Ultimate Guide to Dry Tortugas with Kids: Best Things To Do In Dry Tortugas National Park

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Dry Tortugas National Park is definitely a bucket list destination. With only 1% of the park on dry land, it’s an underwater dreamland. Plus, it has an amazing old fort and some of the most unique bird species in all of North America. We’ve loved exploring the park with our 5 kids, and want to share some tips, tricks, and things to do in Dry Tortugas National Park with kids!

Whether you’re camping, picnicking, exploring the fort, or snorkeling Dry Tortugas, or even just learning about the history of the park from home, I hope this Dry Tortugas National Park family guide is helpful and informative. You’ll find info on Dry Tortugas activities, lodging, and food, as well as indigenous history of the lands, book recommendations, and more – perfect whether you’ve never visited or whether you’ve been 100 times.

I hope you enjoy this Dry Tortugas travel guide!

Learn About Dry Tortugas National Park

Before we visit a national park, our family loves learning about it! It helps us enjoy it more and appreciate the people who have stewarded it well before us. We love learning about the indigenous history, as well as about wildlife and ecosystems.

Here are a few ways to learn about the park either before a visit or as part of a Dry Tortugas virtual tour!

Dry Tortugas National Park History & Natural Features

  • The Dry Tortugas are nearly 70 miles off the coast of Key West through open water.
  • There is little record of indigenous inhabitants due to its remote location, though archaeologists are still studying artifacts. The Seminole continue to live along the Florida coast.
  • Nearly 300 species of birds are seen at Dry Tortugas, most migratory.
  • 5 species of seat turtles call Dry Tortugas home, and large ones come onto the land in the summer to bury their eggs.
  • Juan Ponce de Leon caught many sea turtles in 1513 and thus named the cluster of keys Las Tortugas. The area was later called “Dry Tortugas” due to the lack of fresh water.
  • The US Navy began to build Fort Jefferson as a protection in 1846. It was not finished before serving as a prison for the Union army during the US Civil War.
  • Dry Tortugas was first named Fort Jefferson National Monument in 1935, then as a Dry Tortugas National Park in 1992.
YouTube video

Dry Tortugas Packing List: What to Pack For a Dry Tortugas Family Vacation

Dry Tortugas National Park weather tends to be relatively mild throughout the year, with a subtropical climate. This means that it can get quite humid, you’ll want to plan for rain, and you’ll definitely want to pack clothing to explore the water! Here are some of my favorite essentials to pack when traveling to Dry Tortugas National Park with kids.

Dry Tortugas National Park Packing List

  • Carry-all backpack
  • Layers
  • Swimsuit & change of clothes
  • Sturdy sandals
    • I highly recommend some sort of water hiking shoes for Dry Tortugas National Park. Our older kids LOVE these hiking sandals (girls and boys) – they provide fantastic traction, are really comfortable, and dry quickly. They’re perfect for hiking in water or not. Our two younger boys use closed toe hiking sandals (6 year old’s pair3 year old’s pair). I love these women’s hiking sandals. Alternatively, if you don’t mind walking around in sandals without much support, you could just pack basic sandals or flip flops – just be careful that little ones don’t trip while exploring the fort. (I personally traveled with these sandals since we were flying and needed to pack light!)
  • First aid kit and my favorite bandages
  • Sunscreen
    • I LOVE this kind and it smells amazing! I also love this kind for kids – it’s great for sensitive skin.
  • Kid-sized snorkeling gear
    • If you’re taking the Yankee Freedom ferry, they do provide snorkeling gear to any passengers. However, they did not have kid-sized gear available when we were there. If you’d like to bring your own like we did, we own and love this set.
  • Quick-Dry Towel
    • While some hotels may provide towels to take along, some do not. Plus, it’s usually easier to have one of these quick-dry towels instead of a bulky hotel one.
  • Dry bag
    • For wet swimsuits/towels.
  • Hat
  • Camera equipment (see below)
  • Water/snacks

How To Get to Dry Tortugas National Park

Getting to Dry Tortugas is not for the faint of heart! There are four ways to get to Dry Tortugas:

  • Yankee Freedom ferry
    • The Key West ferry to Dry Tortugas is the easiest and cheapest way to Dry Tortugas, though still quite pricey (at the time of writing $190/adult for a day trip). It’s also the most common option. Be sure to book in advance as the ferry does fill up!
  • Seaplane
  • Permitted tour guide
  • Bring your own boat

Where to Stay in Dry Tortugas National Park with Kids: Dry Tortugas Lodging for Families

Camping in Dry Tortugas National Park

Camping at Dry Tortugas is only available on Garden Key, where Fort Jefferson is located. It is first come, first served, except for groups of 10-20 people, which require advance reservation with the park. There is no other lodging available inside the National Park.

Hotels Near Dry Tortugas National Park

There is no indoor lodging inside Dry Tortugas National Park, but there are many options in Key West, the closest city to the park. Keep in mind that Key West tends to be quite expensive, so plan accordingly.

Key West, FL Lodging with Kids

Here are some of the best Key West hotels for families:

Additionally, here are a few lovely VRBO properties we considered:

Where to Eat in Dry Tortugas

There are no food options inside Dry Tortugas National Park. If you take the Yankee Freedom, a morning breakfast and sack lunch will be provided for you, and there is a small snack bar on board. Otherwise, plan to pack in any additional food and drink you may need.

Once you’re back on land, here’s where to eat in Key West!

How to Get Around Key West: Dry Tortugas Transportation

While you won’t need transportation once at Dry Tortugas, I personally think it’s easiest to have a car to get around Key West. While you can fly directly to Key West, it’s typically significantly cheaper to fly to Miami of Fort Lauderdale and drive down.

Best Time of Year to Visit Dry Tortugas National Park

As I mentioned before, The summer tends to be hot & humid with frequent afternoon storms. The winter is mild and sometimes wet, often with somewhat choppy seas from the wind. Here are some tips on when to visit Dry Tortugas National Park.

Dry Tortuas has ver few visitors compared to other US national parks, but it does still get more crowded during the late spring and early summer months. This means it can be much harder to get tickets for the ferry, so be sure to book in advance.

What To See in Dry Tortugas National Park: Top Dry Tortugas Checklist: Dry Tortugas National Park Itinerary

If you have limited time and are wondering about the top things to see in Dry Tortugas National Park, here are some of our favorites. These would all be wonderful as part of a Dry Tortugas National Park itinerary. Even taking the ferry as a day trip to Dry Tortugas will give you just under 5 hours on land, so you should be able to do at least 3-4 of these in that amount of time.

Unlike many other national parks, hiking at Dry Tortugas National Park is not readily available. After all, 99% of the park is underwater! Other than the loop around Garden Key (where Fort Jefferson lies), there aren’t many established trails. Still, there are plenty of other incredible Dry Tortugas activities.

  • Explore Fort Jefferson
  • Go snorkeling or diving
  • Play at the beach
  • Go fishing
  • Head out on a boat ride
  • Go birding
  • Attend a ranger program
  • Have a picnic

Best Things to Do in Dry Tortugas National Park with Kids: Day Trip To Dry Tortugas

If you’re still not convinced and are wondering, “Is Dry Tortugas National Park kid friendly,” here’s more detail on activities at Dry Tortugas for a family vacation:

1. Explore Fort Jefferson

The most prominent building (and one of the only ones!) at Dry Tortugas National Park is Fort Jefferson on Garden Key. The fort was built to protect a strategic deepwater anchorage on a busy sailing route. Though it was never completed or fully armed, it did stand as a symbol of strength from a young United States. It was used by Union troops during the Civil War as a prison and as a point from which to blockade Southern shipping.

While at the fort, you can walk around the top for some spectacular views, as well as through the interior. It’s a wonderful place to explore!

2. Snorkeling Dry Tortugas or Diving Dry Tortugas

No trip to Dry Tortugas would be complete without doing some snorkeling or diving! Dry Tortugas is located at the southwest corner of the Florida Keys reef system, which is the 3rd largest in the world, so there are some amazing corals, fish, and other marine life to witness. Along the moat wall is a wonderful place to snorkel. The Yankee Freedom ferry provides snorkel equipment free of charge to all passengers.

If you’re interested in diving, keep in mind that the Yankee Freedom ferry cannot carry compressed air canisters, so you’ll need to arrive by your own vessel or on a charter boat.

3. Play at the Beach

If you’re not interested in exploring by snorkel or diving, you can still swim and splash in the water at the beautiful white sand beaches. We loved the area on the west side of the fort, just before the moat wall.

4. Fishing in Dry Tortugas National Park

Did you know you can go fishing inside Dry Tortugas? Here’s everything you need to know about Dry Tortugas fishing permits, locations, and types of fish.

5. Dry Tortugas Scenic Boating

While there isn’t anywhere to go on a scenic drive in Dry Tortugas National Park, there are plenty of scenic boat rides! The Yankee Freedom ferry ride over is a stunning way to arrive, or it’s possible to bring your own boat (or a charter) to the key. Keep in mind that boat permits are required for all vessels entering in the park before any recreational activity (even if you’re not visiting Fort Jefferson). More about boat permits.

6. Go Birding & Other Wildlife Viewing

Especially during spring migration, Dry Tortugas is an incredible place for birding. In fact, nearly 300 species have been spotted there! There’s also an incredible diversity of reefs and fishes, and 5 different sea turtles are found in the park.

7. Dry Tortugas Junior Ranger & Ranger Guided Tours

The Dry Tortugas Junior Ranger program is really well done with TWO interesting and in-depth booklets. One focuses on the habitats, history, and animals of the area, and one is an underwater explorer booklet focusing on marine life. Don’t forget to turn in your booklet at the visitors center to earn your badge! Booklets are also available on board the Yankee Freedom ferry – it makes a perfect boat activity.

There are also several ranger guided talks and tours. You can see what is available on the calendar.

8. Photography in Dry Tortugas

There’s something so incredible about the gorgeous blue waters at Dry Tortugas. A photography tour is the perfect way to learn more about scale and composition when capturing them. You can also spend time exploring and capturing the keys on your own.

Here’s the photography equipment we bring along:

Photo equipment

9. Picnicking in Dry Tortugas National Park

Perhaps you just want to chill and take in the surrounding beauty – Dry Tortugas National Park is great for that, too! If you prefer to just relax and enjoy nature, I recommend heading to the white sand beaches on the west side of the island near the moat wall, or even atop the moat wall. It’s one of our favorite things to do in Dry Tortugas National Park with toddlers!

If you arrive via the Yankee Freedom ferry, a sack lunch will be provided for you to take ashore. Be sure to let them know at the start of the ride if you have any dietary preferences (vegetarian seemed fine; I don’t know how many food allergies they accommodate). If you prefer, you’re welcome to bring in any food of your own.

10. Work on Survival & Safety Skills

Being out in nature is a perfect opportunity to work on some survival and safety skills. Think: first aid, pocket knife skills, knot tying, review water safety, food storage, and water safety (always stay with a buddy, don’t touch coral, keep litter out of the water). It’s also a great chance to be in a setting where you must pack in and especially out any supplies.

Here’s a list of survival and safety skills for kids that you can review whether backyard camping or heading out into nature!

11. Other Key West Activities

Before or after your Dry Tortugas day trip or overnight visit, consider doing some other activities in Key West. Here are some options:

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Dry Tortugas National Park Video

Here’s a fantastic video for a Dry Tortugas National Park virtual tour! It’s the same video that’s shown in the visitors center, so it’s a great way to learn about Dry Tortugas before visiting.

YouTube video

Enjoy Your Visit to Dry Tortugas National Park with Kids!

We’ve loved putting together this Dry Tortugas National Park travel guide to take an in person or virtual visit to Dry Tortugas with kids. We’d love to hear if you do any of these activities on a family trip to Dry Tortugas!

We hope to inspire curiosity and connection through exploring and learning, and we hope this guide helps you and your families. Please share any activities you do with us over on our Instagram. And we’d be delighted if you passed this guide to GBNP with kids along to others, as well!

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