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Are you looking to level up your Key West vacation, and experience something unforgettable? If so, a day trip to Dry Tortugas National Park is about as epic as it gets – especially if you take the seaplane.
In fact, the Florida Keys do not actually end with the highway in Key West, but continue 70 miles west into the Gulf of Mexico. The ending point is the Dry Tortugas archipelago, where you can find Dry Tortugas National Park. Due to the close proximity to Key West, it is entirely possible to visit Dry Tortugas on a day trip.
The main draw of the national park is visiting hexagonal Fort Jefferson on Garden Key. As there is no accommodation in Dry Tortugas other than campsites, a day trip is the sole option for most visitors. That means the biggest decision is whether to travel by ferry or seaplane.
Below, I am covering everything to know for a Dry Tortugas day trip, whether by sea or air. As my hubby and I took the seaplane, I will also give a bit more detail on whether this pricier option is worth it.
Spoiler alert: spectacular views impending.
Note: This post was originally published in May 2021, and was last updated in December 2022.
The Ultimate Day Trip to Dry Tortugas National Park
Dry Tortugas Quick Facts
From the moment I saw my first aerial photo of Fort Jefferson, I immediately added Dry Tortugas National Park to my bucket list. When Aaron and I eventually booked our Miami to Key West road trip, I finally had the chance to turn this dream into reality.
That said, I knew virtually nothing about this isolated national park. If you are starting from scratch like me, here are some quick facts to bring you up to speed:
- Fort Jefferson is located on Garden Key, and is the largest brick building in the western hemisphere.
- National Park entry is $15 per person; National Park Passes are also accepted
- Dry Tortugas is made up of seven islands: Garden Key, Loggerhead Key, Bush Key, Long Key, Hospital Key, Middle Key, and East Key
- The word tortugas is Spanish for turtles, due to the large amount that inhabit the surrounding waters. The word “dry” was later added to the name to indicate to other sailors the lack of fresh water on the islands.
- There are restrooms on Garden Key, but they close once the ferry arrives due to environmental concerns. After that, you must use the ferry’s restrooms, even if you traveled by seaplane.
How to Reach Dry Tortugas National Park
Dry Tortugas National Park can only be reached via boat or seaplane. There are two main companies to book through:
The more inexpensive option is the ferry, which offers a full day trip. Travel time is two and a half hours each way, leaving approximately four and a half hours to explore the island.
The second alternative is the seaplane. This cuts your travel time down to an exhilarating 40 minute journey each way. For those unfamiliar with seaplanes, these bad boys can take off and land on the water, which is how they come and go from Dry Tortugas.
This is the option my husband and I opted for, since I can’t resist the idea of sea views from above. The seaplane flies much lower than a commercial jet for even better sightseeing. We were able to pick out dozens of sea turtles in the water below.
Should you take the Ferry or Seaplane?
Here is a quick comparison of key differences between the ferry and seaplane for a Dry Tortugas day trip:
- Travel Time: Approx. 2.5 hours each way
- Tour options: Full day only
- Refreshments: Lunch provided, snacks and drinks available for purchase
- Cost: $200 per adult
- Time at Dry Tortugas: About 4.5 hours
Check in before your full day tour at 7 am at the Key West Ferry Terminal. Find it in the Historic Seaport at 100 Grinnell Street.
As this is right in downtown Key West, you may be able to walk or bike from your hotel. There is also a parking garage available across the street, but it comes a bit steep at $40/day.
Next, you will join 175 other passengers on this high-speed catamaran to Garden Key. During the ride, you have the option to sit in the cabin or on the deck, while getting an overview of the park and enjoying the scenery.
- Travel Time: 40 minutes each way
- Tour options: Full or half day
- Refreshments: Water and soft drinks provided, but must pack your own food
- Cost: $371 per adult for half day; $644 per adult for full day
- Time at Dry Tortugas: 2.5 hours for half day; 6.5 hours for full day
Check in a half hour before takeoff at Key West International Airport. Don’t worry – you will not need to pass through security.
You can pick your own seat on the plane, and might even end up being the copilot! Every seat has headphones to hear the pilot point out various sights during the flight, as well as music when he isn’t talking.
While there is limited free parking near the tour company’s office, it might be easier to Uber. The airport is just a ten-minute drive from Duval Street.
Should you do a full or half day trip?
For the seaplane, you can choose either a full day or half day tour. The half day tour is around half the price of the full day, and could be all you need if you’re not a big snorkeler. Two and a half hours on the island is enough to enjoy the beach and tour the fort.
The full day is twice the price, but gives you the chance to spend 6.5 hours relaxing on a remote island. If you’re a snorkeling enthusiast, you’ll definitely want this extra time to explore all around Garden Key.
If you do the full day tour, your day will start early for departure at 8 am. We woke up around 6:15 am to get ready in advance of our 7:30 am check-in at the airport.
Travel Savvy Tip
If you choose a half day on the seaplane, I highly recommend doing the tour that begins at 8 am. You will have two hours on the island before the ferry arrives, giving you time to appreciate the beauty and solitude of your surroundings. The beach gets packed once the ferry shows up, and shade spots virtually disappear.
Is the Seaplane to Dry Tortugas Worth it?
While the seaplane to Dry Tortugas is more expensive, there are several reasons why I found it to be totally worth it:
- The chance to explore Dry Tortugas before the ferry arrives
- Less time in transit and more time on the island
- Amazing views of the water, shipwrecks, and sea creatures below
- The unique opportunity to land and take off on water
Amazing views aside, there is nothing like the unique experience of taking off and landing on water. Upon landing at Dry Tortugas, the plane pulls right up to the beach for the passengers to disembark.
For nervous flyers like myself, landing and takeoff was really smooth and didn’t feel much different than land. The only difference I noticed was that it seemed to take a bit longer at sea to pick up speed for lift. While at Dry Tortugas, we actually did see one seaplane abort their initial takeoff, but it simply turned around and took off in the other direction.
What to Do on a Dry Tortugas Day Trip
There are plenty of experiences to have during a Dry Tortugas day trip, both en route and while you’re there.
First off, you will see some great scenery en route to Dry Tortugas. If you choose the seaplane, make sure you take a look at the beautiful view of Key West from above while departing.
The trip to Dry Tortugas takes you through very shallow water, which is aqua with patches of dark blue and ribbons of sand dunes rippling in sections. Even on the ferry, you may see dolphins and a couple shipwrecks along the way.
Upon arrival, there is nothing like the stunning approach from the seaplane, when the hexagonal shape of Dry Tortugas comes into view. This is definitely a big photo moment.
While on Dry Tortugas, explore Fort Jefferson and be sure to walk along the top. That is where you will find the best views of the turquoise water below. Also, be sure to observe the seaplanes landing and taking off from the beach all day long.
Go to the beach
There are a couple small beaches on Garden Key with gentle waters for wading, swimming and snorkeling. Per our pilot’s advice, Aaron and I set up camp on the south beach due to the abundance of shade.
The water and feeling of being somewhere so remote had an instant calming effect. We could have been in the Caribbean if I didn’t know any better. We soaked up every second of the hour and a half we had of this quiet island before the ferry arrived.
With more people, the beach filled up quickly and shade spots disappeared. The environment then became more of a party atmosphere with drinks, music, and games.
Explore Fort Jefferson
Fort Jefferson is a huge, largely empty brick building that is stark, yet striking in appearance. If you book the ferry, your ticket includes an optional forty-five minute tour of the fort. Otherwise, it is self-guided, and you basically have the run of the place.
Both the second floor and rooftop offer incredible views. Definitely watch your step if you choose to climb to the top, as there are no rails, but don’t forget to enjoy the cooling breeze. Mind any signage blocking off sections from the public, as this is for your safety.
We loved exploring Fort Jefferson during the last hour and a half of our day. By this time, most visitors were at the beach, and the fort was not very busy at all. I recommend wearing sturdy sneakers for comfort and safety, as you’ll be trekking and climbing on hard, and sometimes uneven, surfaces.
Dry Tortugas is huge for snorkelers, with shallow waters full of vibrant sea life just a short ways from the beach. Our seaplane pilot kindly informed us of the best snorkel spots to check out upon dropping us off.
I’ll be honest here – I did not have the best time snorkeling at Dry Tortugas. While the water is conducive to beginner and advanced snorkelers alike, I struggled with the gear the seaplane provided.
My goggles kept fogging, and my snorkel kept filling with small amounts of water. Since I did not feel comfortable getting too far from the beach while repeatedly fixing my gear, I cut my time short. That said, I was able to see a small amount of sea life in the water near the fort.
If you visit Dry Tortugas between February and September, you are in for some good bird watching. During this time, approximately 100,000 Sooty Terns and Brown Noddy Terns descend onto Bush Key for nesting season. There are no other nesting colonies like this in North America.
While Bush Key is closed during these months, you won’t miss these birds during your visit. They can easily be seen flying around from neighboring Garden Key, though you may want to bring binoculars for a closer look. You’ll hear these birds as well, as they cause quite a racket!
Take Lots of Pictures
Be prepared to snap away during this trip! With the colors in the water changing throughout the day, there is always a new view to capture. Every time I thought I’d taken enough photos, I’d see some other dreamy section of the water that I couldn’t resist photographing.
If you take the seaplane, the pilot will advise you to sit on the same side of the plane on the way back as you did coming. This allows you to see views of shipwrecks and islands that were opposite your seat earlier. Our pilot also graciously offered to take anyone’s picture in front of the seaplane who wanted one.
As we approached Key West International Airport, I had unreal views over the beach at Ft. Zachary Taylor State Park, as well as Smathers Beach as we approached the runway.
What to Bring on a Dry Tortugas Day Trip
- Food for lunch (if taking seaplane)
- Cell phone for photos (there is no service on the island)
- Sunscreen (we like this reef safe variety)
- Change of clothes for the trip home
- Good sneakers for exploring the fort
- $15 cash per person for national park fee (or National Park Pass) for seaplane; fee is built into ferry ticket, so Park Pass holders are entitled to a refund
Note that both the seaplane and ferry companies provide snorkel gear. The seaplane also provides a cooler for any food and drinks you bring.
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If a day trip to Dry Tortugas is not a bucket list worthy experience, then I don’t know what is. Whether you take the seaplane or ferry, you cannot pass up the chance to spend the day on a remote island full of history. Especially if you are willing to spring for the seaplane – the views are so worth it!
Are you planning a visit to Dry Tortugas? Would you take the ferry or seaplane?