Florida: Discovering The Dry Tortugas

The third level of Fort Jefferson, a massive coastal fortress. Terri Clemmons Photos.
The third level of Fort Jefferson, a massive coastal fortress. Terri Clemmons Photos.

Camping the Dry Tortugas in the Gulf of Mexico: An unusual visit to Florida

By Terri Clemmons

Fort Jefferson in the Dry Torgugas.
Fort Jefferson in the Dry Torgugas.

While researching an upcoming trip to the Florida Keys, I came across The Dry Tortugas, one of the most remote and least well known of the U.S. National Parks.
I knew the snorkeling and history of the island would be right up my husband’s alley, but I was not sure that this seasick-prone, wilderness-adverse wife could handle the 2.5 hour ferry ride to get there.

But the more I delved into it, the more intrigued I was about Fort Jefferson, complete with moat, that lies 70 miles west of Key West on Garden Key, one of the seven islands that make up the Dry Tortugas.

But if I was going to endure a long ferry ride, why not go all in and make my first camping experience a primitive camping experience in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico? My family guffawed and my friends gasped, but I actually loved it!

The Island

The fort takes up most of the island and is 19th century marvel with rich history including use as a prison for Abraham Lincoln’s assignation conspirators.

It photographs beautifully, especially after day-trippers have left and you seemingly have it all to yourself. The ferry operators offer a daily, guided tour but we opted to self-tour. A small bookstore/gift shop in the fort is underwhelming, but it is air-conditioned so it is nice browsing midday.

Snorkeling the coral heads area off the south beach had the best variety of coral and fish. We saw tarpon at the old pilings by the north beach. A map is given to campers upon arrival. If you are new to snorkeling, this will be an awesome experience as it was for other campers.

If you are experienced, it was not that impressive, but still enjoyable. We found out that the best snorkeling is at Loggerhead Key, but that would require a kayak to access. If we had it to do over again, we would rent a kayak and bring it on the ferry, as snorkeling was one of our main interests there. One of the park workers said it was accessible if you are a strong swimmer, but you would have to be Michael Phelps or have a death wish. Seriously, it is a long way off.

Sensational Stargazing

Sunsets and stargazing were spectacular! We even saw the elusive green flash at sunset one night. We were fortunate to have clear skies and it was mesmerizing. We saw the dusty “Milky Way” and shooting stars long after most campers were snug in their tents, failing to even look up. Speechless.

We set up our beach chairs and reclined with an evening refreshment. Sigh. Heavenly. Stay away from the beach at night though because it was the only place that we saw a mosquito. We had a little flashlight that led us back to our tent when we couldn’t keep our eyes open anymore.

The water is pristine and beaches are sandy, unlike most beaches in the Keys. Still, the terrain is rough and good water shoes saved the day. We took two cheapo inflatable rafts and drifted in the afternoon to stay cool. Bliss. There is very little shade on the entire island so the chair sun umbrella came in very handy. Beware of rogue waves though. Our gear was almost washed away in a sudden series of waves. If we had been snorkeling at the time, it would have been gone.

On of the two shady camping spots that Clemmons and her husband snagged.
On of the two shady camping spots that Clemmons and her husband snagged.

Bird watching was limited in June as Bush Key, the island connected to Garden Key by a sandbar, was blocked off to visitors because it was nesting season. The magnificent Frigatebird could be seen flying overhead everyday and a few other birds could be seen on the grounds.

In our camping orientation talk, we were told that Cuban refugee boats landed there over a dozen times times last year. There is a display about it in the fort. The conservation officer explained that they are grateful to be there but usually require immediate medical attention. It’s humbling to contemplate their journey when you see the boat that held 32 people.

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The Ferry

The Yankee Freedom III ferry is the only option for campers other than a pricier charter experience. The cost for the ferry is $190 for campers ($170 for day trippers that have only four hours on island) plus $3 in cash for each night of camping, for a maximum stay of three nights.

I booked in early February for a mid-June camping experience andcould not get my first choice in dates, so book as early as possible at drytortugas.com.

Campers have to be at the ferry terminal by 6:30 a.m. to load gear so we stayed in Key West the night before in the nearby Marquesa Hotel for $210.

That included parking and incredibly accommodating services like storing our luggage until we returned from camping, freezing water, refrigerating food, and providing ice for the cooler. After you load your gear, go up to the terminal and check in. You get a numbered boarding pass but the numbers mean nothing.

Be prepared to line up if you need a prime spot, like a lower deck, middle to aft window seat to avoid seasickness. We had calm seas which are typical in June and I was fine even though I am prone to motion sickness.

Boarding starts at 7:30 so you do have time to grab a café con leche at the Cuban Coffee Queen that is a block and half away on Margret Street.

Breakfast is served on the ferry with basic continental fare. Lunch is also served from 11-1 which is a build your own sandwich bar, fruit, and pasta salad.

Campers can pick which day to have their lunch and we picked the last day there as all our supplies had to be back on the boat at 10:30 on the day of departure. We bought lunch one other day for $7 but you can’t count on it in case the ferry does not come due to the weather.

Preparation

We bought three liter-bottles of “smart” water with electrolytes and froze them at our hotel to put in the bottom of the cooler and filled the cooler with ice. Ice is a precious commodity. You can purchase a bag of ice for $7 from the ferry the next day, but again you can’t rely on it.

We took a case of bottled water and four gallons of water and had plenty to use as a “shower” at the end of the day to wash off the salt water.

There is a lot to schlep, but it is easier than it sounds as the ferry provides carts to load and unload at the terminal and campsite, and you don’t want to be short on water.

We also took a small jar of peanut butter, jam and one loaf of bread for dinners. Yes, there was some food envy when other campers were grilling but the thought of hauling all that for two nights was too much to bear. The pbj's were delicious at the end of an active day. We took Clif bars, trail mix, and brews too.

The interior of Fort Jefferson.
The interior of Fort Jefferson.

You must have a tent and after some research I decided to spend a little more than a cheapo because the tent (MSR Elixir 3-Person Tent) I got was supposed to be keep the tent cooler (It did.) and I might want to go camping again sometime (I do!). I thought I could always put it on eBay if it was a disaster. I also bought some blowup twin mattresses that included an air pump and that was a huge comfort factor. They fit perfectly. For more on preparation, visit here.

Primitive Camping

Primitive it is. No fresh water source at all on the island, thus the Dry. Toilet facilities are of the non-flushing variety, which was the worst part for me. They would benefit from better maintenance.

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Campers must be prepared with everything they will need as there are no services provided once you are there, especially water, as the sun can be unrelenting.

The temperature hovered around 90 degrees for the two days we were there which is the average temperature. Everything that you take in must be taken out.

Fort Jefferson window looking out to the sea.
A Fort Jefferson window looking out to the sea.

We spent the mornings snorkeling and then once the day-trippers arrived and it got crowded, we headed back to the campsite to sit in the shade for some reading and nodding off where the breeze was actually pleasant. The fort offers some shade as well.

We snagged campsite #6 that was one of the two shady spots available the day we arrived. I highly suggest that you bolt immediately from the ferry after the “camper talk” and claim a site by putting some of your stuff on a numbered picnic table. You can go back and get a cart and get the rest of your stuff. I felt a wee bit guilty when the other campers arrived to find no good sites left, but not bad enough to give them my shade. Those campers headed to the overflow area and it is in the sun all day. That could have been a deal breaker for me.

Another concern for me was rats. One camper confirmed that at one time there was a rodent population that trolled the campsite at night, but they have been recently eradicated. Dodged that bullet.

We still kept meticulous care of the campsite and hung the garbage from the pole provided. The ferry collects all trash and a new bag is given out when you bring your bag. They have recycling bins as well.

Hermit crabs are abundant and you have to watch where you step, especially at night. I ventured out of my tent about 2 a.m. to get another look at the starry heavens and had to step lightly. Small lizards are also present but not in scary numbers.

Sudden, short-lived rain showers occur even when the skies are mostly sunny, so put the rain fly on your tent. One couple did not and paid for it.

Happy Campers

There was a mix of experienced (professional?) campers and the novices as well as couples and families. I felt safe and comfortable the entire trip. We left our stuff and never had a problem. The difficult getaway may be a good deterrent, or campers are inherently honest and I am a cynic.

Do not expect privacy. Other tents are literally a few steps away. It was a little weird, but we just did our thing and so did they. People were friendly but not, “Let’s be best friends this weekend”. Shudder.

Be discreet with your flashlight at night and point it at the ground. Some people let their kids flash it all over the place and annoyed at least one camper trying to stargaze. Campers rise at the crack of dawn but we all looked alike, happily scraggly.

Camping at Dry Tortugas is a unique travel adventure with an optimal risk/reward ratio. If this reluctant newbie can do it, so can you.

Terry ClemmonsTerri Clemmons is a freelance writer for GoNOMAD Travel and a wife, mom, teacher, writer, and wayfarer.