Photo: NPS/ Denise Diaz

Campsite With a View: Dry Tortugas National Park

Experience secluded island life at the far end of Florida at the Garden Key Campground.

Wake up to views of the sunrise over crystalline waters—all without having to get out of bed. The primitive campsites at Garden Key Campground are located on a 14-acre island inside Dry Tortugas National Park, a remote park that sits 70 miles west of Key West and is only accessible by private boat or ferry. Think: palm trees, white sand beneath your feet, and sweeping water views over the Gulf of Mexico.

Less than 1% of Dry Tortugas is dry land, so the best way to explore its coral reefs, marine life and shipwrecks is by getting on the water. Swimming, snorkeling, paddling, and fishing are the best activities to maximize time on Garden Key. And since there are only 10 sites at the campground, and no other lodging on the island, it’s basically like having your own private island for a night or two. 

Best Campsites

There’s no such thing as a bad site at Garden Key Campground. They’re nestled between the 19th-century Fort Jefferson (built after the War of 1812 to protect the U.S. southern coast) and the Gulf’s dreamy blue-green waters. Just a short walk from the island’s dock, each of the eight first-come, first-served regular sites can accommodate three two-person tents (total of six people). There’s also a group campsite (room for 12-15 tents) that you can reserve ahead of time. But don’t expect much more; the campground has no public showers, concessions, or other amenities beyond composting toilets, picnic tables, and grills for charcoal fires (what more do you need with this view?). Regular sites are $15/night and the group site is $30/night. 

Seasons

Hurricane season generally lasts from early June to late November, but that doesn’t mean you should avoid visiting then; the summer months are warmer with clearer skies and calmer winds. But spring makes a strong case, too, with pleasant temps often in the 70s and 80s from late March to May—and less visitors as well. Don’t count winter out, either. Yes, there’s occasionally poor weather (even though low temps only drop to the 60s), but it’s a pleasantly quiet time on the island. No matter what season you plan to visit Dry Tortugas, make sure you check detailed weather forecasts before departing. 

Supplies

Since the island is remote without a store to pick up a forgotten essential, you’ll need to arrive prepared. There are plenty of grocery and outdoor shops in Key West (where you’ll catch the ferry from) to grab any last-minute necessities. Tents are mandatory when camping on the island, and the park service recommends that each person bring two gallons of water per day. Don’t forget trash bags! All trash must be carried off the island when you leave. Pro tip: The ferry doesn’t allow compressed gas canisters onboard, so bring charcoal, a lighter, and waterproof matches. Be sure to bring your food in hard-sided containers to keep the rats (and crabs!) from getting to them. There are hooks to keep food and other items off the ground (just don’t store any food in your tent). You’ll want sun gear, rain gear, and bug gear as well.

Photo: NPS/ Denise Diaz

Activities

There’s no shortage of things to do at Garden Key, where you’ll certainly find outings that everyone in your party can enjoy. 

Stargazing: Dry Tortugas is dozens of miles from the closest town, which means that light pollution is limited. Nights on the island provide an excellent opportunity to sit beneath dark skies and watch the stars overhead. 

Snorkeling: Knowing that 99% of Dry Tortugas exists under the surface, snorkeling is the perfect way to explore the park. You’ll find coral reefs, fish, artifacts, and maybe even a shipwreck. Be sure not to brush up against the coral (you’ll likely kill it). 

Paddling: Kayaking or standup paddling is an amazing way to tour clear, calm water and view the marine life and coral reefs from above. However, you’ll need to arrange transport of your own craft (personal or rental) to Garden Key (and secure a free boating permit in the Visitor Center). Experienced paddlers should consider the 3-mile trip through open water to Loggerhead Key, which also boasts snorkeling and white-sand beaches that you’ll likely have all to yourself. 

Fort Jefferson: Visiting the fort is a major reason folks come to Garden Key. Construction began in 1846 and took the Army Corps of Engineers over 30 years and 16 million bricks to raise a fort for 1,500 people and 450 cannons—all surrounded by a large moat filled with turquoise water.

Wildlife Viewing: Dry Tortugas is a true bird-lover’s paradise. Watchers have spotted 300 different species, notably in the spring and fall when birds stop here on migrations between North and South America. Five different species of sea turtles also frequent the park that’s named for them, where visitors can spot sharks, lobsters, octopus, and squid as well.

Fishing: South Florida is already a sport-fishing destination, and the fishing around Dry Tortugas is a particular jewel in the crown, where the remote deep-water ledges and reef offer excellent habitat for grouper and snapper as well as other gamefish like wahoo and tuna. That said, don’t plan to eat your catch, don’t forget your fishing license and pay attention to rules, regulations and boundaries of permitted fishing areas. 

Details

Garden Key is only accessible by water, which means you’ll need to arrive by private boat or the public ferry, departing from the dock in Key West, which is only a few miles from the Key West International Airport (otherwise, Miami International is about a 3.5-hour drive). Tickets for the ferry, called Yankee Freedom, sell out far in advance; be sure to reserve ahead of time. It’s not cheap ($210 for adults and $155 for children), so it’s worth the cost to stay on the island for a few nights. The ferry leaves at 7 a.m., and it’s recommended that campers arrive 30 minutes earlier to check in, and that campers reserve space for stowed kayaks (there’s only room for three per trip, under 17 feet). While sites on the island are first-come, first-served, if you arrive by the ferry you are guaranteed a spot to camp. So once you’re on the boat, sit back, relax, and enjoy the sunshine and views on the two-hour ride.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.

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