When I was pregnant with my oldest child, I bought a book at a garage sale with a list of all the National Parks in the United States, and I dreamed of someday visiting all of them with my future children. This past year we were able to check 3 off our bucket list: Smoky Mountain National Park in Gatlinburg, Sequoia National Park in California, and finally Dry Tortugas National Park off the coast of the Florida Keys.
Dry Tortugas is one of the most remote National Parks in the United States, and it does require some planning, time, and money to get there. The only way to access this park is by ferry, sea plane, or private boat, and the trip by boat takes over two hours from Key West. This isn’t just a “let’s swing by that National Park since we’re nearby” kind of trip. It requires advanced reservations, specific packing, and intentionally planning it into your itinerary.
Having said that, don’t be discouraged from visiting with young children. It can be done! During our trip to the Florida Keys, we went with a 1-, 3-, and 5-year-old, and it was honestly the experience of a lifetime. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to anyone with babies, toddler, and young children, as long as they know what they are getting themselves into. All travel with kids requires some level of planning, so why not try something adventurous and unique?
Disclosure: I reached out to the Yankee Freedom III - the official Dry Tortugas National Park Ferry, which is part of the Historic Tours of America, and received free tickets for my husband and me in exchange for coverage in TravelPulse and on my blog. We did pay for our oldest, and the younger two boys were free due to age. All opinions are my own.
Also: This post may contain affiliate links, which means if you use the links provided I may receive a small commission at no extra cost to you.
TIPS FOR VISITING DRY TORTUGAS NATIONAL PARK WITH KIDS
BEFORE YOU LEAVE HOME
RESERVE TICKETS ON THE YANKEE FREEDOM III
Unless you’ve got the hookup with someone who owns a private boat that can navigate the 2 hour boat trip from Key West, or you’re willing to pay for a seat on a sea plane (actually not a bad idea if you’re desperate to avoid the long boat ride with kids), the only other way to access Dry Tortugas National Park is on the Yankee Freedom III ferry boat.
I would highly recommend booking the tickets as soon as you know you’re going. There are a limited number of seats each day, and the trip often sells out. We booked about a month in advance, and our friends tried to book only a couple days later, only to find out the tickets were sold out. They ended up showing up at the boat, waiting to see if there were any cancellations, and were able to board at the last minute. We were VERY relieved that they were able to come, too, since the trip wouldn’t have been nearly as much fun without them!
Kids (4-16): $125
Students (17+ w/ID): $170
Kids 3 and under: FREE
As you can see, one of the benefits of doing Dry Tortugas with babies and toddlers is that they are FREE! Sure, they’re a lot more work, and they may not remember it when they’re older, but it’s still an amazing experience for them, and helps to shape an adventurous spirit. Maybe you can go again when they’re older!
What should you bring for a trip to the Dry Tortugas? Of course, that’s personal preference, but I’ll share what we brought and found to be very helpful:
Badger Gear Bottomless Backpack to carry everything AND our kids
Puddle Jumpers or Water Wings (the water is pretty calm)
baby pool float with canopy (we spent a lot of time in the water, and our hurricane of a one-year-old is never calmer than when he’s peacefully floating in the water. It worked for us, might not for you. Totally personal preference!)
swimsuits and rash guards
Goggles for the kids
dry clothes to change into
GoPro or other waterproof camera
phone (just for pictures and video…you won’t have reception in the park or on the boat)
snacks in a small soft-sided cooler
ID and money (cash or card). I kept mine in this tiny crossbody bag so I could stash it in the backpack once we arrived.
plastic bag or wet bag for wet clothes and swimsuits
entertainment for on the boat - highly recommend Crayola Color Wonder markers and coloring books and some sort of tablet and headphones with pre-downloaded movies
pain reliever (in case of headaches)
Dramamine and Kid’s Dramamine for seasickness. We are not necessarily prone to motion sickness, but I brought some along because I did NOT want our day ruined by nausea. They sell some on the boat, too, but probably not the kids kind?
THE BOAT RIDE
GETTING THERE, PARKING, AND QUEING UP
Check-in is at 7:00 a.m., and boarding is at 7:30. Do not wait until the last minute, or they will give your seat away if there is someone waiting like our friends were. Plan to get to the parking garage at 6:45 just to be safe. It’s only about a block away from the boarding place, but just give yourself plenty of time to find a parking spot, pay, and walk over.
The Yankee Freedom III departs from the Historic Seaport out of the Key West Ferry Terminal. You can park a block away at the City Parking Garage. Find more information about parking and directions here.
Once you check in, there’s a waiting lounge inside where you can sit and relax or let your kids get their wiggles out for the last time before being trapped on a boat for two hours. They will call numbers in groups (you’ll receive your number when you check in), and you’ll board when your numbers are called.
ON THE BOAT
Once you board, I would recommend finding a table inside in case the weather gets rainy or your kids don’t like the wind. You can always wander out to the deck once your seats are saved to enjoy the fresh air and views.
Upon boarding, you’ll find a continental breakfast buffet set up, which is included in the cost of the ticket. It’s mostly bagels, cereal, fruit, cheese, and juice. It’s a nice little spread, but we definitely found that the kids were still hungry shortly after, which is where the soft-sided cooler with snacks comes in. We brought protein bars, granola bars, apple slices, PB&Js, fruit pouches, and some snack foods like crackers. DOn’t worry, parents! There is coffee, too!
Once the boat gets moving, you’re free to relax and enjoy yourself (as much as you can with little ones). We made our kids color first, then finally gave in when they got bored of that and let them watch a movie on their Kindle. There were also playing a movie or show on the tvs on board the boat, but it was hard to hear and the kids weren’t interested in the movie they were playing.
Make sure to pay attention to the announcements! When you’re on the boat you’ll have a chance to sign a waiver for snorkeling, and you can’t use the complimentary snorkel gear at the park unless you’ve signed the waiver. We filled out waivers for our kids, too, since we weren’t sure if they would want to or not. Better safe than sorry!
Pretty much the only thing our active toddler wanted to do was be outside on the deck feeling the wind in his wispy little hair. Obviously we didn’t let him walk around on the deck, so my husband or I held him and stood far away from the side of the boat. (If our toddler weren’t such a rebel, I would have brought the Lillebaby. Definitely bring a baby carrier if you have a baby or toddler who will actually use it). He seemed very relaxed even though the wind was kind of aggressive and made your eyes water. But the view! The views were so beautiful, and there’s no cooler feeling that watching the ocean pass by.
You depart at 8 and will arrive around 10:15 and are free to start exploring on your own! Just realize that (free) lunch is served on the boat at 11 if you want to go back on the ferry and eat. We didn’t want to waste a single moment, so we just ended up eating our PB&Js and apples as a picnic lunch on the beach.
AT DRY TORTUGAS NATIONAL PARK
You have just under 5 hours to enjoy the park, so make sure you have a plan for what you’d like to prioritize while you’re there.
We started by walking the moat wall. It’s very wide, and the water isn’t very deep around the wall, so I didn’t mind letting my 3- and 5-year-old walk by themselves. We definitely carried the toddler, though! This is a great spot to get some stunning photographs, both of the scenery and of your family standing on the wall.
BEACH AND SNORKELING
Next we walked all around the outside of the fort in search of the best beaches. At first we tried a secluded area away from the rest of the group, but realized no one else was there for a reason. The water was a bit choppy and murky and there was a big drop off, the We ended up setting up camp on the sandy area behind some trees between the moat wall and the boat. A lot of other people ended up there, too, but we didn’t mind! It never got too crowded, and the water was much calmer and clearer on that side.
At this point, we took turns snorkeling and watching the kids. First the moms went snorkeling along the moat wall while the dads watched the kids, then we switched. The moat wall has some great snorkeling, but I’ve heard the best is straight out from the middle of the moat wall. I am not a strong snorkeler (for some reason breathing through a tube freaks me out) so we stayed close to the wall.
The kids decided they didn’t want to snorkel, but did love using their goggles to look for fish underwater. Just know that even little kids have the option of using the snorkel gear!
While the husbands were snorkeling, we took the kids inside Fort Jefferson and did a self-guided tour. I wish we could have done the guided tour at 11 (which you have to sign up for while you’re on the boat), but we had decided against it since we have a toddler and our friends do, too. Two toddlers on a 45-minute tour sounded terrible. The Fort is really cool, and if you get a chance to read all the signs you’ll be amazed to find out that the island was used to house prisoners during the Civil War.
After everyone was done snorkeling and touring the Fort, and we were back to relaxing on the beach, I decided I wanted walk up to the roof of the Fort, and took my 5-year-old with. I wouldn’t bring small children up there, since there are no guardrails, but if you can split up and take slightly older kids, then DO IT. The view is breathtaking, and you’ll get some great photos.
Don’t forget to stop at the Visitors Center. We forgot to do this, so the kids couldn’t turn in their Junior Ranger booklets. Whoops!
You’ll be surprised at how quickly 5 hours goes by, so be sure to do your research and prioritize what you want to spend the majority of your time doing.
By the time you board the boat to return to Key West, your little ones are hopefully exhausted from playing in the sun, splashing in the ocean, and hiking around the island. Ideally they’ll fall asleep on the way back and you’ll be able to purchase an adult beverage to sip while they sleep.
You’ll be back to Key West by around 5 p.m., so you still might make the Sunset Celebration at Mallory Square, or have time to go out for a nice dinner to recap the day. With our little ones, we decided the easiest thing to do would be to head back to our vacation rental (we used Vacasa) and just make some tacos for dinner. Everyone was definitely ready for an early bedtime that night!
If you’re planning to head to Key West, I hope you get the chance to add Dry Tortugas National Park to your itinerary no matter what age your kids are. It’s truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience you’ll never forget.