In early 2019, one of my best friends and I embarked on a camping trip to the Dry Tortugas — a chain of tiny islands off the coast of Key West. We camped from January 6th through the 9th, the maximum number of days allowed for camping on the island. It’s primitive tent camping. There is no running water on the island. You must bring all your own gear, food, and water.
I kept a daily log of the journey. Here it is.
Day 1 – Arrival – 1/6/19
David and I stayed at a motel on Key West near Duvall St. the night before catching the Yankee Freedom Ferry. We awoke at 5:45 am, and arrived at port by 6 am. Then, we unloaded our camp gear.
After loading our gear onto the ferry, we visited the Cuban Queen for coffee — which was amazing. Then, we headed back to the ferry and waited to board.
We set sail at 8 am. It’s not a short trip! It takes two-and-a-half-hours to arrive in Tortuga. Unless you charter a sea plane or have your own boat, the ferry is the only way to get there.
We sat up top and outside. The ride was a little rough from the cold front that had recently passed. Halfway through the trip, a girl beside David puked on the floor beside him. The stench woke him from his nap, and made him queasy. Luckily, he managed to hold back his breakfast for the remaining hour of the ferry ride.
Upon arrival, all campers had to wait for a briefing from the park ranger. Fortunately, we didn’t have to pay for the campground due to the government shutdown. So, no dues were collected.
Of all the campers, we had the most amount of gear. As a result, we were the last campers to arrive at the campground. So, all the good spots were already taken. We chose the least wind exposed spot we could find, and began setting up our tent.
Fortunately, A girl named Emily with a great camp location decided to move to another location. So, we gladly took over her spot under the trees. It was a beautiful location with low winding branches wrapping around our tent.
After setting up camp, we headed to the beach. I took out the paddleboard near the campground beach, and tried surfing a tiny wave breaking over reef. David joined me. Neither of us were very successful. It was just too small. We had fun trying nonetheless.
I decided to have a gummy, if you know what I mean. David broke into the supply of Tito’s vodka. Then, we began exploring the island.
We walked around the mote, then back towards the fort. At this time, David wasn’t feeling so hot. We tried to take his mind off it. So, we explored the fort, and made our way to the top. The views were gorgeous. We looked across the tiny island, surrounded by a brilliant turquoise ocean.
David was still feeling rough, and wanted to head back to camp. So, we made our way down from the fort, and headed back to the tent. I put on the Jambox to play some tunes. One of my favorite Kings of Leon songs, Fans, is playing right now. David is sleeping off his headache, and I’m writing this log.
I left David to recover in the tent, and attempted to fish at the boat dock. The pelicans were determined to eat my lure. Since I didn’t want to catch or hurt a pelican, I gave up and headed back to camp after only a few casts.
Apparently, David was feeling better. When I got back to camp, he wasn’t there. So, I had a couple snacks, took a puff of the PAX, and left camp to find him.
The power of the PAX and gummy combined came on strong and fast. Needless to say, I was feeling quite good.
Shortly after departing camp, I encountered a man named Todd. He was a short, thin fellow, probably in his late 40’s, with an earring and some tattoos. Honestly, he looked like a little pirate. He was friendly, but somewhat socially awkward, or maybe I was just really high. It turns out he lives aboard his boat, and had just arrived from Key West. So, my observation was correct. He was definitely a pirate.
He asked how long he could stay on island. I told him I wasn’t aware of any restrictions if you arrive with your own boat. I told him about the government shutdown, and we shared a couple laughs. He was curious about the fort, and asked about a dungeon in particular. I thought that was a little odd, but maybe he had some pirate relatives held captive there in the past. It just so happens I knew where the dungeon was, and pointed him in that direction. Then, I continued the search for Peace.
I walked to the other side of the fort, and found a little beach. There was a lot of sea glass and a few shells I collected for my wife, Emily. Then, I hopped on the outer wall of the mote, and walked around the fort. The mote and the fort were on my left, and an endless turquoise ocean was to my right. I peered into the water along the mote wall, hoping to see a turtle. While I didn’t see any turtles, there were lots of fan corals waving in the passing swells.
After exploring the mote, I went back to camp, but still no sign of Peace. So, I figured I’d do some more exploring along the beach. I enjoyed this walk by myself immensely! Feeling the effects of Mary Jane, I marveled at having every inch of this gorgeous beach on this tiny remote island — and I had it entirely to myself!
Giant conch shells were scattered along the sand as I walked. Truly beautiful shells. The kind you see in beach shops that cost considerable money. They were everywhere, and varied in color — white, brown, pink, orange. The further I walked, I could see where people had collected these beautiful shells, and created several shrines along the beach with them.
To my surprise, after over an hour of aimlessly wandering around this small island, I finally encountered David at the end of the beach, which dead-ends into a protected bird sanctuary.
David was equally appreciating the island, and we decided to start a conch shrine of our own. So, we began gathering beach treasures. We created our own spiral shaped shrine of conch shells. By this time it was getting later in the afternoon. So, we headed back down the beach towards camp.
It took some time, but we eventually got a charcoal fire going. No wood fires are allowed on the island. Then, we grilled hot dogs over the flame. David said we prepared the hot dogs “Mrs. Morgan” style, because we used a single piece of bread as the bun. That’s how my Mom always served us hot dogs as kids.
After eating, we left camp to look at the stars. It was a perfectly clear night. We walked out on the mote and around the fort to block out the lights from the boats moored in the bay. This way we could get a better look at the night sky. We laid on the edge of the mote for about an hour just gazing at the heavens. When getting up to head back, we noticed some bio-luminescent fish, that were flashing lights in the dark. We have no idea what they were, but it was very cool.
We made our way back to the tent, and fell asleep listening to tunes on the Jambox. Not a bad first day.
Day 2 – 1/7/19
I’m writing this at the end of our 2nd day, and we’re exhausted. Neither of us slept great last night, but Peace in particular had a rough night. For his bed, he brought a “floaty”. You know, one of those cheap pool floats you buy at Publix for a couple bucks. Yeah, that was his bed. Which was hilarious when he pulled it from his bag. Unfortunately for him, his floaty had a hole. He tried tying off the leak, which seemed to work better than expected. However, it was still a very poor excuse for a bed.
I slept on my army style cot. It worked out pretty good, but my pillow was uncomfortable, and left me with a sore neck in the morning.
After getting up and getting some food in our bellies, we decided to take the paddleboards for a spin. The water was a little calmer, but the wind was still quite strong beyond the shelter of the fort. We agreed to give up the boards for snorkeling. So, we headed back to camp to get our gear.
We each wore a wetsuit top and booties. However, I think I would have been more comfortable in a full suit. The water was cold by our standards — probably 70 to 72 degrees Fahrenheit.
At first, we tried snorkeled straight out from the campground beach. The dark patches we thought were reef turned out to be mostly grass. The sea grass was growing on piles of dead coral, which was somewhat depressing. I don’t know if it’s coral that died elsewhere and drifted to this location, or it was once a vibrant reef that has been destroyed by the tourists and/or global warming. Either way, there wasn’t much to see. So, I suggested we snorkel closer to the mote wall.
The mote wall was teeming with life. There were Snapper, brightly colored Wrass, Parrotfish, and much more. Brain corals and fan corals were growing along the wall and on top of the surrounding rubble. We peered underneath a collapsed portion of the mote to see five massive spiny lobsters. They were our prized sight of the day. Then, my foot began to cramp, and I made my way back to the beach.
While returning, we noticed the ferry arriving, bringing a new batch of tourists to the island. We went back to camp, made ourselves some cranberry vodka cocktails, then headed back to the beach to relax and people watch.
Later, we walked down the beach to revisit our shell shrine from the previous day. Along the way, we were approached by a slightly younger fellow. He introduced himself as Daniel. A 27-year-old that “went all in” as he said. He purchased a Beneteau sailboat for $28,000, and was living aboard and sailing throughout the Caribbean.
He was a chatty guy, with an ego about as long as his boat. He kept asking us to get the camp together for a game of Ultimate Frisbee. Daniel had 2 other crew members on his boat. We didn’t meet them. They gave Daniel some distance, and seemed happy to be free of him for the moment.
No doubt, Daniel was living a very cool lifestyle. However, his gloating was getting a bit annoying. So, we avoided Daniel and his crew for the rest of the day.
At camp, we chatted with our tent neighbors, Adam and Alyssa. They were about our age, and from Flint, Michigan. Adam was a professor of sports medicine. In their spare time, which seemed to be a lot, they traveled around the country camping and living out of an old converted Chevy van. They were a very nice couple, and told us about their travels. Surprising to me, they said their favorite place in the country was The Badlands in South Dakota. While North Dakota, on the other hand, was as bad as they expected.
Day 3 – 1/8/19
It was a particularly windy night. The rain fly of the tent was flapping incessantly throughout the night, periodically waking us up. I decided to use a towel for my pillow rather than a travel pillow, which turned out to be a good decision.
After waking, we took it easy around the camp. We brought more than enough water, so I decided to place one of the 2.5 gallon jugs in the trees above, and make a fresh water shower. It was fantastic. I washed my hair and upper body, then felt refreshed to start my day.
I took a walk along the mote wall by myself hoping to spot some wildlife. I saw the usual Snapper and Parrotfish, but also saw a small Barracuda and a large Pufferfish.
Later, the wind had subsided, and the water seemed to be the most calm of our time here yet. So, David and I grabbed our boards, and went for a paddle. We paddled outside the swim buoys, and I was happy to see big patches of thriving coral instead of just the grass patches we had seen the previous day. We paddled the full length of fort, and it’s a big fort.
Since the water appeared calmer today, we decided to try snorkeling again. I ate half a gummy in an effort to enhance the experience.
This time, I opted to wear my full suit. It was a wise decision. I was very comfortable in the cool water.
We headed out a different direction from shore — around the helipad wall, and towards a large area of crumbled pilings. Whoa! This location was a WAY better snorkeling experience than along the mote wall!
The amount of wildlife was incredible, and the reef around the pilings was flourishing. The pilings were laid out in a large grid pattern. Swimming through them was like entering and leaving rooms. Each “room” of pilings we entered presented new discoveries. We encountered massive Barracuda, large enough to send chills up your spine. The Parrotfish varied widely in size and color — from teal and yellow, to purple and green. The coral growing around the pilings was equally varied with large brain corals, purple fans waving in the current, and an abundance of anemones.
Normally, I get bored with snorkeling after a short time, and then start to get headaches from the motion. Today, my interest was piqued the entire time, possibly in part due to the gummy I had taken. Nevertheless, it was still an incredible snorkeling experience. One of the best I’ve ever had — even when compared to Hawaii and the rest of the Caribbean.
David and I were both stoked after exiting the water. We gave each other a high five, and headed back to camp. We made ourselves peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and reminisced about what we just witnessed.
We took it easy for a while around camp, and began mixing up some vodka and cranberry cocktails. In that time, I came up with a brilliant idea — hermit crab racing! It was one of my better ideas. I’m quite proud of it. We found some downed palm fronds and bamboo, and constructed our track. Then, we found our contenders around the camp. The more feisty the crab, the better.
We set our crabs at the starting line, and David released a loud fart as our starting pistol. We rooted our contenders on, but they didn’t always follow the rules. We had some surprises. One in particular, a smaller crab that was late to emerge from his shell. He still managed to make it down the course just in time to beat his opponent that had a head start on him, and was twice his size. That held our attention for some time.
By late morning, the ferry had arrived. We watched the day trippers go about exploring the island. During the hours of 11 am to 3 pm, the island is pretty crowded with tourists from Key West. But afterwards, the island is only inhabited by the campers — which is awesome.
Once the ferry left, we walked back down the beach to check on our Conch shrine again. Nothing much had changed. It was pretty uneventful walk. However, we did bury a pelican that had died in the sand.
Upon returning to camp, we decided to try our luck fishing. You can only use circle hooks on island, because the birds are relentless about stealing your bait, and even more so — your catch. We didn’t have any circle hooks, just “J” hooks. However, 2 fellows camping nearby had a couple circle hooks they received from previous campers. They were kind enough to give them to us, along with some squid bait. They told us of their catches — lots of snapper that they had been cooking every night. So, we prepared our lines, then made our way to the boat dock.
After casting the first line, and peering down below — I saw a massive fish. I mean, huge. My first thought was a shark. As it turns out, it was an adult Goliath Grouper. I would estimate around 500 pounds. And it wasn’t the only one! There were about 5 of them hanging out under the dock. Catching any one of them would have pulled us in the water, or broken our line immediately.
Continuing to fish, I caught 3 small Snapper and 2 Grunts. David caught 1 tiny Snapper, and suffered heavy ridicule the rest of the time. Anytime I hooked a fish, the pelicans swooped in, and waited for my catch to surface. Then, they attacked. I had to yank the fish away to “safety” each time. We were just catching and releasing, but it was still good fun.
When sunset neared, we took our rods and tackle back to camp, and made our way to the top of the fort. We climbed the spiral staircase at the far end of Fort Jefferson. Then, sat up top to watch the sunset. It wasn’t particularly spectacular, as the clouds blocked much of it.
We explored the fort a little more after sunset. Then, we headed back to camp for dinner.
We started a charcoal fire again. Grilled some hot dogs. Then, winded down for the evening, falling asleep around 8:30pm. There’s not much to do on a remote island after the sun sets.
Day 4 – The Final Day – 1/9/19
Unlike the other days, we awoke to a gloomy, cloudy, and chilly morning on the island. The darker skies and cooler weather helped us sleep in until about 8:30 am.
When we emerged from the tent, we started packing up camp almost immediately. All our stuff needed to be on the dock by 10:30 am, and we had a lot of stuff to gather. We managed to get everything packed and on the dock just as the Yankee Freedom III pulled into port. We offered our surplus ice and water to fellow campers. Now, we just needed to kill 4 hours before the ferry departed for Key West.
Of all the days, this was the gloomiest by far. The ocean looked very uninviting. So, we explored the fort in detail. We walked every inch of the place, reading about the history along the way. We didn’t take the tour. However, we did eavesdrop on a park ranger giving a tour to another group.
The island has a rich history of sailors and pirates — long before the fort was ever constructed. Fort Jefferson was built by the Union Army during the Civil War, and was intended to be a defensive and strategic outpost. It was heavily fortified and well armed, but never fired a single cannon. In fact, it played no notable role in the history of the war, except that it was eventually used as a prison. You could say, it was a massive failure. However, to witness the spectacular structure today, it was a magnificently beautiful failure.
After seeing the entire fort, there was really nothing left for us to do on the island that we hadn’t already done. We were tired, dirty, greasy, and very ready for a shower and comfortable bed. So, we made our way to the ferry a little after noon to eat our free lunch aboard the boat.
We made our own sandwiches with the provided ingredients, and it was quite good. It was comfortable on the boat. So, we decided to stay there until departure. We killed the time chatting and playing on our phones. Eventually, after rounding up stragglers, the ferry departed at 2:45 pm.
It was a long, bumpy ride back. More seasick passengers were puking on the return journey as well. David and I tried laying across a few seats to take a nap.
The ferry arrived back in Key West a little after 5 pm. We got our gear off the boat and packed up my Jeep as fast as possible while listening to the sunset parties nearby. Within a short time, we were loaded and heading north to Sarasota.
It was a long 6 hours of driving. We arrived at my house shortly after midnight, left everything in the truck, went inside, showered, and collapsed in bed.
Dry Tortugas Camping Checklist
This is the checklist we made and used for the camping trip. Hopefully, somebody finds it useful.
- Dry Bag
- Life Jacket
- Rope / Twine
- Snorkel and Mask
- Insect Repellent
- Fishing Poles
- Circle Hooks
- Fish Rag
- Trash Bags
- Paper Towels
- Cot / Sleeping Pad
- Sleeping Bag
- First Aid Kit
- Light Rain Jacket
- Board Shorts
- Long Sleve Solar Shirt
- Wetsuit Top
- Fullsuit (Winter)
- Booties / Water Shoes
- Hot Dogs
- PB and J
- Pancake Mix
- Trail Mix
- Sunflower Seeds
- Salt and Pepper
- Solar Phone Charger
- Walkie Talkies
- Mary Jane
- PAX Vaporizer
- Cards / Games
Camping in the Dry Torguas must be registered through Yankee Freedom. I recommend reserving your campground several months in advance. Particularly, if you plan to bring a kayak or paddleboard, since space is limited. You can book your ferry ride via their website, but I recommend calling their number 800-634-0939 to reserve your campground and space on the ferry for your paddleboard or kayak.
When arriving on island for the first time, be prepared to grab your gear and make a dash for the campground to claim a good spot. If there are multiple people in your party, I would even recommend sending one person ahead of the group with a single bag to make your claim. Otherwise, your camp might be exposed to the wind and sun.
The campground isn’t far from port. It’s a 5-minute walk or less. So, don’t worry about carrying your gear long distances. Wheelbarrow’s are provided as well.
If you intend to fish, you must use circle hooks. So, make sure have some in your tackle. For bait, I recommend frozen squid. Also, the pelicans at the dock are relentless. So, I recommend fishing from a kayak.
Incredible. We were told it’s better in the summer when the seas are calmer, and there’s even more wildlife. However, we were not disappointed in the winter. Sights include Barracuda, Parrotfish, Wrasse, Sheephead, Angelfish, Rays, Goliath Grouper, Snapper, Spiny Lobster, Nurse Sharks, and much more.
I recommend the pilings near port, and snorkeling along the mote wall. There are some patches of reef out in the open water off the campground beach, but it’s quite a swim, and it doesn’t compare to what’s nearby.
The water temperature is cool in the winter, and I would recommend a fullsuit and booties for maximum comfort. Wearing a wetsuit top and board shorts is bearable, but you won’t fully enjoy the experience. During the summer and fall, a rash guard and board shorts will be fine — or a banana hammock if you’re from across the pond.
These are dry islands. Meaning, there is no fresh water. So, you must bring your own. However, you probably won’t need as much as you think.
For 2 people staying the maximum allowed time, my friend and I brought three 2.5 gallon jugs of water. That was too much. We still had more than 1 full jug left at the end of the trip, and that was even after using that water for showers. If you intend to bring other beverages, you won’t need more than 2 gallons of water per person for 4 days.
The ferry arrives and departs each day, bringing new people and fresh food. Lunch is always served on the ferry. However, you must purchase lunch on all days with the exception of one included lunch. So, if you want to conserve space in your packing, you could rely on buying lunch aboard the ferry each day. When we had lunch on the ferry, it was fresh and very good.
There are clean bathrooms and outdoor showers aboard the ferry as well. So, take advantage of the time the ferry is in port to shower off the sand and saltwater.
Loggerhead Key is about 3 miles offshore from Garden Key, where the fort and campground resides. There is a lighthouse on the island, and it’s known for sea turtle nesting. Initially, we thought we would take our paddleboards to the island. However, I highly advise against taking a paddleboard to the island. The winds can be steady and unpredictable. A kayak would be the safer choice. If you intend to take a kayak, be prepared for a long journey.
Basically, don’t hurt yourself. Bring a first aid kit in case of an emergency, but just be safe. The islands are a long way from any medical facilities, and Hospital Key doesn’t count.
Finally, how much does the trip cost? I broke down our expenses. Keep in mind, we’re Floridians, and drove from Sarasota. If you plan to fly, you’ll obviously need to budget that expense in addition to what I’ve listed.
- Yankee Freedom III Ticket – $200
- One Night In Key West Hotel – $240
- Parking Garage for 4 Days – $140
- Groceries – $100
- Gas (2 Tanks From Sarasota) – $100
- Campground – $15/night ($45)
4 Days Camping On A Tiny Island In The Caribbean – Priceless