Camping Itinerary:

Tropical Paradise Duo

By Rachel Plunkett

August 2022

Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and Dry Tortugas National Park

Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary protects the waters surrounding the island chain known as the Florida Keys, extending from south of Miami, Florida, westward to encompass the Dry Tortugas, excluding Dry Tortugas National Park. Within the clear tropical waters of the Florida Keys, visitors can explore coral reefs, shipwrecks, seagrass beds, and observe wildlife such as fish, seabirds, and manatees. Exploring the Florida Keys also offers an opportunity to experience the unique cultural convergence there—a community that in 2000 adopted the slogan “One Human Family” honoring “Conch culture” and the rich history of Native American, Spanish, Cuban, African, and Bahamian influences. The more remote Dry Tortugas National Park, located 70 miles from Key West, encompasses 100 square miles of pristine waters and a chance to truly unplug from the buzz of everyday life. Wildlife abounds, as well as a chance to explore a 19th century fort—one of the largest ever built.

Getting There

Fly into Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Marathon, or Key West if traveling from afar and rent a car.

view of tropical blue and turquoise waters from the window seat of an airplane
Image: Michael Schilling/Get Into Your Sanctuary Photo Contest

Where to Camp

  • Upper Keys: John Pennekamp State Park
  • Middle Keys: Bahia Honda State Park
  • Other options: Long Key State Park, Curry Hammock State Park, or any of the privately-owned camp areas
  • Visiting is a good place to start, or you can use this interactive map tool to search Florida State Parks in the Florida Keys.

    Three Day Itinerary: What to Explore

    Day 1

    Snorkeling or Diving:

    • The campground within John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park allows for easy access to the clear waters of Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. With this underwater park at your doorstep, you can book a dive or snorkel trip directly on site with a Blue Star dive operator to explore some of the most charismatic reef sites in the U.S.
    • Camping at Bahia Honda State Park offers access to a sandy beach or kayak launch to explore calm bayside waters of Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. At night enjoy one of the darkest skies in the area while watching the moon rise over ocean views. You can either snorkel from the beach or book a ride on their snorkel boat to go explore Looe Key Sanctuary Preservation Area.
    • You can also check out other nearby dive sites available to visit with Blue Star dive operators, such as Key Largo Dry Rocks, Sombrero Key, Coffins Patch, or Cheeca Rocks sanctuary preservation areas. Download the Marine Sanctuary Explorer App to familiarize yourself with the various marine zones, navigation channels, and dive sites within sanctuary waters.
    a person takes a giant stride entry into the water from a dive boat while wearing full scuba gear
    While visiting a national marine sanctuary, practice safe and responsible diving. Seek out operators that proactively support marine conservation, through certification in programs like Blue Star. Image: Tiffany Duong/Get Into Your Sanctuary Photo Contest
    a sea turtle swims through a spur and groove formation coral reef
    Five species of endangered sea turtles are found throughout the marine waters of the Florida Keys, including the hawksbill, green turtle, Kemp's Ridley, loggerhead, and leatherback. Image: Ben Edmonds/Get Into Your Sanctuary Photo Contest

    Day 2

    Backcountry Fishing or Paddling:

    • Go backcountry fishing in tidal flats for bonefish, permit, barracuda, or tarpon by booking with a Blue Star fishing operator. The Blue Star Fishing program recognizes charter boat captains who are committed to sustainable fishing and educating their customers about resource protection in the sanctuary.
    • Kayak or paddleboard over shallow seagrass beds and through winding mangroves, such as at Indian Key Historic State Park.

    Discovery Center:

    • Head down to Key West to visit the re-designed Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center and learn about the natural wonders and fragile marine ecosystems, or enjoy one of the many walking, trolley, or train tours offered in town.
    seagrasses, algae, and a small nurse shark can be seen through the crystal clear waters surrounding mangrove trees with long root systems
    Mangrove and seagrass habitats are intricately connected to the coral reef ecosystem in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Image: Michael Schilling/Get Into Your Sanctuary Photo Contest
    a person standing in shallow water holding a fishing rod and wearing a sun protective shirt and fishing buff
    In the shallow and quiet backcountry waters of Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, fishermen often target bonefish, tarpon, permit, and barracuda. Be sure to follow responsible fishing best practices. Image: Matt McIntosh/NOAA

    Day 3

    Boat Ride to Dry Tortugas:

    • Hop on a ferry ride, boat, or seaplane charter to Dry Tortugas National Park. Boat rides typically leave in the morning and take two hours, but are dependent upon weather.
    • At Dry Tortugas National Park, you’ll be away from the clamor of everyday life. Although 99% of the park is underwater, you can enjoy some solitude on land by relaxing on the beach, birding, or taking a tour of Fort Jefferson. There are also picnic areas available.
    • One of the most popular snorkeling areas in the park is located approximately 75 yards from the western edge of the moat wall of Fort Jefferson. Here you can view pristine seagrass, large coral heads, and catch a glimpse of tropical fish such as parrotfish and angelfish
    • Most single-day boat trips to the Dry Tortugas will have you back to Key West by 5 p.m. (weather permitting).
    the brick and stone walls of fort jefferson meet the turqoise waters of the ocean in Dry Tortugas National Park
    Fort Jefferson in Dry Tortugas National Park was built to protect one of the most strategic deepwater anchorages in North America.Image: Linda Halsey/Get Into Your Sanctuary Photo Contest
    a silver fish swims through shallow water in between a brick wall to the right and coral to the left
    Visitors can snorkel and take in the underwater views in Dry Tortugas National Park. All coral, reef fish, and cultural artifacts within the park are protected. Image: David Ruck/NOAA

    Extend Your Trip

    If you can budget for more time, then you can spend more than one day in Dry Tortugas National Park by camping out there. This means sleeping under the stars in a tropical island paradise 70 miles away from civilization! There are also many points of interest in the Florida Keys along the Overseas Highway to consider.

    Other Things To Do With More Than Three Days:

    • If driving to or from Miami or Fort Lauderdale, stop by the Biscayne National Park Visitor Center in Homestead, Florida and check out some of the exhibits and trails. The Biscayne National Park nature trail out of the visitor is a light hike and is handicap accessible all of the way through.
    • For wildlife enthusiasts—specifically birders—Florida is home to the 2,000-mile Great Florida Birding Trail, a self-guided trail connecting over 500 sites for birding and wildlife viewing. Some birds you might see include great blue herons, sandpipers, black skimmers, oystercatchers, and roseate spoonbills.
    • Stop at one of the many restaurants along Florida’s 113-mile Overseas Highway and eat some lionfish. Lionfish are an invasive species that threaten the natural ecosystem in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and the waters of Dry Tortugas National Park. Many restaurants now offer this dish, which is delicious and rich with Omega 3 fatty acids.
    • Make a pit stop at Big Pine Key’s National Key Deer Refuge to see pine rockland forests and tropical hardwood hammocks that provide habitat for key deer, which are unique to the lower Florida Keys. The Blue Hole Observation Platform within the refuge is a natural sinkhole that was used as a quarry and is filled with fresh water. In this area, you might see key deer, alligators, turtles, iguanas, and a variety of birds.
    • Take a sunset sailing trip around Key West or visit Mallory Square for spectacular sunset views and live performances.
    three people sit on camping chairs next to tents under palm trees
    Camping at Garden Key in Dry Tortugas National Park is an incredible experience with amazing star gazing, snorkeling, sunsets, and more! Image: National Park Service
    a small deer standing in sand next to trees
    The Key deer (Odocoileus virginianus clavium) is a subspecies of the while-tailed deer that lives only in the Florida Keys. Key deer are an endangered species, and the National Key Deer Refuge was established in 1957 to protect deer habitat and other wildlife resources in the Florida Keys.

    *Note: Boating and camping reservations throughout the Florida Keys often sell out months in advance. Reservations are not accepted for the six-person sites in Dry Tortugas National Park. All campers, once they arrive, will be guaranteed a place to camp. Plan ahead. Many activities are weather-dependent.

    Rachel Plunkett is the writer/editor for NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries