Dry Tortugas National Park and a Taste of Key West

Dry Tortugas National Park & Key West, Florida

In October of 2020, we flew for the first time in months after many cancelled trips of 2020.  We were eager to dip our toes into traveling again, wanting to travel somewhere new for some fun in the sun.  We settled on Key West, Florida.  While here, we had to add a day trip to Dry Tortugas National Park to our list of things to see and do.  Dry Tortugas is 70 miles off the coast of Key West and makes a great day trip while here.  

When we traveled

October 2020, our fall break from school.  We had nice weather although there were some rainy days as well, typical of the fall.

Where we stayed

Sunset Key Cottages | 5 nights | Key West, FL

Our stay at Sunset Key Cottages was fantastic, especially in the 2020 climate.  The resort is located on a little island, Sunset Key, off the coast of Key West.  Each cottage has a full kitchen, 1-4 bedrooms, and wrap around porch with outdoor seating.  Here, we enjoyed our morning coffee with the sunrise and a glass of wine with the sunset.  Every morning a basket with a variety of pastries and fresh fruit is delivered to your doorstep.  And every evening water bottles, orange juice, and treats from a local bakery are dropped off.  One can also arrange for concierge grocery shopping so your fridge will be stocked prior to your arrival. 

On Sunset Key there is a beach complete with chairs and straw umbrellas, a pool and hot tub, and a fabulous restaurant, Latitudes.  This place has all that you need for a peaceful getaway!

Key West, Florida

We arrived mid-day right into Key West Airport (EYW).  From here, we caught an Uber to the ferry dock and checked in to Sunset Key Cottages right before boarding the ferry boat.  The boat ride ferries passengers from the mainland to Sunset Key, the small island where Sunset Key Cottages are located.  The ferry ride takes about 5 minutes and runs 24 hours a day.

View from the ferry to Sunset Key from Key West

During our time on Sunset Key, we spent a lot of time at the beach, swimming in the pool, and even dined at the fabulous on-site restaurant, Latitudes.  Latitudes is a five-star restaurant that is worth the hype.  Both times we wanted to dine here for dinner we easily got reservations due to being overnight guests of the resort.  We overheard other folks in town talking about how far out they had attempted to make reservations without any luck.  It’s definitely a perk of staying on site to get a coveted reservation here.  Both times we were seated outside and had incredible views of the sun dipping into the ocean as its final hurrah of the day.

Our lovely view at Latitudes

We shopped a bit in Key West and got take out twice , trying both Duetto Pizza and Bad Boy Burrito.  Both were delicious and we highly recommended both places for take out.  

The kids also went fishing off the dock at the resort daily.  Sunset Key Cottages provides fishing poles and bait for free.  The kids loved fishing here and caught many!

Fishing off the dock at the resort

We spent some time in the evenings at the dock to watch the Tarpon swimming about.  They were attracted to the lights at the ferry dock so they were easy to see in the lit water.  The Tarpon swim up to the surface and often pop out for a few seconds, which is fun to watch, especially for kids.  We enjoyed ending our evenings here.

Dry Tortugas National Park

Besides having fun in the sun in Key West, we also scheduled a day trip to Dry Tortugas National Park.  We have the goal of visiting all of the  US National Parks, so I knew I had to add this to our to do list while in Key West.

DRY TORTUGAS NATIONAL PARK FACTS

It’s name is a reference to the lack of fresh water as well as the Spanish word for turtle

  • LOCATION:  70 miles off the coast of Key West, FL
  • CLOSEST MAJOR CITY:  Key West, FL
  • ANNUAL VISITORS:  78,000 (2022)
  • 55th most visited US National Park
  • BECAME A NATIONAL PARK:  1992
  • TOP THINGS TO DO:  Snorkeling and visiting Fort Jefferson

Dry Tortugas is one of the most unique of the U.S. National Parks.  The seven islands that make up Dry Tortugas lie approximately 70 miles to the west of Key West.   It is only reachable by sea plane, private boat, or a ferry operated by the National Park Service, The Yankee Freedom III. 

The name, Dry Tortugas, is derived from the Spanish word for turtle (Tortugas) due to the prevalence of sea turtles around the islands.  Later, the name “dry” was added to the name to warn mariners of the lack of fresh water on the island.

I spy Fort Jefferson – land ho!

The ferry boat, The Yankee Freedom III

Dry Tortugas National Park is almost entirely made up of Fort Jefferson, which served as a fort during the Civil War. 

Fort Jefferson

Beyond visiting the fort, incredible snorkeling awaits, especially along the moat wall surrounding the fort.  There are four accessible beaches, although we only spent time at North Swim Beach and South Swim Beach.  North Swim Beach was much less crowded with only a few people passing by every now and then.  We did share the water with a large school of Tarpon, though!  After enjoying our picnic lunch, we packed up and moved on to South Swim Beach.

Snorkeling at North Swim Beach

We much preferred the swimming at South Swim Beach.  The beach was long and wide enough for people to spread out a good bit from one another.  We saw all sorts of fish and even saw jellyfish!  The snorkeling along the moat wall had the most to see with beautiful colored fish and living coral.

Snorkeling at South Swim Beach

The Yankee Freedom III departs Dry Tortugas at 3:00 pm, so around 2:00 pm we started to gather our things, take a freshwater rinse to desalinate, and get our seating back on the boat.  As we left Dry Tortugas, the boat ride was rough due to the storms that had come through in the previous days.  This caused the deep waters surrounding Dry Tortugas to churn thus leading to a rocky ride back to Key West. 

The staff on board was fantastic.  They warned everyone about the impending rough waves before we departed and offered Dramamine as a precaution.  Some people were walked outside by staff as getting into fresh air is best if suffering from seasickness.  The staff had an assembly line of ginger ale going and were passing it out quickly to those in need.  I personally do not get sea sick but I do not like rocking and rolling in the waves!  The staff was calm and helpful during all of it so I knew we were in good hands.  But thankfully they had a bar with snacks and drinks so I could keep myself distracted until we reached calmer waters!

Overall, the day trip to Dry Tortugas was well worth the trek to get there.  The boat ride passed many islands along the way and we were lucky to see sea turtles floating about peacefully in the waves.  The waters surrounding Dry Tortugas are incredible for snorkeling and it was neat to learn a bit about Fort Jefferson and its importance during the United Sates Civil War.   Plus it’s another national park to cross off the list!

Overall Thoughts

As for our overall thoughts on Key West, we enjoyed our time here but were glad we were away from the action due to staying on Sunset Key.  We were here in October 2020, in the midst of the pandemic, so our perspective is probably a little different than “normal” times. 

Even though the annual Fantasy Fest that takes place every October in Key West was technically cancelled, we saw lots of folks wearing what I will say were “interesting attire”  living it up on the streets and hopping from bar to bar.  Thankfully, we had left the kids back at the resort with Ava babysitting while we grabbed groceries and take out this night.  Was it harmless?  Probably.  But we knew the kids would not have been comfortable with this scene.  We were happy to be away from the action at the peaceful Sunset Key Cottages.  If you happen to visit at this time of year, I suggest exploring Key West during the day and heading back to your hotel or resort in the early evening to avoid the party scene, unless that’s your thing 😉

We certainly loved our time here in the United State’s southernmost point.  The weather was mostly lovely, although we did experience rainy days, typical of the fall.  We enjoyed checking out Key West, although we did not venture into any sites or museums as we were trying to avoid crowds still at this time.   We mostly went to Key West for some fun in the sun and the day trip to the incredible Dry Tortugas National Park.  All in all it was a wonderful trip!

 

Read more!

Interested in more Florida national parks?  Florida has three within its borders, and so far we have visited Dry Tortugas as well as the Everglades.  To read about a really fun adventure to have in the Everglades, check out the post, An Airboat Adventure in Everglades National Park.

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