Thursday, August 26, 2021

How to Visit Dry Tortugas National Park with Kids: Tips and Tricks

Dry Tortugas National Park is the most remote national park my family (my husband and me, plus our two kids, ages 10 and 12) ever visited. It literally took a plane ride, a drive, and a ferry ride to reach the park, and even then, you only get to spend four hours there (unless you decide to camp overnight). Oh, and did I mention that the ferry ride costs an arm and a leg?

So is it worth it?

Having just spent an afternoon at Dry Tortugas, halfway through our weeklong stay in the Florida Keys, I can say that it is definitely worth checking out once in your life. The setting is surreal, from the massive, six-sided, three-story fort with a colorful past to the crystal clear, sea green waters surrounding it, which you are encouraged to snorkel. In fact, 95 percent of this park consists of water. 

If you're already visiting the Florida Keys, as we were, then making the trip out to Dry Tortugas is a no-brainer in my book, with or without kids. It's a bucket-list sort of thing that few people ever get to do. Plus, this national park never gets overcrowded, since only you and your fellow ferry passengers will be on the island for the whole day, making for a very peaceful beach experience.

How do you get there?

The only way to get to Dry Tortugas is by taking the Yankee Freedom III ferry from Key West. You have to book the trip weeks, sometimes months, in advance, as there are a limited number of seats on the ferry and only one departs each day. The ride is two hours long and includes breakfast (bagels, fruits, and drink) and lunch (sandwich, chips, and drink). Also included is all the snorkel gear, including flotation devices, so all you have to bring are your swimsuits and towels. So I suppose if you factor all that into the hefty price tag of a round-trip ride, it brings down the cost a little. You can also show your National Parks Pass as you're checking in (or, in our case, our fourth-grader's Every Kid Outdoors pass) and save an additional $30.

I was slightly nervous about going on a two-hour-long boat ride, as my husband and I are both prone to motion sickness. But as it turns out, I didn't feel sick at all, and my husband was only a little seasick (he went to sleep as soon as he started to feel unwell). We both wore sea bands, so maybe that helped, and Dramamine is sold on board the boat.

What's there to do on the island?

Once we got to Dry Tortugas, that's when the real fun began. The parks department offers a free 45-minute guided tour of Fort Jefferson, but since my son would rather swim the 70 miles back to Key West than go on any sort of tour, we chose to forgo it and head straight to the beach with our borrowed snorkel gear. (Besides, the ferry crew hands out literature and a QR code for a self-guided tour, so we were able to learn a lot of interesting facts about the fort that way.)

There are two beaches on the island, North and South (here's a map of the area), and we set ourselves up on North Beach, by the moat wall. From there, we entered the crystalline waters and snorkeled out to the end of the fort wall. Using our borrowed pool noodles to stay afloat really helped, as the waters were a bit choppy that day. The water was perfectly clear, and we spotted some fish, although not a ton of them. Mostly, we enjoyed hanging out in the beautiful and warm waters.

After eating our provided lunches on the beach, we decided to explore the fort, which I thought was going to be very similar to the other forts we've visited, but turned out to be much more interesting and eerily beautiful. First of all, it's enormous, with three levels to explore. We thought we were high up on the second level, but gazing down from the third level was truly thrilling  maybe because there are no railings or walls of any kind to keep you from tumbling down into the waters or grounds below. Be careful if you're taking selfies!

Our four hours on the island went by in a flash, and soon it was time to reboard the ferry to return to Key West. The freshwater showers on the back deck of the boat were a great way to wash off all that salt water, and I was glad we had clothes to change into for our long ride home. I was beat at the end of the day and slept most of the ride home. All in all, we had a great day, and despite how difficult and expensive it is to journey out to this remote national park, we were really glad we did!