The Adventure Of A Lifetime – Dry Tortugas, FL
I just couldn’t bring myself to spend the money. I mean we’re talking $329 and given that I’m a frugal gal in all things (well in all things non-food related anyway) I just couldn’t wrap my head around it. It couldn’t possibly be worth that much, right? And besides the ferry was half the price ($165) and would do just fine. Yes, no matter what I was definitely going to take the ferry. End of story.
Then several things happened….
First, there were no slots available on the ferry for the next 2 weeks. What? I knew visitation to the Island was limited to one ferry a day, but I simply hadn’t expected it to be booked out that far ahead. Ugh!
Then I was gently “reminded” about my little sea sickness problem, not just once but twice. I’m talking two short 20-minute boat rides to snorkel spots just off the coast. Both were on a pretty calm days and both trips made everything spin so bad I was literally knocked out for almost 24 hours afterwards, and that was with Dramamine too! Each trip made me feel like I was dying and the aftermath was so bad I’m feeling queasy just writing about it more than 2 weeks later (seriously). There was literally NO WAY I was going to survive a 5-hour ferry ride (2.5 hours each way), no matter how much my frugal mind wanted it so.
Then Jil happened. I’d talked to her about going together while she was here, but didn’t feel right asking her to shell out so much money for a single sightseeing trip, especially after she’d just paid to come all the way out here from WA. And given that the ferry was fully booked, we were just going to have to miss it. What a bummer…
“Let’s go on the plane” she declared one morning “It’s once in a lifetime, so let’s just do it!”
“Really? I replied “But it’s so expensive!”
It took a full day for her (and Paul) to convince me, but in the end I had to admit they were right. This was likely it, the one and only time I would ever do this. So why not just go in style? Clearly I couldn’t handle the ferry and who knows when or IF I’d ever have this chance again? Plus this way Jil and I could go together (Paul graciously offered to stay home with Polly) and make an adventure out of it.
So with that last little push I went ahead and called the sea plane guys. Their popular 8AM plane was already full, but they had space on the 10AM so we loaded it on the credit card and waited for the big day to arrive. It was going to be crazy, it was going to be exciting, and for those of you wandering let me tell you right now folks….it was TOTALLY worth it!!
What/Where Is Dry Tortugas?
Before we hop over the great green-blue ocean I need to backtrack a bit and set the scene for you with some geography.
Many people think the Keys end at Key West, and as far as the drivable road goes that’s absolutely correct. Hwy 1 ends at Key West and once you hit the end of that asphalt, you’ve gone as far as you can physically go on wheels. It’s the southernmost point in the US and it’s waaaay down there, just 90 miles (~145 km) as the crow flies from Cuba.
But the islands don’t stop there. If you look at an expanded map of the Keys you’ll see a slew of additional islands strung out to the left of Key West and if you go to very tippy end of this string, around 70 miles west you’ll hit a final collection known as the Dry Tortugas. Right in the middle of this remote spot, in what seems like the most nonsensical place of all are two things you’d never expect, a lighthouse (well, technically two) and a hexagonal monster of a place called Fort Jefferson.
The whole lot is preserved as part of the Dry Tortugas National Park and there are only 2 ways to get here -> by sea or by air. Plus visitation is strictly limited. There’s only one ferry and a select few sea planes that land here everyday, so unless you’ve got your own boat those are your only options to get out here. Limited visitation means limited crowds (yeah!), but also means you need to book well ahead to get in, plus it’s expensive to catch a ride.
But this is history, and man-made madness, and ocean so intensely green-blue it seems unnatural. It was a trip that had been on my bucket list for over 10 years, and I was finally going to get to do it.
We’re Going On A Sea Plane!
So here we were, bright and early at Key West airport amply pumped and fluttering around like little kids with excitement for our trip.
There is only one company (Key West Seaplane Adventures) authorized to fly to Dry Tortugas and the planes are DHC-3 DeHavilland Turbine Otter Amphibians. I don’t know much (well, anything at all really) about planes, but for my purposes the important details were that they are small (10 seats only) and every person gets a window seat. Plus everyone gets a personal headset/headphone that muffles the noise and allows the pilot to chat to you and play cool music on the way over.
We checked-in 30 mins early, picked up our complimentary snorkel gear plus drinks (water or soda) and got ready for the adventure. 15 minutes later the pilot Gary met us at the check-in, took us out to the plane and loaded our bags (we brought lunch, towels & a change of clothes for post-swimming) into the back of the plane. We took our seat and less than 10 minutes later we were taxi-ing down the runway and in the air!
Oh, What A Joy To See Everything By Air
It’s hard to describe to you how cool the flight was. The plane flies pretty low so you see literally everything on the way over. Mesmerizing patchworks of blue and aqua water, lush green coral atolls, sunken ships and even sea turtles swimming in the water. Everything is so clear and so intensely colored, as if someone took a neon highlighter and painted it all from the sky. From sweeping vistas of Key West to the underwater desert of the “Quicksands” the captivating views never cease, and seeing it from the air really lets you appreciate how unique this corner of the world really is. Plus our Pilot was great and pointed out all the interesting details and history along the way. A mere 40 minutes later we swooped over the Fort, landed on the water and motored to a stop at the beach. We hopped onto the brilliant white sand and we were there!
The Largest Brick Masonry Structure In The Americas
Seeing Fort Jefferson for the first time is quite the thing. She’s a 6-sided monster of a Fortress with walls that span 325 ft-477 ft long and rise 2 levels high. She was built to protect the southern coastline of the United States and her construction started in 1846. It took 16 million bricks and over 30 years to create her (1846-1875) and yet she was never fully finished or fully armed. Despite that she weathered countless hurricanes, and hosted over 420 heavy guns and 2,000 people at her peak. She was used as a Military Base, a Prison, a quarantine station for the Marine-Hospital Service and finally (today) as a historical attraction.
She’s one of the largest Forts ever built and her size is so impressive she holds the title of largest brick masonry structure in the Americas! For folks like us that means acres of tunnels, windows, hidden pockets, topside trails and history to explore. Plus there are not just one but two lighthouses (!), one on the Fort itself (Garden Key Light -> not open for visitation while we were there) and another within view on another Key just a ~3 miles away (Loggerhead Light -> visitation by special permit only).
When you get on the Island they pretty much leave you to your own devices so you are free to climb everywhere on the Fort, take a guided tour (or not), have lunch anywhere you wish, go birding and snorkel the waters around the Fort. For free-spirited tourists it’s the perfect arrangement. Plus given that visitation is low (only ~175 people come on the ferry plus another 20 by sea planes) you’ve got TONS of space to call your own.
Jil and I explored the Fort, climbed to the top, walked the upper level (the absolute best views here), wandered around the moat (yes, there’s a moat!), snorkeled a bit, birded a bit and just generally enjoyed the area. To be honest we aaaalmost felt a bit rushed. We had ~2.5 hours on the Island, but it was so big we could easily have used another hour or three.
On the plane back we were bursting with the fullness of our experience. This is a place I’ve always wanted to see and it absolutely delivered. Between the flight, the amazing Fort, the waters and the history we both agreed that it had been totally worth it. Add it to your bucket list, my reader friends. You won’t regret it!
Trip Details & Info
You can only get to the Island by either boat or sea plane, and there is only ONE authorized ferry & ONE authorized sea plane company. Also be advised that the trips are weather-dependent, so if the forecast is rough (wind/sea) they may not go.
THE FERRY is an all-day event that costs $175/adult ($125/child, $165/senior). The price includes $10 National Park Fee (so you get a $10 discount if you have a National Parks Pass) as well as continental breakfast and lunch. The ferry leaves Key West at 7:30AM, arrives at the Island at 10:15 am. It leaves again at 3PM and arrives back in Key West at 5:15PM. Complimentary snorkel equipment is included. Click HERE for more info.
TOP TIP: RESERVE your spot in advance as these ferries often book out weeks ahead!
THE SEA PLANES cost $329/adult ($263.60/child) for 1/2 day excursion or $578/adult ($462.20/child) for a full-day excursion. The price does NOT include the $10 National Park Fee so that’s additional unless you have a National Parks Pass. Planes depart from Key West Airport at 8AM, 10AM, 12PM & 2PM and take 40 mins to get to the Island. Complimentary snorkel equipment and drinks (water/soda) is included. Click HERE for more info.
TOP TIP: The BEST planes to take are the first plane in the morning (8AM) or last plane of the day (2PM) since the Ferry will be gone, so there’s almost no-one on the Island! These are also the most popular planes so book ahead if you want them.
OTHER WAYS TO STAY/VISIT: If you have your own boat you can certainly sail/motor over and visit the park on your own. A boat permit and entry fee is required. See details HERE. Also you can overnight tent-camp at the Fort, which means you can stay on the Island after everyone has left! This looks like it would be an amazing experience. See details HERE and HERE
PAW NOTES: Dogs are welcome on the Island, but only if you get them here on your own devices (neither the sea plane nor the ferry takes pets). Also you can take doggie all around the park, but not inside the Fort itself.
Other Useful Links: