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Camping….70 miles out at sea.

Last January I saw an Instagram post from the Currently Wandering Crew (you can read it here) that stopped me in my tracks. I immediately linked to their blog and read their post on camping in the Tortugas. I was inspired. Excited. Determined. Chris and I talked it over and within four weeks…our reservations were made. Although we are fulltime travelers and have visited numerous places with wanderlust appeal, we looked forward to this stop all year long…and the Dry Tortugas measured up to our high expectations in every way.

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Dry Tortugas National Park is the most remote National Park in the continental U.S. It is seventy miles west of Key West. Fort Jefferson occupies most of the island. This 19th Century Fort still stands strong today and is worth exploring. The park service maintains a handful of primitive campsites, which are the perfect host for a unique adventure. Although the campground never reaches maximum capacity, the boat only allows a certain amount of campers to travel each day. I highly suggest making your transportation reservations aboard the Yankee Freedom, months ahead of time…if you plan to camp on the island.

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Heading out to sea aboard the Yankee Freedom

We spent two nights camping  on the island and when we return one day, we will definitely plan for three nights (the max number of nights that the boat allows for…although if you provide your own transportation, the NPS will allow you to camp for up to two weeks). For those that enjoy island life, this is a lovely camping venue. Snorkling, long walks (on the small key that connects to Bush Key), nighttime walks around the moat to view the bioluminescent water and evening stargazing and even discovering the hiding spot of the resident crocodile were each a special memory.

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The entire trip was wonderful, but our favorite part each day was when the tour boat would leave with all the visitors…and just a couple dozen campers were left behind. From 3:00 in the afternoon until 10:30 each morning this little piece of paradise becomes even more delightful.

Recreation:

Snorkeling is amazing here on a clear day. Our first day provided clear water and an abundance of fish that would rival the best of Caribbean islands. The other two days were much more murky as a storm was looming and made visibility nearly impossible one day. Lesson learned: if it is great snorkeling…do all that you can as you don’t know what the next day will bring.

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We noticed that many campers brought their kayaks for exploring and fishing (the boat will transport your kayak for $25 round-trip and the park service charges a registration fee).

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We were delighted to learn that the Dry Tortugas National Park rangers had purchased a group fishing license for anyone that comes to the island…so no need to purchase one before arriving (FL state law requires a fishing license for anyone 16 years or older). The park rangers also stock a number of poles and equipment on the dock for anyone interested. My 10 year old son, Brendan, was thrilled to discover this and spent countless hours fishing from the boat docks.

Both of our tweens enjoyed participating in the Junior Ranger program and we discovered that they even offer a few other Junior Ranger books here (like the Night Sky Explorer book). We’re always thrilled with the JR program, but what a treat when we walk away from a park with three badges!

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Camping:

The camping aspect was actually quite fun. I’ll be honest, I have not tent camped in years. Once we bought our first RV, the tents were reserved for Chris’ backpacking trips or for the kids to sleep in.We really don’t have a lot of tenting gear anymore, so I had to do a little bit of planning and prep for this trip. We did buy an inexpensive cooler and a big water jug (think Sparkletts bottle). The nice part is that the campsites are very close to the boat dock, so you don’t have to haul your gear very far, and they have carts that you can use. We also followed the advice of Yankee Freedom and packed our gear in plastic totes, so everything didn’t get wet on the boat ride out.  This served a dual purpose, as we had safe storage for our food once we were on the island, and we didn’t have to worry about rodents finding our food.

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This is the group campsite, our site was sheltered under the trees.

As we had a nice cooler for our food, we took advantage of this amenity and packed all sorts of yummy food. One night we enjoyed hobo packets, see my recipe here, and the other we grilled steak. Fires are not permitted on the island and you are only allowed to use charcoal briquettes on the grills provided. This worked ok for dinner, but was less than favorable for boiling water in the morning for coffee. I highly recommend taking the little Starbucks packets, rather than trying to percolate water for coffee on the grill!

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One thing I should of planned better for was the change in weather. We knew enough to take water-resistant windbreakers, but we did not bring many layers or blankets for sleeping. I had watched the weather for weeks and as we only have two backpacking sleeping-sacks in our RV, we just brought sheets. Chris and I were fine because we just slept in lightweight pants and longsleve tops, but the kids were cold both nights (our beach towels were too wet to use for warmth). My teenager did not even have long pants. Lesson learned: even with warm weather, bring ample blankets and clothing for cool weather.

All campers should know that this is dry camping and there is no water source on the island, so you must take all the water you need.

We honestly felt like we were overpacking as we had a cooler, and three plastic storage bins, water, a sun umbrella, briquettes, snorkeling gear and our backpacks. We were surprised to find that we actually had packed light in comparison to all of our neighbors…and wish we had brought a few extra items.

A few things I want to remember for my next trip:

  1. Take 2 1/2 gallon containers of water from the store, rather than a big heavy Sparkletts bottle.
  2. Every person needs a sleeping back and sheet (in case it is hot).
  3. We all need sleeping pads…that ground is super hard and we only had 2!
  4. It worked well to take one hard cooler and then light items in a soft cooler, as the park service stashes extra hard coolers to share.
  5. Freeze a one gallon water bottle in the freezer for the perfect ice block, then as it melts you have cold water. It lasted all 3 days.
  6. Bring warm clothes as it can get very cool in the evening.
  7. Research other fire options besides charcoal (this was tough in the wind)
  8. Pack simple breakfast options so we can start snorkeling earlier each day! The best time to be in the water is before 10:30 when the boat arrives with more visitors.

And that is our adventure to the Dry Tortugas. This trip has become one of our most treasured memories. As we journal our trip for memory sake, we hope that you are inspired to check out this truly special National Park and that our thoughts will help someone else plan their own adventure.

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To learn about our other National Park adventures, click HERE.

12 Comments

  1. We have made three trips to the Dry Tortugas and camped overnight on the second trip. What a great adventure, the night sky is completely black except for the stars which stood out even more 70 miles from the mainland. As a history buff, I loved walking around the fort and imagining what it would have been to be a soldier or a prisoner there. You are absolutely right about the snorkeling, especially before and after teh tour boat leaves when you have the water to yourself.
    If you get back to Key West, try to take some time to visit the Coast Guard Cutter Ingham, a floating museum, it would make a great history lesson for your kids – and you. 🙂

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    1. Thank you for the recommendation! We really enjoyed the history of the fort as well. The history we learn is one of my favorite aspects of our travels. How awesome that you have been 3 times to the Tortugas!

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    1. Isn’t it amazing Sherri?! Let me know if you get to camp there. How awesome that it feels worlds away and yet it is only a couple hours by boat. Thanks for taking the time to comment!

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    1. Hi Julia. Yes, Ashley is correct. They have composting toilets that are available whenever the Yankee Freedom is not in port. When the boat is there, all campers and guests must use the facilities onboard the boat. The boat is in port from 10:30-2:30 each day. Also, there is no running water…so no sinks in the restrooms . I will say, the facilities were better than I expected considering the remote location. Happy travels!

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