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How Far Is Dry Tortugas From Key West – 70 Miles to Explore Fort Jefferson

70 Miles to the Marvel Fort Jefferson

The answer is simply the Dry Tortugas National Park is located approximately 70 miles west of Key West, Florida. The park consists of a group of small islands, with Garden Key being the primary island where Fort Jefferson, a historic Civil War-era fort, is situated.

However, this basic information about how far is Dry Tortugas from Key West is not enough if you plan to travel to the Dry Tortugas.

To get to Dry Tortugas National Park from Key West, visitors typically take a ferry or seaplane. The ferry ride to the park takes about 2.5 to 3 hours, while a seaplane trip is much quicker, typically taking around 40 to 45 minutes. More on how and where to travel there later.

The distance and transportation options can vary, so it’s best to check with tour operators or the National Park Service for the most up-to-date information on travel to Dry Tortugas National Park from Key West.

Of course, you can always go by private boat. While we at Florida Travel Blog have never made the trip by private boat, we have heard from friends the trip overnight by sailboat is magnificent!

How Far Is Dry Tortugas From Key West - flying into the Dry tortugas
As you fly into the Dry Tortugas in a seaplane, you can see the string of islands and the for on Garden Island.

Things You Need to Know about the Dry Tortugas

Yes, you may hop a ferry or seaplane to go see Fort Jefferson and have a great time, but if you want a truly memorable experience, we have assembled information that is key to understanding this small group of islands.

Below are the most common questions people ask about the Dry Tortugas.

Are the Dry Tortugas Part of the Florida Keys?

Yes, the Dry Tortugas are part of the Florida Keys. The Dry Tortugas is an isolated group of small islands located at the far western end of the Florida Keys. The most significant island in the Dry Tortugas is Garden Key, where Fort Jefferson, a historic Civil War-era fort, is situated.

How Many Islands are in the Dry Tortugas?

The Dry Tortugas is a group of several islands, but there are seven primary islands within the Dry Tortugas National Park.

These islands are:

  1. Garden Key: The largest island and the location of Fort Jefferson, the most prominent feature of the Dry Tortugas.
  2. Loggerhead Key: The second-largest island and home to a historic lighthouse.
  3. Bush Key: A smaller island located to the west of Garden Key and connected by a sandbar.
  4. Long Key: A narrow island situated to the east of Garden Key.
  5. Hospital Key: Located to the east of Garden Key and historically used for quarantine purposes.
  6. Middle Key: Another small island to the east of Garden Key.
  7. East Key: The easternmost island in the group.

These islands make up the Dry Tortugas, a unique and remote area known for its natural beauty, historical significance, and excellent opportunities for snorkeling, diving, and birdwatching.

How Far Is Dry Tortugas From Key West - fort jefferson aerial view
As you fly over the Fort you realize how large it really is.

Why is Fort Jefferson Such a Big Deal?

Fort Jefferson, located within the Dry Tortugas National Park at the far western end of the Florida Keys, is a place of historical, architectural, and strategic significance.

things you need when flying

This massive, unfinished coastal fortress, situated on Garden Key, stands as a testament to both the ambition and the challenges faced during the mid-19th century.

Its grand scale, remote location, and historical context make Fort Jefferson a remarkable site and a “big deal” in American history and heritage.

Despite how far is Dry Tortugas away from Key West was in the 1800s, Fort Jefferson was built and sustained without a freshwater source.

The Historical Significance of Fort Jefferson

  1. Civil War Era – Fort Jefferson was constructed in the mid-19th century, primarily during the 1860s. Its construction was initiated to strengthen the U.S. military presence in the Gulf of Mexico, protect Gulf-bound ships, and serve as a deterrent against piracy. It was designed to house a garrison of over 1,000 troops, reflecting the tensions and concerns of the time with pirates, other nations, and pre-Civil War unrest.
  2. Lincoln and Johnson Administrations – Construction of the fort was approved and begun during the presidencies of Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson. It was a response to the need for coastal defenses and a significant military installation in the region.
  3. Union Stronghold – During the American Civil War, Fort Jefferson served as a Union stronghold and naval base, despite Florida’s alignment with the South. It played a crucial role in enforcing the Union blockade of Confederate ports. It was a vital link in the supply chain to support Union forces.
  1. Prison for Dr. Mudd – By all accounts, the most famous prisoner held at Fort Jefferson was Dr. Samuel Mudd, who treated John Wilkes Booth’s injuries after Booth assassinated President Lincoln. Dr. Mudd was tried and imprisoned at the fort. In fairness, Mudd saved the lives of many prisoners and guards in a Yellow fever outbreak.

Architectural Design Significance

How Far Is Dry Tortugas From Key West - walls and boat parking
From this perspective you get an idea of size. The planes and boats park in front of the park.
  1. Massive Brick Structure – Fort Jefferson is the largest masonry structure in the Western Hemisphere, made up of more than 16 million bricks. This architectural achievement is awe-inspiring, given the remoteness of the location and the logistical challenges of transporting building materials mostly from north Florida.
  2. Innovative Design – The fort’s hexagonal design, with walls extending into the waters surrounding Garden Key, was innovative for its time. This design maximized the defensive capabilities of the fort, allowing it to provide protection from sea attacks from all directions.
  1. Historical Preservation Efforts – The restoration and preservation efforts at Fort Jefferson have made it possible for visitors to see a well-preserved example of 19th-century military architecture. The ongoing work of the National Park Service and the Dry Tortugas Conservancy ensures that the fort’s historical value and awesome period architectural value are maintained for future generations.

Guardian of the Gulf Strategic Significance

  1. Gulf of Mexico Control – Fort Jefferson was designed to control access to the Gulf of Mexico and protect U.S. interests in the region. Its location at the entrance to the Gulf made it a crucial military installation for controlling and defending these waters.
  2. Naval Base – During the Civil War, Fort Jefferson served as an important naval base and a resupply point for Union ships enforcing the blockade of Confederate ports. This contributed significantly to the Union’s military strategy in the Gulf.
  3. Remote Location – The fort’s isolation, being so far away from Key West, combined with its military significance, makes it a remarkable example of strategic planning and engineering. It was a challenging and ambitious undertaking, given the logistical constraints of the 1800s and the lack of fresh water.

Fort Jefferson’s significance can be understood in terms of its historical, architectural, and strategic importance. It represents a time in American history when the nation was deeply divided, and the fort played a role in the defense of the Union.

Its massive, unique hexagonal design and innovative unproven construction techniques make it a remarkable architectural achievement.

In addition, its strategic location at the entrance to the Gulf of Mexico adds to its historical and military significance.

Fort Jefferson is a “big deal” because it stands as a symbol of American history, ingenuity, and perseverance, and it continues to be a major attraction in Florida historians, preservationists, and visitors from around the world.

How Far Is Dry Tortugas From Key West - snorkeling fort jefferson
The walls of the Fort are built right into the water. You can snorkel the walls and the marine life gathered there. Other structure is better, but for novices, this is perfect.

Can You Snorkel in the Dry Tortugas?

Yes, you can snorkel around Fort Jefferson and the other islands in the Dry Tortugas. The waters surrounding these islands are teeming with marine life, making it a popular spot for snorkeling and diving.

Some of the biggest Tarpon we have ever seen have been around the old docks remaining near Garden Island. Snorkeling is a must if you take the time to go to the Dry Tortugas.

Here’s what you need to know about snorkeling in the area:

  • Snorkeling Spots – There are several excellent snorkeling spots around the Dry Tortugas, including areas around Garden Key, Loggerhead Key, and other smaller keys and coral reefs. The waters are relatively clear, providing good visibility for snorkelers. Over the years, storms and hurricanes wrecked docks, structures and boats in these islands. These make great havens for marine life.
  • Marine Life – The underwater ecosystem around the Dry Tortugas is rich and diverse. Some people have described some of the reefs as an island aquarium. You can expect to see a variety of colorful fish, corals, sponges, and other marine creatures. The area is also known for its healthy population of sea turtles.
  • Shipwrecks – The waters around Fort Jefferson and the Dry Tortugas are home to some shipwrecks, which can be explored by snorkelers and divers. These shipwrecks are part of the area’s maritime history and provide unique underwater habitats for marine life. The wrecks move around occasionally during storms. Our experience is that a conversation with Fort Jefferson staff may help locate the wrecks.
  • Snorkeling Tours – If you’re not experienced with snorkeling or prefer a guided experience, there are snorkeling tours available in Key West. These tours often provide equipment and knowledgeable guides who can help you explore the best spots safely.
  • Cautions – While snorkeling in the Dry Tortugas can be a fantastic experience, it’s essential to be aware of your surroundings and the currents, especially in areas with strong tidal movements. Pay attention to any safety guidelines provided by tour operators or the National Park Service.

Before you go snorkeling in the Dry Tortugas, it’s a good idea to check with the National Park Service or tour operators in Key West for information on current conditions, safety recommendations, and any specific regulations for snorkeling around Fort Jefferson.

With its stunning marine life and clear waters, snorkeling around Fort Jefferson and the surrounding islands can be a memorable and enjoyable experience for nature enthusiasts and underwater adventurers.

How Far Is Dry Tortugas From Key West - walls of fort jefferson
This plaque in honor of what Dr. Mudd did at the Fort. Notice the walls and thickness. The hallways were dark and cool from the moisture.

How To Get To Dry Tortugas National Park and Fort Jefferson

Getting to Dry Tortugas National Park and Fort Jefferson is an adventure in itself, as the park is located on an isolated group of islands in the Gulf of Mexico, approximately 70 miles west of Key West, Florida.

There are two primary methods to reach Dry Tortugas National Park, both of which originate in Key West:

  1. Ferry – The most common way to get to Dry Tortugas National Park is by taking a ferry from Key West. The ferry operates daily, weather permitting. The ferry ride provides a scenic view of the waters and islands of the park. It usually takes about 2.5 to 3 hours to reach Garden Key, where Fort Jefferson is located. Make sure to book your ferry tickets well in advance, as they can sell out quickly, especially during peak tourist season.
  1. Seaplane – Another
    How Far Is Dry Tortugas From Key West - fort jefferson seaplane on beach
    Seaplanes back right up to the beach at Fort Jefferson to load and unload passengers.
    option is to take a seaplane from Key West International Airport. Seaplane trips are quicker, typically taking around 40 to 45 minutes, and they offer stunning aerial views of the area.

This is our favorite way to get to the Dry Tortugas because you have much more time to explore. The downside is it is much more expensive.

Seaplane flights are available through various operators, and it’s advisable to make reservations in advance.

Here’s what you should consider when planning your trip:

– **Reservations:** Regardless of whether you choose the ferry or seaplane, it’s highly recommended to make reservations as early as possible, especially if you plan to visit during the peak tourist season, which is typically from late fall to early spring.

– **Park Entrance Fee:** There is a nominal entrance fee to access Dry Tortugas National Park. Be prepared to pay this fee upon arrival.

– **What to Bring:** Since Dry Tortugas is a remote location, bring everything you’ll need for your visit, including food, water, snorkeling gear, sunscreen, and any other supplies. There are limited facilities on the islands. Many tour operators provide some of this.

– **Safety Considerations:** Be aware of the weather and sea conditions, especially if you’re taking a ferry. The waters can be rough, so consider taking motion sickness remedies if you’re prone to seasickness.

– **Time Spent:** Plan to spend a full day at the park, as you’ll want to explore Fort Jefferson, snorkel, and enjoy the remote surroundings.

– **Environmental Responsibility:** Remember that you’re in a protected national park. Follow Leave No Trace principles, respect the environment, and do not disturb the wildlife or coral reefs.

How Far Is Dry Tortugas From Key West – Just One Memory Away

how far in Dry Tortugas from Key West - Evan in cockpit
On one seaplane trip from Fort Jefferson, our grandson was asked to sit in the copilot’s seat. How much do you think that memory was worth to him and us as grandparents? Forgive the picture quality.

Once you arrive at Dry Tortugas National Park, you can explore Fort Jefferson, enjoy the beaches, snorkel in the crystal-clear waters, and immerse yourself in the park’s unique history and natural beauty. It’s a remote and stunning destination that offers a memorable and rewarding experience for those who make the journey.

But there is more. There are few attractions in Florida or anywhere else where you can truly spend an entire day learning, exploring and discovering a whole new world.

Few people can leave Fort Jefferson without total amazement. How did our ancestors build this unbelievable structure in the 1800s? How did they live there? What was it like? Many of these memories are worth more than a dollar amount you can place on them.

So, if you are wondering, How Far Is Dry Tortugas From Key West, don’t! It could be the best 70 miles you will travel in your lifetime to make so many memories.

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