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Camping in the Dry Tortugas National Park

Camping in the Dry Tortugas National ParkCamping in the Dry Tortugas National Park

Truly one of the most remote national parks, the Dry Tortugas National Park lies 70 miles west of Key West off the coast of Florida. The park consists of seven small islands sitting among coral reefs in the deep blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico. I've visited a few times during day trips from Key West and am constantly amazed at the beauty and isolation of this special place. When there, it's hard to believe you are the United States, let alone in a national park.

In addition to a range of marine and other wildlife, the Dry Tortugas are home to a historic American military structure, Fort Jefferson, which itself has a fascinating history. The fort was intended to defend the country, specifically the Gulf of Mexico and Gulf Coast shipping. Never actually used as a military fort, it was converted to a military prison during the Civil War and served that function until 1874.

How to Get There

There's no airport; the only options to get to the Dry Tortugas are by boat or seaplane. Private boats can dock there with proper permits, and there's a daily ferry service from Key West. Day trips are $165 per adult, which includes the $5 per person National Park entrance fee. The seaplane service, also from Key West, is $280 per person for a half-day and $495 each for a full-day excursion.

Camping in the Dry Tortugas National ParkCamping in the Dry Tortugas National Park

What to Do

It's a lot of fun to just walk around the trails and explore. We like to bring food to have a picnic on a secluded beach. Snorkeling is very popular, and the ferry company offers equipment rentals. We went snorkeling, and it really was like swimming in an aquarium. The daily 11 a.m. tour of Fort Jefferson, the largest masonry fort in the country, is a must-see. Self-guided tours are available all day, and the fort is open from sunrise to sunset. The fort has a real haunted feeling to it, and there are many dark, scary places to explore.

Camping

Camping on the Dry Tortugas is an incredible experience and provides a true escape from the modern world. There are no facilities or services; it's primitive camping at its best (no cellular service!). To get there, campers can take the ferry service; the cost is $180 per person. The Park Service charges campers a $3 per person, per day fee.

There's a 10-site campground on Garden Key, the same island as Fort Jefferson. There are picnic tables and grills, a beautiful beach, and a lot of palm trees. After the visitors leave at sunset, the campers really are stranded alone on a desert island. The campsites, which are on the beach steps from the water, each fit up to three tents and six campers. There is also a group campsite, which fits 12 to 15 tents. Propane or any liquid or gas fuel is not allowed on the boat, only self-starting charcoal or sterno cans. Kayaks can be transported for an additional fee ($20).

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