The Map

Your world in the park exists within this small patch of land, about 1/2 a mile in circumference.  When I first went there were signs up that kept me from going onto Bush Key (on the right of the map) to protect birds that nest there.  When I went for the second time in late November, the beaches on Bush Key were open to foot traffic because it was the off-season for nesting birds.  You can snorkel on the reefs that surround the park; there are beaches next to the North and South Coaling docks. I found the fort and walkway surrounding it plenty to occupy the 5 hours I spent there.

Click on the camera icons to see a photo, a location name, and coordinates for the closest parking area. I also show park entrances, visitor centers, the hotel(s) where I stayed, hiking trails, and airports.

Visitor Statistics

Relative to the big parks like Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon that get hundreds of thousands of visitors per month at peak, Dry Tortugas gets a much more modest 2 - 5,000. This is due, in part, to how difficult it is to access. You’ll need a boat or a plane ride.  The regular, park-approved contractor ferry can hold about 150 people at a time, so it’s good to schedule a ride well in advance.  That is especially true if you’re interested in camping.  I went in November both times...the first time the ferry seemed full, but once we got to the island I had no trouble finding places away from people.  The second time there were 7’-9’ waves and high winds so there were a lot fewer people.

This graph shows the average number of visitors each month. Hover over the line to see values for each month. NOTE: Even though the X-axis reads “2000,” these are monthly averages of NPS visitor data from 1979-2013. The “2000” should be ignored.

The Climate

During my day trip to the Dry Tortugas, the weather was beautiful.  I went in mid-November and managed to catch a dry patch. That made for some less-than-interesting skies in my photos, but the temperature was in the mid-to-upper seventies.  Because the temperature was perfect, I planned my second trip for November as well.  During my several days there, the temperature ranged from 65-80. The unfortunate thing was that the sky was gloomy nearly the entire time and the sustained winds were between 25 & 35 miles per hour.  This made for some less than interesting photos and for a choppy boat ride.

This graph shows average temperature and precipitation by month. Hover over the line to see values for each month. You can select different variables and parks in the panel on the left.  NOTE: Even though the X-axis reads “2000,” these are monthly averages of NOAA weather data dating as far back as the early 1900’s. The “2000” should be ignored.


First Trip (Day Trip): I flew into Miami and rented a car.  Dry Tortugas was one stop of many on this trip. Check-in for the ferry is at 7 a.m. and you get back to Key West around 5:30 p.m. so I ended up getting a hotel room the night before and after the trip. On the morning of the trip, I parked my car in a garage near the ferry terminal.  There are several garages that offer day parking for around $10-$15.  I used the NPS approved (at least they mention it on their website) ferry, the Yankee Freedom III to get out to the island.  For the price ($170 now) you get the ride out and back, admission to the park, breakfast and lunch, and a postcard. If you have some money to blow, you can take a sea plane ride.

Second Trip (Camping Trip): During my most recent trip, my focus was on going to the Tortugas for camping so I flew directly into Key West on the day before I planned to head out.  I relied on taxis to get around. A ride from the airport to the main touristy area is less than $20.  I stayed at a hotel near the ferry terminal so I could walk over in the morning.  For campers, check-in is at 6:30 a.m.  I arrived in Key West early enough to buy the groceries I wanted to take with me out to the park.  The ferry costs $190 for campers. This fee includes the trip out and back, admission to the park, and a breakfast and one lunch.  You still have to pay $3/night/person once you get to the park.  There are 10 of campsites then there is an overflow area and a group area.  The 10 designated spots are nice.  My first night, four of the 10 campsites were filled and on my second night only three of them were filled.  On the day I left (a Friday), quite a few more campers came out on the ferry and it looked like most of the campsites filled up.  Each of the designated sites has a picnic table, a grill, and a post for keeping your groceries off of the ground (apparently rats and crabs will get into your food if you leave it out).  There are composting toilets available and that’s pretty much it.  There are no outlets at the campsite (though if you really need some there are some at the boat house).  On the day you leave, you need to have your campsite packed up by the time the boat arrives; around 10:30 a.m.

What’s Worth Seeing

  1. Fort Jefferson - Dry Tortugas is a huge park, but most of it is under water.  Fort Jefferson takes up 3/4 of Garden Key where you’ll spend most of your time.  This former civil war prison is billed as the largest masonry structure in the Western Hemisphere with over 16 million bricks.

  1. Arches - Four of the six sides of the fort are accessible to visitors. The other two sides house NPS staff and park facilities. Each of these sides consists of dozens of brickwork arches.  On each side there are narrow arches, like the photo on the left, and there are wide arches, like the photo on the right.  For me, these were the highlight of the Fort. I spent a good chunk of my time composing different views, concentrating most on the view below (symmetrical with a vanishing point at the center). I’m sure there are much more creative things to be done.


  1. The Lighthouse - I had seen a lot of beautiful photos of the lighthouse that sits atop the fort.  The fort is open from sunrise to sunset, but there are no gates or doors to bar you from getting in a little early and setting up.

  1. The Moat - Fort Jefferson is surrounded by a moat. The moat wall creates a walkway around the fort.  During my camping trip, the wind was so fierce that it was difficult to walk around the moat. Waves crashed over the top of it and sea spray soaked my camera, so I only made the trip around once.

  1. Views Outward - There are plenty of amazing views looking outward from the Fort. Dry Torugas sits in the middle of the Caribbean with plenty of blue water all around. I found that my best shots of the blue water included bits of the fort.  The photo below shows the lighthouse on Loggerhead Key. You can rent a kayak in Key West and row the three miles over there, but it was far to windy to try that during my trip.

  1. Hidden Treasures - Scattered throughout the fort, there are odd bits of history and decay.  I found various carts and a ramshackle boat that had been taken from Cuban immigrants who had landed on the island recently.  They made for interesting foregrounds.

  1. The Beaches - A good chunk of the people that were on the ferry with me went straight to the beach.  The more popular one is to the left as you leave the ferry, near the campground.  There is a much less popular one to the right.  I didn’t try snorkeling my first time out, but intended to do so while I camped.  That didn’t work out unfortunately. The wind was so strong that the churned up silt made it difficult to see anything and it was dangerous just to be in the water.

  1. The Coaling Docks - Next to both of the beaches, there are old, ruined docks. The poles sticking out of the water can make for interesting photos. Again, I see a lot of potential there, but the light wasn’t right while I was there.  The photo below shows a view outward from the fort, the moat, a beach, and the coaling docks.

What’s Not Worth Seeing

This can be highly subjective, I know, but maybe this will give you some hints on how to prioritize your trip.

  1. Views of Fort Jefferson from the Ferry - I was sitting on the bow of the ship as we approached Fort Jefferson and on the back of the boat as we left.  I must have snapped a hundred photos from the ferry and didn’t save a single one.  You may have more luck, but if you’re worried about memory or battery, save it for the island.

  1. The Powder Magazine - In the courtyard of Fort Jefferson, there is a fortified building where canon powder and other dangerous materials were supposed to be stored (it was never finished).  I thought there might be some interesting UrbEx type photos to be had there, but I never got what I wanted.

  1. The Courtyard - The couryard within Fort Jefferson itself is also fairly plain.  There are trees and ruined soldiers quarters, but nothing that drew my attention for longer than a couple minutes.

What I Would Do Differently

When I first went to Dry Tortugas National Park, I vowed to go back and camp. Now that I’ve done that, I would say my only regret is not having had better weather, though there isn’t much I can do about that.  At some point, I will likely to back with the hopes of getting dealt a better hand in terms of weather.  I did not get to snorkel as I would have liked and I did not get the star photos I had hoped for.

The One Shot

On many of my trips, there is a shot that I just can’t wait to get; the one that I daydream about. I didn’t really have that for the Dry Tortugas. The archways were certainly a highlight, but nothing that I was excited about before goin.  I did walk away with a photo that I thought was far-and-away my best from the of my favorites I’ve ever taken.  This photo was taken during the short time that a seaplane had docked on the island.  I took this from the walkways on the top of Fort Jefferson, near the Lighthouse.  I added a tilt-shift effect in Photoshop to draw attention to the plane.  This area also gives a great view of the drawbridge leading into Fort Jefferson and the dock where the Yankee Freedom II lands.

Other Resources

  1. Dry Tortugas National Park on - You can get information straight from the people who know best.

  2. Yankee Freedom Ferry - Unless you have a ship, you’ll need some help getting to the island. I thought the trip sounded expensive, but it was well worth the money.

  3. My Dry Tortugas National Park Gallery on Flickr - A collection of my photos from this trip on Flickr.

  4. Buy A Print - I hope the information above helps you get your own great photos, but in the meantime, you’re welcome to purchase one of mine.

  5. My Southern Florida Pinterest Board - My collection of other people’s photography from this park.

  6. My Other National Park Galleries on Flickr - A collection of all my National Park Galleries.  I’m planning on building this collection as I visit new parks, so check back.

Useful Tools

  1. The Photographer’s Ephemeris – This will only be helpful if you’re planning on camping on the island. If you take the ferry out and back you won’t see sunrise or sunset.  TPE allows you to drop a pin on a Google map and see not only the sunrise/sunset and moonrise/moonset times but also the direction the sun and moon will rise and set. 

If you have any questions or comments about this article, let me know using my CONTACT FORM.