The small dot is getting closer. I stand on the bow of the Yankee Freedom III and enjoy the wind on my face. We have been on this boat for almost two hours and I am ready to get on the island and start my spring break adventure. I am about to spent 3 days of my spring break on a deserted island in the Gulf of Mexico. The island lacks electricity, cell service, and any sort of hotel, but I have been looking forward this adventure for weeks plus I am getting to go camping in Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida for spring break.
What is Dry Tortugas National Park?
Dry Tortugas National Park is one most remote parks in the continental United States. It is a series of small islands about 70 miles west of Key West, Florida. The park’s main claim to fame is that the US government decided that one of the islands would be a good place for a pre-Civil War era fort called Fort Jefferson.
The government ran into some issues when building the fort like the Civil War. It was the southernmost stronghold for the Northern army. After the war, the fort was used as a prison for Confederate soldiers and the conspirators to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln such as Samuel Mudd (that guy who treated John Wilks Booths leg after he broke it shooting President Lincoln).
Why is Dry Tortugas National Park a great Spring Break Destination?
If you are looking to have a beach vacation but want to avoid the drunken crowds of college students, Dry Tortugas is the perfect destination. Access to the islands is limited by the ferry, float planes, and private boats. The ferry brings in 150 tourists who spend a couple of hours on the island. After that, the island is yours to share with a handful of other campers on the island. A few of the campers might be college students but they aren’t going to be the get drunk and go crazy kind. (Then again, my group did some crazy things and we were sober).
Getting to Dry Tortugas National Park
It isn’t easy to get to the island. There are only two ways to get to Dry Tortugas: boat or seaplane. Seaplanes run about $300 + per person for a half day trip. If you are will and have the skill, you could rent a boat and navigate yourself out there or take your own boat. For the non-sailors, the only other option is the Yankee Freedom ferry. The ferry is about $175 per person for a day trip (**included $10 park entrance fee that is refunded if you have a national park pass). My travel partner and I didn’t want to spend $170 bucks for four hours on the island so we paid the extra $20 buck for camping transportation.
Camping on Dry Tortugas National Parks
All camping takes place on the island with Fort Jefferson. The campground has 8 campsites and a group site. The camping is primitive camping with an emphasis on the primitive. The campsites all have a grill and picnic table. There is a small amount of shade provided by the shrubs on the island. All of the regular sites are set in the shrubs and there is some privacy. There is no electricity, no water, and no running toilets.
The Dry Tortugas campground does not take reservations. The camping fees are $15 a night for the regular sites and $30 a night for the group site.
The islands may be surrounded by water but there is no fresh water source unless you think to make your own desalinization system. Personally, I found that was too much effort so we just packed 1 gallon per person plus a couple extra gallons jugs.
Once the ferry leaves, there isn’t a restaurant on the island so we had to pack a cooler full of food and charcoal for the cooking. Due to ferry requirements, we had to bring charcoal for cooking over my fuel camping stove.
Getting on the Dry Tortugas Ferry
My travel partner and I had an early morning. We had to arrive at the docks several hours before the day trippers. The boat crew needs to get our camping gear loaded before they fueled the boat. We had a couple hours to hang out by the dock and watch the water in the early morning light.
They need to load the camping gear onto the boat before the fuel the boat. There is a max of 6 campers on the ferry and it can take a while to load coolers, kayaks, and other camping gear.
The Ferry Ride to Fort Jefferson.
The ferry departed on the hour and a half journey to the islands. If you get motion sickness, take Dramamine in the morning when you arrive at the dock. The boat will rock but the level of rocking will depend on the weather and that can vary from calm and chill to the crew gets seasick. Our ride was decent. We have 3-5 ft waves. I do get seasick and the Dramamine worked like a charm as long as I was sitting outside. We spent the ride hanging out on the bow of the boat.
Arrival at Dry Tortugas National Park
The boat docked on the island. The day tripper’s exit the boat to enjoy their three-hour adventure on the island. The small group of campers have to wait until a park ranger arrives for the safety and park rule briefing. The meeting covered the standard stuff like
- Leave No Trace principles
- No attaching or hanging things from trees
- Place all trash in proper containers
- No feeding the wildlife
- Preventing the rats from stealing your food
- Leave your charcoal in the grill, it will be collected in the morning.
- Quiet hours from 10:00pm to 6:00am
- What qualifies as an emergency and is a reason to wake the Rangers up in the middle of the night?
My favorite section was the “What qualifies as an emergency and is a reason to wake the Rangers up in the middle of the night?”
The question caught me by surprise at the time (nowadays, I am not shocked or surprised by these things). Apparently, this has become such an issue that it needs to be discussed with campers.
- Someone need medical treatment that a band-aid can’t fix ~ Emergency
- Your charcoal will not light ~ Not an Emergency
- The Cubans have landed ~ Emergency
I shared a look with my travel partner. The Cubans have landed. My first thought is that the ranger is joking. He can see the looks on all the campers’ faces and informs us that it isn’t a joke and it happens about once a month or so. ***My next thought “Does this count as dry land and do they get to stay.” I couldn’t resist asking, the answer is YES the Cubans get transported to Key West and released.
*** In 1995, the United States started a unique program for Cubans fleeing Cuba this program was called ‘Wet foot, dry foot.” If they landed in the USA and managed to get to dry land, they were considered political refugees and were given entrance to the United States. If they were caught at sea, they were returned to Cuba. Then President Obama ended this program in January 2017 and since then very few Cubans have tried to enter the United States via small rafts (or floating bathtubs).
Things to do at Dry Tortugas National Park
There are several small reefs just off the beaches. They are a nice snorkel. If the wind isn’t blowing, the old piers are great to snorkel in-between the piers. The piers are covered in mussels so if the waves are more than 2 feet, I wouldn’t get to close.
There are some small rock formation about a ¼ mile from the beach which are a nice swim. There aren’t usually currents around the island but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any. Tell someone on shore you are headed out there.
The other great snorkel is to snorkel along the Fort Jefferson sea wall. It has a lot of little creatures on the wall and if you are lucky you might find some moray eels hiding along the wall.
Explore Fort Jefferson
I would wait until 3:30 pm to explore Fort Jefferson. Around 3:30, the ferry leaves taking 95% of the visitors with it. After that, there are usually between 1 and 30 people depending on how many seaplanes visitors and campers are on the island. For our spring break visit, there were about 10 other campers and a couple of rangers.
This is the perfect time to explore Fort Jefferson and get lots of photos without any tourists in them.
The rangers offer a guided tour of the fort about 30 mins after the ferry arrives every day. Check with the rangers for the exact time of the tour. Depending on workload and how nice the rangers are one might be available to give a private tour (or some of the stories not on the tour). Ask nicely when no one else is around for the ghost stories.
Go Ghost Hunting
Alas, the fort closes at sunset, but Fort Jefferson is supposedly “haunted.” I found this fact out via one of the park rangers.
Earlier in the day, the two engineers (myself and my travel buddy) had noticed a guy with a quadcopter which was odd. Normally drone use is highly restricted in the national parks (they are banned in most parks or you need to apply for a permit).
The park ranger told us that the quadcopter was part of the film crew for Syfy channels’ Haunted Highways show. We could have cared less about the show. We were more interested in the quadcopter. The pilot was very unfriendly and didn’t want to talk to us.
Later that night we got some amazing ghost stories from one of the older rangers. He wasn’t impressed by the ghost hunters there but he had some freaky stories about things he had seen happened.
We spent part of the night wandering along the seawall to see if we could see any ghostly figures wandering around. We didn’t. We did get to follow the ghost hunger around the seawall as the filmed. I am pretty sure they used some of us laughing in the final cuts.
Watch the sunset from the ramparts
As sunset approaches find one of the ramparts and set-up to watch the sunset. My favorite spot was on the third tier. You are welcome to stay until the sun drops below the horizon. Once it drops below the horizon, the interior of the fort closes. Be nice to the Park Rangers and don’t make them hunt you down to get you to leave. Take your flashlight with you as there are no lights in the fort and the stairwells can get really dark really fast.
Lobster watching and Conch racing
At night, the lobsters that live in the moat come out. If you use a strong flashlight, you can spot the lobster. If you are really lucky, the American crocodile that lives in the moat will come out and do some hunting. Don’t worry during the day, she hangs out in the moat and isn’t a danger to humans.
One of the rangers had told us, that the moat has lobsters that come out at night. As we walked around the wall we didn’t find many lobsters but we did find a conch on the move. It would use its foot push off the sand and move forward between 6 to 8 inches. All we need was some beer and second conch and we were off to the races.
Keep your eyes peeled and see if you can see any ghostly features inside the fort.
This trip was long before I had started to develop my star photography skills. There is no light pollution on Dry Tortugas. If it is a cloudless night, the starts are unreal. There are very few places that are better to watch the stars in the United States.
Have you been camping or visited in Dry Tortugas National Park? What was your favorite park? If not, do you want to visit Dry Tortugas National Park?