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.

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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.

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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.

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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 futureIf 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…

  1. Camp! At least one night, preferably two. Otherwise, the stay is much too short.
  2. Treat the breakfast and lunch like buffets and don’t eat them the same day if you’re camping.
  3. 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.
  4. Know and use all ferry amenities that you’re paying for: snorkel equipment, tour, rinsing showers, and free coffee and water.
  5. Search for alternative Key West parking options and don’t settle for the marina garage like we unknowingly had to.

Written by Elizabeth

  • Marty underwood

    Great article. Our bad experience was our return trip to Key West. The crew handed out barf bags as we boarded. Half the boat threw up for duration. The other half drank piña colados
    and ate pretzels. We were a part of the seasick group. Of course Not fault of boat nut bad memory….

    • Cole

      Oh man, that sounds horrible! The day we arrived on the island the ferry crew said the return trip that day (which we were not taking because we camped) would be very rough with 4-7 foot waves. To their credit, they gave everyone warning of the impending rough conditions and offered the chance to switch to a calmer tour day. It was also convenient they offered Dramamine for $1. Did they have that for your trip?

  • Gary Underwood

    We have been traveling the same jurney that you are but have extended it over 10 Years. At this point we have visited 51 of the 59 parks and have only the tough ones left – VI, American Somoa and 4 in Alaska. We understand your questions and have no answers. We are very interested in your plans to visit these difficult destinations.

    • Cole

      Very impressive! There are definitely a select few that make the all 59 goal exponentially more difficult (and pricey, haha). We are really excited to be leaving for USVI on 12/2, so stayed tuned for our suggestions on how to reach that one. As for Alaska, I’ve been putting off planning next summer for a while because there are no easy answers. As I’m sure you know!

  • Well done Switchback kids. This is a blog we wanted to write. Still may. You two still have much more expensive trips to go. Please keep in mind that the National Park Service gets a significant percentage of all fees that the concessionaires collect. The pressure on that percentage is up, not down. Money, for better or worse, will continue to be a significant factor in the decisions that the Park Service makes.

    • Cole

      Thanks for that background Don and Shelly. I was wondering how much of the ticket price for something like Yankee Freedom goes to the NPS. Maybe our frustration is somewhat misplaced? I’d love to get a look at the bid that Wankee put up and what the final contract included. I heard the other bid they beat out was from Disney.

  • This is a fabulous post! I agree that there are no easy answers to this dilemma. I would like to see the parks enjoyed by everyone, but there are plenty who would not even attempt to visit some of these out-of-the-way places. That does mean there will be a softer footprint on these sensitive ecosystems, but it also means that money rules the day. Is it a necessary evil?

    You have inspired me to dig a little deeper into the issue, which I think is the point of a really well-written article. Thank you.

    • Cole

      Thanks Tara! I don’t like to think that money influences the parks and how we can enjoy them, but it undeniably does. On the other hand, I find it fascinating that these publicly owned American treasures still must be woven into the economy. And when public/government interests meet private interests, with entirely different rules and priorities, it just gets more interesting.

      • Lynn

        These lands belong to us, the American people and taxpayers! We must demand they are protected from miners, water , ranchers, and whatever, whoever, wants to dominate, exploit, or OUR public, Protectected land! It should be clear that the natural habitats/animals on that land be protected, as well.
        It belongs to us, and the Agencies who make decisions regarding this land and its uses, report to us, all the American people! We are the people who should make decisions regarding these lands.
        They belong to US!

  • Susie

    Well done! Thanks for advocating for the 99% & ?-ing the monopolies. I know they must bid for contracts, but hope they’ll consider your good Discounted Day 1xwk for those who don’t need/want the frills! Good advice fir getting the most out of trips–Way to go :- ) & glad you enjoyed good weather & a great time!

    • Cole

      Thanks Susie! I really do think Elizabeth’s Discount Day idea is a good one. They could cut down on costs and have a fuller boat. I’m sure that day would sell out every time. So if you’re not quick enough you’d still just buy a regular ticket, but at least you could have the chance at the discount price. And that would hopefully make the island more accessible for everyone.

  • Susan

    I agree that the parks can be expensive. But, keep in mind that the National Parks goal was and is to preserve what makes it special from people and commercialism. I think not every gets how very cool they are and wants to see them, which can be a good thing. We have been to a few parks where people throw litter along the trail and do not honor the barriers protecting nature and themselves. This just infuriates me. Thank goodness for those of us who honor the code “Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footsteps.” Keep up the good work. I enjoy your pictures, videos and narration. Best wishes, and happy trails.

    • Cole

      Thanks for your comments Susan. I definitely agree that there is a delicate balance between people getting to enjoy the parks and there presence taking a toll on the environment. We must be careful that our short-term enjoyment doesn’t detract from the preservation of parks for the enjoyment of future generations. I’m sure there are lots of factors and influences of park preservation which the NPS has to consider that we don’t see as general public. But one thing I do know is that practicing and education fellow visitors on Leave No Trace principles is one way we can all help the parks!

  • Jay Carney

    I left yesterday from camping at Dry Tortugas!! I have gone every year for the last 4 years. Great article.
    My two cents worth.
    Go first or second week in December. I have had beautiful weather all 4 years. Be sure and take fishing equipment and fish off the boat dock. It like deep sea fishing without getting in a boat. I can’t imagine spending the money it takes to go out there and not camp. The only thing more ridiculous than not campong are the ones who camp for one night!! The first year Zi went they callede to say I had to go a day early cause the ferry was new and needed to be inspected by the builders.it did not run for next three days!! We had the island to ourselves except for the seaplane!! This years ride oit was the only time I saw seasickness being a problem. I wish it cost less but I’ll go again next year it’s WORTH the money. Last year the ferry did offer some half price trips on Facebook but not for campers!!

    • Cole

      Woah, sounds like you are the real Dry Tortugas expert! I totally agree camping is the only way to go. We thought two nights were perfect. However, if we had fishing gear I bet we would’ve stayed longer. We saw a number of people fishing and I would’ve loved to do it, but the only rod we have with us is our WetFly tenkara fly fishing rod. So we didn’t think that would fit the bill! That’s incredible that you had 3 full days w/o the ferry crowd though. How cool! Thanks for the tip on fishing. Hope you enjoy following along and feel free to subscribe ;).

  • Ruth Dunlap

    We just spent 2 nights camping, 8/18-8/19/2016. It was fabulous! Next time 3 nights. A day trip only (arrive 10:30am, depart 3pm) would simply not be long enough to take in the snorkeling and the Fort. It is indeed pricey to get there (we drove down from Ft. Worth), but well worth it. While there is nothing like being there, thankfully there are blogs and web sites for sharing the experience of this incredible place.
    Saw your article in mizzoumagazine.com Fall 2016. Thrilled for you and your year!
    Ruth
    BS HE ’85

    • Thanks, Ruth! Glad you found us and experienced the AMAZING Dry Tortugas! One of our all-time favorites!