We spent three days on the isolated, amazingly beautiful, historic Dry Tortugas National Park last week. Every aspect of our stay, from the beach camping to the water activities to (especially) our interaction with rangers was enjoyable. We snorkeled in clear blue waters, kayaked gentle harbor waves, and soaked up the interesting history of Fort Jefferson. (Here’s our video!) While our stay at the National Park was very positive, the costly concessionaire ferry, with its exclusive contract with the NPS, raised a few concerns.
We’ve now entered a unique phase in our trip I like to call “Parks We Probably Would Have Never Visited Otherwise.” These next few months are full of faraway, hard-to-access, expensive parks like Dry Tortugas, Biscayne, Virgin Islands, Haleakala, Hawaiian Volcanoes, and American Samoa. (We’ll revisit this phase in July when we hit the Alaska leg). We are shelling out more money in December and January than we will for most other months combined. And Dry Tortugas was our first major budget strainer.
It’s tough, because when I think of National Parks and the raw experiences we’ve had on our trip, I think how awesome it is that everyone can access these national treasures.
After all, the parks are ours. We, the American public, own and generally have full access to them. Hiking, camping, picnicking, and general hanging out in nature are cheap activities that most Americans can afford.
But what happens when the NPS protects a chunk of land and sea that rests 70 miles off Key West?
Exclusivity happens. And it’s a bummer.
There is only one feasible way to reach the island if you don’t have a private boat and you’re not willing to pay $500 per person to access it via seaplane. The Yankee Freedom ferry service runs daily day trips to Dry Tortugas, and holds the exclusive contract with the National Park Service for this service.
We acknowledge it can’t be cheap to get transportation to such a remote destination in the middle of the gulf. Any ferry operation takes a big boat and lots of expenses (crew, insurance, docking fees, business license, blah, blah, blah). But in our opinion, the ferry seemed to use its exclusive contract with the NPS to put its profits first.
Here is a quick breakdown of our costs to visit Dry Tortugas:
- Ferry to island for overnight camping trip (includes one breakfast, one lunch, and snorkeling equipment): $195 per person
- Camping: $15 per night
- Kayak transportation: $20
- Parking: $13/day for $39 total
- Groceries, water, and supplies: $30ish
Total for 3-day trip for the two of us: $509
Maybe this doesn’t seem outlandish for a nice 3-day vacation. We certainly expect to incur costs on this year-long adventure. But we feel like the expense (mostly the ferry ticket) was excessive.
You see, the Yankee Freedom hauls about 100 passengers (our estimate) out to Dry Tortugas every day. Only a maximum of ten of these passengers are overnight campers. (Day trippers pay $175 for an 8:00 a.m. – 5:30 p.m. trip) It seemed like at least half of these passengers also indulged in a drink or two, and other paid treats like ice cream bars, bottled water, and soda, on the ride home.Your ferry ticket has an all-inclusive feel, with complimentary buffet-style breakfast, lunch, and snorkel equipment. Whether you want it or not, you must pay for all the unnecessary flair.
The ferry is definitely not starving for customers.
The costs, of course, are not in complete vain. Camping fees are necessary for upkeep of the composting toilets and primitive sites. The ferry has a very hardworking crew, including a tour guide who gives an hour-long tour of the historic incomplete (and eerie) Fort Jefferson. The $10 entrance fee to the National Park is also covered.
The steep cost also ensures minimal human impact on the park. When speaking to an NPS ranger, it was clear that the park can’t handle the effects of many more visitors. There was once a second commercial ferry that offered shuttle service, but they didn’t offer as many necessities (like bathrooms!) and quickly overwhelmed the island. Human impact can also damage the fragile ecosystem, including bird and nurse shark nesting grounds and coral species found only at Dry Tortugas.
I feel like the NPS is in a constant “We-Want-Visitors!/But-Not-Too-Many!” tug of war and Dry Tortugas is a prime example. But if the park can’t accommodate more people, they can at least be more inclusive to all people.
There were mostly two types of people at the island: older couples and young European foreign tourists. In the Everglades, we actually met two recent high school grads taking a gap year to visit 45 National Parks in the continental U.S. They said they had to skip Dry Tortugas because it was too expensive.
Hey Yankee Freedom!
Do you realize what this causes? Do you realize that by creating a frilly, pina-colada-in-hand experience with a flat fee, you close your doors to so many genuinely curious travelers without big-budget means? Do you realize that many eager visitors would forgo these amenities in lieu of a cheaper fare?
Hey, Yankee Freedom. Here’s an idea to open doors to young people, families, budget travelers, and the rest of the country: offer a once-a-week discount day. A bare-bones shuttle with water and a bathroom would be just fine. Just get a wider demographic to that island! The people and the island deserve it.
When exclusive contracts exist, companies like Yankee Freedom have unfortunate power in who visits our National Parks.
And in this case, Yankee Freedom makes the the trip too much about them. The ride. The drink bar. The raffle. The experience. (Not the 200 bird species who migrate here. Not the protected nurse shark area. Not even the shy solo crocodile who washed up in a hurricane and now lives around the fort. Not the entire reason the park is in existence!)
We enjoyed our trip to Dry Tortugas immensely. The water was an unreal shade of blue, Fort Jefferson was eerie and interesting, and the 85-degree weather was beyond pleasant. The ferry employees were helpful (except when the captain got really defensive after Cole asked about the hole in our Kayak bag and seat after we got it back off the boat). We have no complaints about how our personal experience went down.
However we are realizing our voice is not always about us, but our fellow park visitors present and future. If we just shared with you our rose-colored experiences and trip journals, it’s not always the full picture. Our mission is to promote the National Parks for everyone. We especially want to speak to and advocate for our millennial generation. We will try to keep diving deep into the issues and celebrations that the National Parks face.
Maybe we’re naïve and the ferry is really just scraping by. But I doubt it. We wish more people could have the chance experience this island gem. We wish everyone could snorkel with the coral and tour a historic fort in the same hour. Because our National Parks, our islands, are best when they are accessible to everyone.
Bonus: 5 ways to get make the ferry ticket more worth the money…
- Camp! At least one night, preferably two. Otherwise, the stay is much too short.
- Treat the breakfast and lunch like buffets and don’t eat them the same day if you’re camping.
- Visit the fort when the forecast is clear and calm. Wind makes water visibility poor and kayaking or swimming difficult. Summer is best for weather and birding.
- Know and use all ferry amenities that you’re paying for: snorkel equipment, tour, rinsing showers, and free coffee and water.
- Search for alternative Key West parking options and don’t settle for the marina garage like we unknowingly had to.