day trip to dry tortugas with kids

West of Key West: Daring the Day Trip to Dry Tortugas

With a two-and-a-half-hour boat ride in each direction and three kids who have been known to experience motion sickness just driving across town, attempting the day trip to Dry Tortugas National Park was a bit of a gamble.

Still, we were mesmerized by the photos taken both above historic Fort Jefferson and below the island’s clear waters, and when the kids heard the Junior Ranger Badge from this hard-to-reach park was one of the rarest a kid could acquire, they especially longed to add it to their collections. And so, as part of our adventure in Key West, we elected to check Dry Tortugas National Park off our family travel bucket list.

Here are notes and photos from our journey.

Checking in at the port at 7:00 a.m. makes an early morning for kids still on West Coast time. After a preboarding talk and pep talk to the kids about how to earn the Dry Tortugas National Park Junior Ranger Badge, we’re invited to board the ferry at 8:00 a.m.

yankee freedom III - day trip to dry tortugas

We casually join the long line that forms, in no particular hurry. But by the time we board the Yankee Freedom III, we are barely able to get seats together (board early, families!). Like many passengers, the kids choose to sleep rather than eat the light breakfast provided on the ferry. Thankfully, they don’t wake up seasick as I had feared they might.

Around 10:00 a.m., I spot sea turtles diving beneath the boat’s bow, and Fort Jefferson–at long last–appears on the horizon. As the Yankee Freedom III speeds closer, Fort Jefferson appears as a postcard, as stunning as we hoped it would be.

As the Yankee Freedom III drew closer, Fort Jefferson

Once ashore and across the moated entrance into Fort Jefferson, we find ourselves surrounded by arch upon arch of the red-bricked time capsule. The layers loom above us, reminiscent of Roman ruins. In the late-morning sun, they already radiate heat.

Dry-Tortugas-Ft-Jefferson-1 Dry-Tortugas-Ft-Jefferson-2 Dry-Tortugas-Ft-Jefferson-3

After exploring the courtyard on our self-guided tour, we begin exploring the interior of 19th century Fort Jefferson, where the shade is most welcome. We learn about daily life here on the isolated isle, where as many as 2,000 people–officers, soldiers, military prisoners, and civilians supporting the military population–lived during its peak occupancy in the mid-1800s, before the Civil War.

inside Fort Jefferson,

Dry-Tortugas-Ft-Jefferson-window

We work our way up through the levels of Fort Jefferson, following narrow spiral staircases which eventually lead us to the rooftop. Frigate birds soar above us while cannons and cacti punctuate the sanded, sea grass expanse.

Up on the rooftop--watch your step and keep your little ones close--but don't miss out on the amazing views.

Fort Jefferson Dry Tortugas

Our tour of the rooftop–and fort–ends at the landmark black lighthouse. We descend down the spiral staircase inside it, ready to return to the dock to check out our snorkel gear.

snorkel Dry Tortugas

Once fitted for snorkels and fins, we make our way to the glorious white sand beach we spotted from the roof–with only 2 other people on it. As they stroll away, we find quick relief from the searing heat by submerging ourselves, sitting shoulder deep in the shallow, calm water as the kids test their masks.

Suddenly, my oldest daughter is more than a comfortable distance away. As we shout to her, she bolts out of the water announcing, “A giant ray just swam by me!”

While the virtually flat water here is ideal for the kids, there is no coral to be found–nothing like the snorkeling pictures we’ve seen from Dry Tortugas trips. Staring back at the barren beach, void of snorkelers or bathers, we decide to stroll around to the other side of the fort until we find where the “real action” is.

Fort Jefferson Dry Tortugas

We take the long way around the Fort, looking for that excellent reef snorkeling…and discover a small beach on the other side where many day-trippers have gathered in the water and also in the shade of small trees beside the sand. It’s time for lunch back on the ferry, but we can’t miss our chance to swim and snorkel in these beautiful waters. Why did we spend so much time exploring the fort when we could have been doing this?

Dry-Tortugas-water-girls

My husband and I decide to snorkel in shifts–and now is my chance. I decide to make way along the brick wall of the moat, and soon some striped friends start to follow.

snorkeling Dry TOrtugas

Dry-Tortugas-underwater-2

Dry-Tortugas-underwater-fish

Each time I stop to try and photograph the swarm, they suddenly part to dodge my camera.

I return to the beach to discover an army of hermit crabs a fellow shipmate has been ordered to set free by his mother–who hadn’t realized he’d been collecting them in their beach bag! They scuttle through our crowd in the shade of the trees as my son and daughter squeal with delight.

The clock continues to tick ever closer toward our departure time. My husband and eldest daughter decide to snorkel their way back toward the ferry, where we will meet them. I take a last dip in aquamarine lapping at the white sand of our beach and help the kids relocate their sandals. We shake a final hermit crab from the laces of our day pack and make way for the Yankee Freedom–spotting my husband and daughter in the water just beside the ferry dock.

snorkeling dry tortugas

And the best snorkeling of all? Right there where we started. A convoluted world of coral that has formed on the old dock pilings, where they were dazzled by dozens of fish, including the otherworldly cuttlefish.

We indulge in a freshwater rinse from a hose before boarding, seeing the last of the lunch buffet as its cleared away. Fortunately we have snacks.

The ride back to Key West is a very different experience–choppy, rough, and rougher still. Anyone moving about the ship must hold on to seat backs, posts, and so on. A family-friendly  movie (The Sand Lot) plays as the kids struggle to finish filling in their Jr. Ranger booklets, and I wonder to myself if we shouldn’t be outside taking in the fresh air–from the nearest available deck rail.

The kids work feverishly and at last we call the Park Ranger to check their work, ask them questions, and at last, swear them in. Instead of standing, as Jr. Ranger’s usually do, the Ranger recommends they all remain seated.

 Jr. Rangers of Dry Tortugas National Park.

As if the Dry Tortugas National Park badges are not enough, they are given the extra reward of an ice cream bar or popsicle when they go present their new badges to the galley staff.

There’s just one problem. It’s a long, bumpy, jumpy walk to the back of the boat. When we return to our seats, my daughter looks at me with a face of gray and few words. I rush her through the door outside.

Fortunately, all she needed was a little fresh air–and we got plenty of it as we lobbed and laughed our way through whitecaps on the bow of the Yankee Freedom.

Interested in making the day trip to Dry Tortugas National Park?  Visit www.drytortugas.com and click here to read my Tips for the Day Trip to Key West with Kids. For more help planning your trip to the Florida Keys and Key West, take advantage of the many free resources at www.fla-keys.com.

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Shelly Rivoli

Founder, Editor, & Chief Adventure Officer at Family Travel 411 and Travels with Baby
Shelly Rivoli is the award-winning author behind the Travels with Baby guidebooks and Travels with Baby website and blog, and is the founding editor of Family Travel 411. When she isn't traveling with her husband and three children, she hangs her hat in the San Francisco Bay Area. Follow her on Twitter: @travelswithbaby and Facebook: Shelly Rivoli.
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