Dry Tortugas National Park: America’s Best Kept Secret? Shh!!

A gorgeous, remote beach.. a massive, unfinished coastal fortress… views that go on for miles and miles with nothing else in sight.

The Dry Tortugas National Park is exactly like a place you would see on the Travel Channel and immediately write off as impossible to get to, but wait, it’s in Florida?!

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Paul has talked about the Dry Tortugas for years. It was always on his mind as the perfect spring break trip in college… but when he found out they didn’t allow kegs and the only overnight accommodation is camping on a beach, the idea was nixed. Still the idea was formed and left to festered somewhere up there. When we floated the idea of going to Florida for our honeymoon, we ended up planning most of it around this destination and it really was the highlight of our trip!

The Dry Tortugas National Park is a small cluster of islands, one of which houses Fort Jefferson, and is located about 70 miles southwest of Key West. The remote location means the only way to access the park is by boat or seaplane. Plenty of flight options exist, including numerous private charted boats, but the far more reasonable way to get there is by the Yankee Freedom III, which is partnered with the National Park Service.

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It seems pricey at first at $170/person, but it does take all day as you need to arrive to catch the boat by 7am (a tortuously early time for Key West standards), and don’t arrive back in Key West until 5:30 pm. It also includes a 2 hours ride each way (4 hours round trip), breakfast, lunch, the park entrance fee, and snorkeling equipment. Make reservations well in advance if you want on this ship, it will sometimes sell out quite a bit in advance. Some limited camping is allowed on the island, but trust me when I say that it is rustic!

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The ride out wasn’t bad for us, but from reading reviews beforehand, this might not always be the case and it can be a really windy and bumpy ride. However, the water is just a stunning blue and you barely pass anything on the way. This place is really remote! Breakfast is served before the boat takes off, and while underwhelming, once the boat gets going on the waves, you’ll be thankful you had just a light breakfast. If the weather is good, we thought it was great being outside in the fresh air and trying to spot the flying fish (darn dolphins never showed!)

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Once you arrive, most of the group will wait near the entrance for the tour to start. As a former tour guide, I typically love taking the tour when we go somewhere, but since this was Paul’s dream destination, I let him make the call (obviously, this means a big N-O on the tour).

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Aerial Map of the Fort

So, we skipped the tour and while I can’t speak to it (who knows, maybe it was amazing), it was such a neat experience not being with the group. Almost everyone on the boat took the tour and that left the entire fort and island to ourselves. We wandered the courtyard and buildings relishing the opportunity to take photos without a single other soul in any of them. It added immensely to the desolate and isolated feeling to the island. A very cool experience. I couldn’t imagine having been a prisoner here when it was used as such (I don’t know the year since someone  didn’t want to take the tour!)

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Much of the Fort is not maintained

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On top of the Fort

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It seems like he is walking to nowhere

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We easily spent the first 2 hours exploring the fort and the surrounding beaches. The Fort was never completed, but there is still a lot to see. You can walk hall after empty hall, use the spiral staircases to get on the roof of the building, and explore the courtyard.

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After lunch on the boat (deli sandwiches and chips), we decided it was time to hit the beach and try snorkeling. The snorkeling here is incredible right by the wall, and apparently even better the farther you go out. We saw crabs, baby barracudas, jellyfish, plus tons and tons of fish and coral.

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I have to admit, the scenic views of pure nothingness that stretched on for miles and miles and miles were gorgeous when I was safe on top of that fort… but when I was in the water I got pretty panicky knowing there was no barrier between me and 10,000,000,000,000 blood-thirsty sharks. When we started to swim around the fort where there is nothing, but tall moat walls of old brick on one side, and miles and miles and miles of open sea on the other.. yeah, that reminded me how much I wanted to work on my tan instead.

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Clear water!

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Walking the moat walls. Note: Gets super hot. Wear sandals. Burnt feet and whining 50 feet ahead. #notflexing 😉

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Nesting Sea Turtles!

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So maybe I’m not a snorkeler, but it was just as much fun to lay on the sand soaking in the sun and walking the entire perimeter of the island as it was for Paul to keep on snorkeling away.

The beach has beautiful sand and is pristine. No food or drink is sold on the island (and no food allowed off the boat unless camping), so there isn’t a speck of trash to be seen. Hands down one of the most beautiful places I have ever been!

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Nothing on the horizon. In any direction.

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Coaling Dock Ruins

I was absolutely blown away by the beauty of the Dry Tortugas. And to think I had NEVER heard of them before Paul. I’d argue that the Dry Tortugas and Fort Jefferson are the most underrated destination in the U.S.


A Word From Paul: This place is awesome. Words and even pictures can’t describe the feeling of sitting on the moat wall, with no one around, and nothing but water to be seen. This is NOT a 5 star resort beach, nor even anything like any state/national park beach I’ve ever been to. I almost didn’t want us to write about this place, for fear that even our tiny little bit of publicity could spoil it. It draws you in if you let it and won’t let you forget the feeling. I want to go back, spend a few nights there, bring a kayak and check out the close by sandbars, spend a day watching the sunrise and set from the same spot. No fruity umbrella drinks. No cell phones. Nothing.

The National Park Rangers have either the greatest job in America or the worst, living in converted former prison cells, little electricity, and having this place all to themselves every single day.

Worth noting, is that the snorkeling, while wonderful, is obviously VERY remote. If you head more than a few feet from the beach (which you have to do obviously), you are all by yourself. Maybe 100 other people within what, 50 miles of you? We land lubbers weren’t really prepared for that mentally, and it kind of got to us after awhile. While halfway around the moat, we had an encounter with a few jellyfish that got too close for comfort thanks to the current/waves against the moat wall. There is no quick way out of the water, no boats, no people. The water was around 10 ft deep, meaning you couldn’t even stand.

I think I have to say this is the most beautiful beach I have ever been to. France, Thailand, Florida, Hawaii, California, etc. all have spectacular beaches worth putting your toes in the sand on, and there are 1000’s more I still need to visit. However, I don’t think any of them can lay a finger on this place. The sand is not the most perfect. The actual “beach” is quite small. But this place is different. Its 90F+ and it gives you the chills. Don’t spend the day behind a lens here, it has a magic that refuses to be captured.

2 Comments

  1. Excellent read, I just passed this onto a colleague who was doing a little research on that. And he actually bought me lunch since I found it for him smile So let me rephrase that: Thanks for lunch!

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