As we were planning our Key West itinerary, we came across a stunning photo of a beach located at the Garden Key. We never knew that almost a hundred miles west of Key West there’s a place that is out of this world! Our minds were already framed on what to expect from the beaches on the Florida Keys that are located in the world’s third largest coral reef that makes the area excellent for diving and snorkeling. Key Largo, one of the keys, has even earned the title of the Diving Capital of the World. However, this means that because of the coral reefs filtering the waves before they reach the shores on the islands, there would be less pulverization of the sand so there are less fine, white sand beaches around the islands. That captivating scenery of the Dry Tortugas National Park’s South Swim Beach convinced us to make the place one of the major destinations that we will be visiting during our first trip to the Florida Keys.
Situated between the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean, the remotely located Dry Tortugas National Park is 70 miles west of Key West, Florida which is the southernmost city in the continental United States. It is composed of six pristine islands of which the Garden Key is the centerpiece island. It is also where Fort Jefferson is located. It is America’s third largest and most spectacular coastal fort.
reaching dry tortugas
Access to the Dry Tortugas National Park is only possible from Key West. You can fly to either Miami or Fort Lauderdale and take a scenic four-hour drive to Key West. You can also fly direct to Key West but I would not suggest this option because you will be missing the breathtaking views of the ending stretch of U.S. Route 1 that terminates at Key West. From Key West you can either take the ferry to Dry Tortugas National Park which is exclusively offered by Yankee Freedom III (US$190 per adult person for a return trip including breakfast and lunch) or you can take a sea plane which can be chartered at this link (US$299 for a half day tour or US$525 for a full day tour per adult person).
things to do at dry tortugas
We just opted for a full day tour so what I will be presenting here will just be activities for those who are on day tour, except for the camping tips.
We took the ferry that left Key West at 8 a.m. and reached Dry Tortugas National Park at around 10:30 a.m. For the day tour you have exactly four and half hours to spend on the island. Upon arrival you can either join a free one-hour tour of Fort Jefferson or you can just do your own thing. We did the latter and we immediately went to South Swim Beach.
1. relaxing at South Swim Beach
South Swim Beach was my favorite place on the island. From the docking area, you can proceed to the left side and walk past the entrance to the massive fort for about 2 minutes and it will bring you to what I consider the most picturesque area in the Dry Tortugas National Park.
You move further south and walk past the amazing white sand beach.
You will end up at this stone structure that also houses the helipad.
From the stone structure, one can have this stunning scenery. This area is also one of the designated snorkeling places.
Visitors would spend most of their time just lazing on this white sand beach and swimming in the turquoise waters.
From this beach, one can also chance upon sea planes passing by.
2. going around the fort via the moat wall
From South Swim Beach you can start walking along the south moat wall and start going around the entire structure from outside.
Then you will come across your first turn to the west moat wall.
We took some photos on the west moat wall.
And then on the east side as well. It took us around 12 minutes to go around the fort via the moat wall.
3. spending time at North Swim Beach
Either by going the entire walkway along the moat wall outside the fort from South Swim Beach (described in the preceding section) or taking right from the docking area to the pathway (shown above), you will be led to the less crowded North Swim Beach.
This beach is shorter, less crowded and less charming than South Swim Beach. Nevertheless, this beach also has crystal clear blue waters.
4. snorkeling & fishing
As I have stated earlier the Florida Keys sits on the world’s third largest coral reef and it should just be fitting to do some snorkeling around designated areas in the island. The protected waters are home to an array of extraordinary sea life. Snorkeling gears are provided free by the boat, Yankee Freedom III.
Fishing on Garden Key is also allowed at five designated areas. Fishing license is required unless you are under the age of 16 or a Florida senior resident over the age of 65.
There is an option to camp on the island up to three nights and that’s what we wanted to do but we did not get camping slots anymore as they only limit the number of campers per day to around sixty-six campers at the eleven camp sites in the island. So be sure to book in advance if you want to camp.
6. touring the inner side of the fort
Welcome to Fort Jefferson. This fort was 30 years in the making but was never finished.
7. enjoying the view from the boat
From the boat you can enjoy the view going to the adjacent Bush Key while having lunch.
You can also enjoy views of the harbor light and part of the eastern part of the fort from the boat.
The four and a half hours was really short and I wished we could have camped there for a day or two as I also wanted to experience sunsets and sunrises on the island. We left the Garden Key at exactly 3:00 p.m. and reached Key West after two and a half hours.
This has been my best island experience so far in the U.S.A.! The scenery was something I have never seen before.
Above all, the beach was incredibly beautiful!