Dry Tortugas National Park Highpoint Trip Report

Date: May 23, 2004
Author: Ron Tagliapietra

Our trip team: Nathan Chancy, Josh Wiseman, Will Nead and myself. After many delays the dates May 23-24, 2004 turned out for the best, since only in the summer is the sea calm enough for kayaking 2.5 miles to Loggerhead Key, to bag the hp.

You can get to the park by plane or boat, but only one boat company (Yankee Fleet) will take kayaks for you. Kayaks must be rented separately, and there is no other way to go from Garden Key to Loggerhead Key to reach the hp. If you ask, they will also tell you the best place to rent kayaks from. The place we used was as cheap, but did not give us dive flags for snorkeling.

We camped on Key West May 22nd, Leo's Campground, because we had to be up very early to get both tandem kayaks loaded on the ferry boat. The next morning (23rd) we boarded the Yankee Freedom II, ferried to Dry Tortugas NP, and arrived on Garden Key at about 10:45 am. We had read on a website that the crossing took 4 hours, but it actually took only about 2.5 hours. Garden Key is obvious since the largest masonry structure in the hemisphere almost completely fills it: Fort Jefferson. This was the only NP that I had not visited in the lower 49 states, so I was happy just to arrive there and see the fort.

By the time we had pitched camp on Garden Key and eaten lunch (included in the boat fare), it was about 1 pm. We checked with the rangers, and they said either day was workable but encouraged us to wait until tomorrow. They said that the kayaking would take 2 hours going and at least 2.5 hours returning because of the cross current. They also told us about rescues of some who had been carried out to sea by the cross current. On the other hand, we decided to go that day for two reasons. First, the weather was nice enough for the first time in several weeks. Second, even if it was nice tomorrow, it would be pushing it to get out there and back in time for the ferry, which left at 3 pm but preferred that our kayaks be loaded by 10:30 am.

We pushed off and paddled west toward the lighthouse visible on Loggerhead Key. I saw a flying fish as we paddled. We covered the 2.5 miles in 1 hour, and Nathan and I were happy to beat Josh and Will by less than a minute in spite of their head start (probably because of Nathan's boundless energy). The caretaker's wife greeted us and pointed out Little Africa, a good reef for snorkeling, on the west side of the island. After about an hour of snorkeling, we moved to the north tip of the island, and everyone continued snorkeling while I did the hp. It requires a little bushwhacking through geiger trees and prickly pear cacti. Start at the old structure (instead of the concave north side like I did) and bring shoes. These will reduce the time of the bushwhack. After some more snorkeling, we headed back to meet the caretaker and sign the guestbook.

The caretaker recommended going north along the east shore of the island before putting in, so we did. Josh and Will, the two strongest guys, got their revenge on the way back to Garden Key. They beat us by 5 minutes in spite of our head start! The return trip took us 1 hour and 20 minutes, slowed by the cross current and the two blisters I had developed on the way there. We wished we had brought gloves. Nathan and I had kayaked the intracoastal waterway before, but none of us had ever kayaked in the open sea. Our speed was not because we were expert kayakers but because I was with three strong young men, who could keep paddling even when they got tired. At any rate, our transit was only about half of the time we had been told, which left extra hours for snorkeling.

We got back before dark, and Nathan made steaks on the charcoal grill (no stoves allowed). We walked on the wall of the fort for sunset. The next morning we had plenty of time to snorkel at both the north and south beaches on Garden Key. We also had time to take the tour of the fort. The visitor center has no one on duty, but the bookstore does during the brief time when it is open (about 1-3 pm). The trip back to Key West took just a little longer than the trip out, and Josh and Will spotted sea turtles.


  1. Bring gloves and shoes to Loggerhead Key.
  2. Spend at least one night on Garden Key (otherwise, you will not have time to tour the fort or to snorkel;
    you will be hurried and may not make it back in time, depending on how long it takes you to locate the highpoint), and 2 nights would make it easier.
  3. Rent a tandem sea kayak (don't go alone, don't take a dinghy, canoe, raft, 1-person kayak, or whitewater kayak).
  4. Find a suitable partner (don't take a child, elderly person, or person whom you are not sure will keep paddling the whole way).
  5. Follow the rangers advice on whether you should go or not (they know the waters).
  6. Go in summer (other times of year have waves too large for kayaks).
  7. Bring lots of sun block, aloe vera, etc. (only Nathan did not sunburn; since he grew up in Florida, he wore a shirt the whole time).
  8. Bring charcoal for cooking.
  9. Plan to spend $205 for the ferry, kayak rental, and parking for a two-day trip.

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