Discovering Dry Tortugas National Park
Dry Tortugas, one of the most remote and least-visited parks in the national park system, lies 70 nautical miles west of Key West on an archipelago of seven islands. Although it's difficult to get there, this fascinating park is worth the trip for any history buff, nature lover or outdoor adventurist.
With a strategic location in a deepwater harbor near the Gulf of Mexico's main shipping lane, Dry Tortugas' storied past includes pirates, shipwrecks, and Union soldiers. An underwater complex of coral reefs serves as home for abundant marine life, and tiny coral and sand islands are the nesting grounds for hundreds of thousands of birds and turtles each spring and summer. While only about 40 acres of the park's 100 square miles are above water, there's plenty to see and do in a day. A massive Civil War-era masonry fort awaits exploration, and tranquil beaches invite relaxation. For those who want experience life on a desert island Gilligan-style, a small primitive campground is available for longer stays.
History of Dry Tortugas
The islands were first discovered in 1513 by Ponce de Leon, who named them for the turtles he found teeming in the clear blue water. Nautical charts later used the adjective "dry" to warn travelers that the islands lack fresh water.
Turtles provided a food source to the pirates who roamed the waters around the islands in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In 1825, a lighthouse was built on Garden Key to warn sailors of the treacherous coral reefs and shoals that have claimed at least 200 ships over the years. A second lighthouse was built on Loggerhead Key three miles to the west in 1857.
The United States Army Corps of Engineers began construction of Fort Jefferson on Garden Key in 1846 as a way to control navigation in the Gulf of Mexico. Construction continued for 30 years, but the fort was never finished. Designed to hold 420 guns and 1,500 men, Fort Jefferson never fired a hostile shot. Instead, it served as a prison for Civil War deserters and other criminals. Its most famous inmate was Dr. Samuel Mudd, who was convicted for conspiracy in the murder of President Abraham Lincoln after he set the broken leg of John Wilkes Booth. Dr. Mudd served four grueling years in a damp cell at Fort Jefferson until President Andrew Johnson pardoned him.
Conditions at the fort were harsh. Fresh water and food were scarce, construction work in the blazing tropical sun was grueling, and disease like yellow fever and scurvy was common. Advances in weapons technology rendered the fort obsolete by 1862 and the Army abandoned it in 1874.
The U.S. Navy later used the fort as a coaling station until 1907. In 1908, the area was designated a wildlife refuge. President Franklin Roosevelt declared it a national monument in 1935, and in 1992 it became a national park.
Getting to Dry Tortugas
The only way to reach Dry Tortugas is by boat or seaplane. The high speed Ferry Yankee Freedom II provides daily service to the public, as does Key West Seaplane Adventures. Private fishing and dive charters also may be arranged. Private boats are allowed, but must be self-sufficient, permitted, and anchor in designated areas only. While there is small gift shop at the fort, there is no food, water or fuel sold anywhere on the island. Bring everything you will need for the length of your stay.
Getting there by boat
The Dry Tortugas Ferry, the Yankee Freedom III, departs daily from the Key West harbor at 8:00 a.m., returning at 5:30 p.m. The fare, $170 for adults, includes breakfast and lunch, park entrance fee, a guided tour of Fort Jefferson, and complimentary snorkel equipment. Additional food and drink are available for purchase from the boat's galley.
The boat trip takes about two hours and 15 minutes each way. On the way out, an on-board guide will point out the Marquesa Islands, the Atocha wreck site, and any wildlife encountered along the way. Take Dramamine before departure if you are prone to motion sickness or the sea is choppy.
Getting there by seaplane
Key West Seaplane Adventures offers half- and full-day trips to Dry Tortugas. At 40 minutes each way, this is the fastest way to reach the park. Book early as flights fill up, especially during the spring months when the weather is optimal. The price is $265 for adults for a half-day excursion (2 1/2 hours of island time) and $465 for a full-day trip (6 1/2 hours on the island). Complimentary soft drinks, snorkel gear, and coolers with ice are provided. You must provide your own food and $5 park fee.
Planning your visit to Dry Tortugas National Park
What to bring on a day trip:
- Wind breaker
- Walking shoes
- Swimming suit
- Change of clothes
- Small cooler with food and drinks
Exploring Fort Jefferson
Fort Jefferson is architecturally significant as the largest masonry structure in the Western Hemisphere. An estimated 16 million bricks were used in its construction. The fort is a six-sided, three-tiered structure that stands 45 feet high and features eight-foot thick walls, a moat and 2,000 archways.
There is impressive masonry work on display throughout the fort, particularly in the vaulted ceilings and arches. The arches were constructed with wooden frames built by carpenters over which skilled masons laid bricks and mortar. Look carefully at the vaulted ceiling in the chapel on the fort's second tier and you will see a brick signed by master bricklayer J.N.O. Nolan in 1859.
Years of exposure to saltwater and wind have caused significant deterioration to the fort. In places, the brick walls have crumbled into the moat. A restoration project is underway.
The parade grounds in the center of the fort held living quarters for the officers and soldiers, gunpowder magazines, storehouses, and other buildings required to maintain the fort. During its peak years, close to 2,000 people lived at the fort. The soldiers' barracks were destroyed in a fire in 1912; the ruins are still visible on the parade grounds.
The fort was designed to hold 420 guns. The guns were mounted inside the walls in a string of open casemates, or gunrooms, facing outward toward the sea through large openings called embrasures. The largest guns weighed 25 tons each, took seven men to fire, and could launch a 432 pound projectile at ships up to three miles away. Several big guns remain on display throughout the fort.
The fort's plans called for 37 gunpowder magazines to be located throughout the fort and grounds. Most were built right into the walls of the fort for easy accessibility but five were designed to be freestanding buildings.
Things to do at Dry Tortugas
- Take a self-guided tour of the fort. As you explore, imagine the harsh conditions experienced by the soldiers and prisoners who lived there.
- Walk the .6 mile seawall and look for marine life, including the endangered green sea turtle and threatened loggerhead turtle.
- Snorkel and swim off the white sand beach. Look but don't touch, as coral is delicate and easily damaged.
- Have lunch in the picnic area outside the fort or in a shady spot on the parade grounds.
- Explore the visitor's center and book shop inside the fort.
- View thousands of sooty terns nesting on Bush Key. While the island is closed during nesting season, the birds are easily observed by binocular from the fort's parapet.
- Dive the Windjammer wreck off Loggerhead Key (by private charter).
- Camp on Garden Key.