forts were needed to protect the country from invasion, and construction began on dozens of heavily armed masonry forts, many of which are National Park properties today. Fort Jefferson was part of this coastal defense system.

Any ship sailing from the Gulf of Mexico to the east coast of the United States had to travel between Florida and Cuba, and the only channel deep enough for large ships flows right past Garden Key, which made it the perfect place for a fort. Construction began in 1846, but Fort Jefferson was never completed, nor was it ever used other than as a prison during the Civil War. Technology and modern war tactics soon made it obsolete. It was used as a Navy fueling station until 1916, then abandoned.

The area became a wildlife refugee in 1908, and in 1935 the Fort Jefferson National Monument was created to preserve the fort and the surrounding refugee. After being expanded, the National Monument became Dry Tortugas National Park in 1992.


OPERATING HOURS

The grounds of Garden Key, other than Fort Jefferson, are open 24 hours a day, year-round. The Garden Key Visitor Center is open daily from 8:30 AM to 4:30 PM. Fort Jefferson is open from sunrise until sunset.

Loggerhead Key is open for day-use only, sunrise to sunset year-round.

Bush Key is only open seasonally due to bird nesting. It is typically open from October through January and closed the rest of the year.

The other four keys in the park, East Key, Middle Key, Hospital Key, and Long Key, are closed permanently due to wildlife nesting.

Times can always change, so before making travel plans be sure to check the official Dry Tortugas National Park Operating Hours and Seasons web page for the latest schedule.


FEES

There is a fee to enter Dry Tortugas National Park, and this covers seven consecutive days in the park. Anyone entering park waters, other than those on boats that are passing through without stopping, must pay the fee. This is done with cash or check at the self-payment kiosk located on the main dock at Garden Key, or you can get a pass in advance online at Recreation.gov. If paying cash upon arrival, be sure to bring the exact fee because you may not be able to get change. For the latest fees, check the official Fees and Passes web page for Dry Tortugas National Park.

Entrance fees for those arriving by the Yankee Freedom Ferry are included in the fare. If you have a National Park Pass, the ferry will refund you the entrance fee when you check in. Those arriving via Key West Seaplane Adventures pay the fee to the concessionaire before departing.

A free boat permit is required for all recreational vessels including kayaks and dinghies, vessels operating under a Commercial Use Authorization, and commercial fishing vessels that wish to stop for recreation within the park boundary. Vessels greater than 50 meters are required to have a Special Use Authorization in addition to the boat permit. Permits must be obtained at Garden Key. Boaters must come ashore to obtain the permit for no online permit system is in place. No permit is required for boats that are passing through the park without stopping.

There is a fee to camp at Garden Key. Fees are paid at the self-payment kiosk near the campground in cash. Do not expect change, so bring the correct bills with you. Camping fees are also given on the park’s Fees and Passes web page.


SCHEDULING YOUR VISIT

Day Trip by Ferry
11 hours, 7 AM to 6 PM
4 hours on the island

Visitor Center
Allow up to 30 minutes

Tour of Fort Jefferson
Allow 1 hour

On a day trip using the Yankee Freedom Ferry you have about 4 hours on the island. How you spend your time is up to you.

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Last updated on February 26, 2021
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