How to Do Dry Tortugas National Park with Kids

Like many families, we have a dream to take our kids to as many National Parks as we can. On our recent trip to the Florida Keys, we couldn’t resist a chance to visit one of the most remote parks, Dry Tortugas National Park.

Dry Tortugas National Park is a group of seven small islands located 70 miles off the coast of Key West. It is only accessible by ferryboat or seaplane, so it’s quite the journey to get there from the mainland.

As we were making plans and reservations for our journey, I wondered if the travel time and cost to get there would be worthwhile. We were missing out on a whole day of exploring Key West, after all! However, I knew we might never get a chance to see the Dry Tortugas again, so we decided to go through with it. And I’m so glad we did, as it was one of the most visually stunning destinations I’ve ever seen.

If you’re planning a visit to the Florida Keys and are thinking of adding this on to your trip, here’s everything you need to know about visiting this remote National Park with kids.

Before You Go

In the months leading up to your trip, be sure to book your reservation on the ferry, the Yankee Freedom III, early, as there are limited spots and they fill up quickly. You can make reservations online or over the phone. Kids under the age of 4 are free, which made traveling to a secluded island with a 1-, 3- and 5-year-old a little more palatable.

As the trip gets closer and you’re thinking about what to pack, I would highly recommend wearing your swimsuits with a cover-up on the way out to the island and packing a set of dry clothes in your daypack. You’ll be able to swim and snorkel on the island and you won’t want to waste time changing after a 2-hour boat ride.

If anyone in your family is prone to motion sickness, don’t forget to pack some medicine. I ended up bringing some just in case, both for adults and kids, but you can also buy some on the boat if you forget.

In addition, be sure to pack snacks for the day. Breakfast and lunch are provided on the boat, but if your kids are anything like mine, they’re hungry all the time and you’ll be glad to have the extra food between meals. You’re allowed to bring a cooler with you on the boat and island, so be sure to stock up on cold water, fruit, granola bars and other things to keep you full while you explore the island.

On the Boat

The ferry ride is over 2 hours, so if you’re traveling with kids I would encourage you to come prepared in the same way you would a plane ride. We packed coloring books and crayons, devices with movies pre-downloaded and a few small toys to keep the kids occupied. There are seats with tables in front of them inside the cabin where kids can sit and color.

Honestly, though, standing on the deck of the boat with the kids feeling the wind in our hair and watching the ocean go by ended up being much more entertaining than anything we had packed.

Breakfast is served immediately upon boarding the ferry, which is fantastic since you have to check in by 7:00 a.m.

At the Park

Once you reach Dry Tortugas National Park, you will have just under 5 hours to tour the historic Fort Jefferson, wander the moat wall, swim, snorkel and explore the island. They offer guided tours, but we figured with a toddler and a preschooler along in our group we would be a distraction to everyone else so we opted to do a self-guided tour instead.

Snorkel equipment is included in the price of your ticket, so make use of it! You’ll have to sign waivers while you’re still on the boat for anyone that wants to snorkel, so we signed some for our kids even though we weren’t sure if they would want to try it or not.

Dry Tortugas National Park has an incredible coral reef system where you can see all manner of tropical fish and other marine life. If you’re snorkeling with very young children, I would recommend staying close to the moat wall as it doesn’t get very deep and you can still see plenty of small and colorful fish.

If your family doesn’t want to snorkel you can still relax in the sand or swim in the crystal clear turquoise water. The water around the island stays pretty shallow and calm, so we found it ideal for letting our toddler sit in the inflatable pool float we brought along. Our 3- and 5-year-old could easily swim without fear of big waves.

Garden Key, the island where the Yankee Freedom III docks, is a photographer’s paradise. From unbelievable shades of blue in the water and sky to the numerous crabs and conch shells around the island, you’ll find it hard to take a bad photograph. Bring a disposable camera or cheap digital camera for kids so they can get in on the fun, too!

When it’s time to board the boat for the ride back, there are stalls for changing near the dock, so make sure to leave yourself plenty of time to get yourself and your kids into dry clothes. Everyone will be so exhausted from a day in the sun and sand that you might even get your kids to fall asleep on the way back.

I truly believe you won’t regret adding a day trip to Dry Tortugas National Park to your Florida Keys trip. With history, water sports, nature and beautiful vistas, it is truly a bucket list destination that you and your kids will never forget.

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