Visiting Dry Tortugas National Park is an experience that is unique, amazing, and educational. This adventure is more than just a simple day at the park. It’s like being in another world. Out here, it is so remote there are no communications. It’s the perfect digital detox experience! It’s an excursion full of exploration and discovery of natural and historical marvels that are like no other in the world. We couldn’t resist the opportunity to take a Florida weekend road trip and see Dry Tortugas National Park! A unique untouched paradise.
Paradise can take on several different meanings depending upon where you are. Many places considered to be “paradise” may have been disturbed, updated, and modernized to please the visitor. This is one thing you will not find at the very secluded Dry Tortugas National Park!
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The discovery of these islands came about in 1513 by Juan Ponce de Leon. A time when countries set sail in competition of the Spanish for dominance in the worlds deep waters as well as the narrow passageways between islands.
Somewhere out in the middle of nowhere, or about 70 miles west of Key West, this remarkable place is actually comprised of seven small coral and sand islands. Dry Tortugas is located on Garden Key and is home to one of the largest brick masonry structures in the Americas. It is said that 16 million bricks were used to build this massive fort. And guess what? Work on the fort would continue for 30 years and yet It would never be completed. It is known that not one shot had been fired after all it took to build this extraordinary fort.
Construction of Fort Jefferson began in December 1846. However, around 1825 after Spain sold Florida to the United States for $5 million, Dry Tortugas islands was the early site of a lighthouse. In order to help defend against enemies in the Caribbean, U.S. Navy Commodore David Port thought this area would be an ‘unfit’ location for a naval station. But the U.S. government thought it would be a good location for a lighthouse.
I find myself imagining time back then as I walk in the same footsteps of those who endured this hard life in Fort Jefferson. During these early years, the Dry Tortugas islands is to be the site for the lighthouse, Fort Jefferson was the military outpost serving as a prison to house deserters of the Civil War.
There are several interesting tales of the prison here including one infamous prisoner Dr. Samual Mudd. Dr. Mudd spent time in the fort’s so called, ‘Dungeon’ where you will find the words engraved in the entryway “Whoso entereth here leaveth all hope behind“.
His experience here would be hard and long. He was sentenced to life imprisonment for providing medical care to John Wilkes Booth; seemingly unaware that Booth had just shot Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theater. Mudd would later on save lives as he put his medical skills to work during a yellow fever epidemic in 1867. He later would be released.
City In The Sea
It’s hard to imagine at one time during the Civil War, this tiny island was a bustling little city. The population includes laborers, prisoners, and slaves to help swat mosquitoes while the fort was being built. However, some of the most dangerous and filthy jobs were performed by the slave laborers. Life on this island was not so good at that time and this is stating it lightly. By the end of the Civil War, population on Garden Key had increased up to nearly 2000.
The Name Dry Tortugas
You may be wondering about the name of this incredible national park. As I mention earlier, in the year 1513, Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon discovered these islands and he couldn’t believe the amount of sea turtles he saw; they were everywhere! He decided to name the island after the magnificent animals and gave the island the name “Las Tortugas” which is Spanish means “the turtles.” Fresh water was a scarce item on the island; therefore the word ‘dry’ was added to the name. The name change was to inform visitors and sailors to bring their own water. (Source Drytortugas.com)
The Dry Tortugas islands is an amazing place and very remote. These islands and shoals are the home of over 300 shipwrecks over several years. It is said that sailors call this place a perfect recipe for a shipwreck. Why so many shipwrecks here, you might ask. Reason is the shallow waters because of low land, a large fringe reef, various seasonal tides and a strong current. One of the more notable shipwrecks here is the Windjammer Wreck. Located less than one mile southwest of Loggerhead Key.
Plan Your Trip
Experiencing Dry Tortugas requires a little planning ahead. The primary transportation to get to the national park on this island is by catamaran. The Yankee Freedom is the authorized transport service that will take you to this far away place. The ferry ride is about 2.5 hours, and departure is around 8:00 AM.
Travel Tip: They suggest you arrive at the marina by around 7 AM. Yankee Freedom departs out of the Key West Ferry Terminal.
Breakfast and lunch is offered shortly after departure. The morning meal is basically an apple and a bagel. Lunch consists primarily of turkey or ham sandwiches, and it is great they offer gluten free options as well. Lunch is usually served from 11:00 AM to 1:00 PM. The ride is overall pretty smooth and relaxing. There is both seating outside as well as inside where it is climate controlled.
Travel Tip: There is a large parking garage across the street from the terminal and the cost is approximately $32 for the day.
- ADULT $190
- CHILD (4-16) $135
- STUDENTS 17+ (WITH ID) $180
- ACTIVE MILITARY (WITH ID) $180
- SENIOR 62+ $180
CHILD (4-16) $155
**The Park Service will collect campsite fee of $15-$30 per night during your stay.
This camping experience may not be exactly like what you might be used to. Camping on Dry Tortugas is primitive, you must provide for all your own basic needs such as water, food, shelter, medications and other necessity items. Camping is permitted only in the Garden Key campground area and is limited. Composting toilets are available but all your trash and garbage must be packed out. Keep in mind also, there are no showers. Camp sites are available on a first come, first served basis. You can obtain an application for a reservation by calling 305-242-7700.
In order to save a little money, we decided to ride our bikes from the hotel to the marina where the ferry departure is, which is about 4 miles. Throughout the entire day we are thinking we had a leg up. Little did we know we would return to the ferry terminal to find many streets flooded as Tropical Storm Sally unleashed on Key West. Needless to say, we rode our bikes through 2-3 feet of water for about two and half miles back to the hotel, in the rain.
Nearly everything we brought with us ended up wet. So of course, we decorated our hotel room by hanging up all our wet clothes, shoes, and papers all around the room. Later, we would laugh ourselves to sleep as we chat about what just happened to us.
The other method of transportation to the island is by sea plane as this option is more expensive. We thoroughly enjoyed the catamaran ride both ways. The day of our trip, they had something called an ‘Option’ day. This is because the weather forecast was supposed to be mostly cloudy and rainy. So they gave everyone the option to reschedule their trip.
We thought to ourselves about all the planning we did and the 6 hour drive we made to get here, so we decided to wing it and go with the flow. We ended up enjoying sun and partly cloudy skies for most of our stay on the island, then the rain began. The rain is basically as a result of the Tropical Storm Sally which eventually became a hurricane.
Snorkeling and Exploring
If you are looking to enhance your time in this incredible national park, you will enjoy snorkeling! This is included with your ferry ticket. Yankee Freedom includes the snorkeling gear if you should choose to go snorkeling. Of course, snorkeling in the Keys is some of the best in the world.
As the clouds began to gather and try to dampen our day, we continued our expedition adventure underwater. The countless beautiful sea life below is fascinating to watch. Swimming back to shore, we notice a couple jelly fish near the shallow area. I was relieved that it was time to start the beach walk and explore more of the island.
Another great way to explore Dry Tortugas is with a kayak! As you paddle yourself atop the surface of these turquoise waters, you can see down below the coral reefs and seagrass beds! There is a boating permit required for all vessels here, which includes kayaks. The reason is primarily to inform boaters about the Research Natural Area, as well as the staff to study patterns by visitors.
When kayaking in Dry Tortugas, you must be extremely prepared. It is highly recommended that you have a plan of rescue if so needed! Here is a list of safety ideas you might consider:
- Leave trip plans with a fellow camper.
- Keep a VHF radio with you.
- Self rescue plan.
- Know how to call for help if you need to.
- Know how to identify your location when contacting rescue searchers.
- Know how you will signal searchers.
- Have an anchor of some sort to tie off on to buoys to avoid drifting.
- Know the weather forecast.
- Know the tides and currents.
To name a few.
There are closed areas throughout the park including the Shark and Coral Special Protection Zones. Be sure you know where these areas are to avoid wandering into them.
The Dry Tortugas islands are home to thousands of birds. Parts of the islands are designated as a National Wildlife Refuge. You can find as many as 100,000 Sooty Terns on Bush Key during the nesting season. There are Caspian Terns on the Gulf Coast beaches where I truly enjoy watching and listening to their sounds. There are more species of birds you will find out here including Brown Noddy, Black Noddy, Magnificent Frigatebird, and the Masked Booby.
An Experience Like No Other
Our visit to Dry Tortugas National Park is indescribable. The pristine water and stunning beauty are not the only things that will amaze you. The history of Fort Jefferson is extremely fascinating in that these grounds tell a story of its own. If you are looking to get away, and I mean far away, then a visit to this very special national park is perfect! Immerse yourself in the remarkable beauty, nature and history unlike any other place!