Dry Tortugas National Park

National Park Number: 31 of 59

Dry Tortugas stole my heart. This place earns every superlative, with its clear turquoise water, white sand beaches, incredible reef snorkeling right off the beach, fascinating history, and some of the most picturesque views I’ve ever seen. 

At this point, a little over halfway through visiting all the national parks, we can honestly say we haven’t found one yet that we haven’t loved. Really and truly loved. Still, we go into some parks more excited—we knew Glacier and Katmai would blow us away and they did, but we didn’t have a lot of expectations for, say, Congaree or Hot Springs. So when those kinds of parks end up being fascinating and beautiful and all the other wonderful things they are, we feel extra amped about them.

Dry Tortugas was such a place. It’s a small park—101 sq. miles, but 99% of that is underwater—and remote, 68 miles from Key West out in the Gulf of Mexico. To get there, most visitors take a day trip by boat with the park’s concessioner. It’s 2 1/2 hours out to Garden Key, and we spent a pleasant morning eating breakfast on the boat and learning about the area from our tour guide.

Dry Tortugas is named for the abundance of sea turtles in the area and the utter lack of fresh drinking water (“dry” was meant as a warning to other sailors.) The seven islands that make up the land portion of the park lie right alongside the only safe harbors and anchorages in this part of the Gulf of Mexico, which means the islands have been strategic stopping spots for centuries of sailing.

Once docked, we hit the ground running so we could see as much of the park as possible in the 4 1/2 hours we had on shore. We were hustling all day, but realized quickly that Dry Tortugas, even though it’s tiny, is a place we could easily have spent several days exploring and enjoying. There are a few camping spots on Garden Key, but they were booked months in advance for any of the dates we could be there, so we missed out on spending more time. And I am really dang sad about this, because Dry Tortugas is one of my favorite places we’ve been yet.

But even though our time was short, our day trip did give us an excellent overview of the park and we loved it enormously. We started out with a walk along Bush Key, which is underwater for much of the year. During the winter, its dunes and shell-covered beaches are exposed and walkable, and we made our way out to Long Key to get a peek at the forest and nesting frigate birds (though we could only peek—Long Key is closed to visitors so the birds and sea turtles can nest in peace.)

We ran back from Bush Key to join our guided tour of Fort Jefferson, which was SO MUCH COOLER than we had been anticipating. 

I mentioned before that Garden Key has one of the only safe anchorages in this area of the Gulf; because of its strategic location, the U.S. started construction on the enormous Fort Jefferson in 1846. Building the fort was a massive effort to get food, water, and labor out to the island, as well as building materials—18 million bricks were used in the fort’s construction, and getting anything out to Garden Key was a drawn-out, complicated task.

Construction of the fort went on for 30 years, but was never finished; by the time the second of three planned levels was finished, the fort was beginning to sink into the island, and maintaining a supply of freshwater for the fort’s inhabitants was proving too monumental a task.

But even though it was never finished, the fort is completely fascinating and brilliant in its construction. The fort was designed to house 420 or more guns, 303 of them cannons; 125 cannons could be trained on any single target at a time, no matter the direction of approach, and since any ship wanting to pass through this part of the Gulf safely had to go within cannon range of Garden Key, it was a perfect spot to defend shipping routes.

The fort was built on 109 cisterns that collected rainwater, which would have solved the fort’s fresh water problem except that the fort was so heavy, with its 8-foot thick, 40-foot high walls, that by the time the Civil War started, all but six of the cisterns had cracked. 

The 1800 people who lived at the fort during the water got their water from giant steam condensers instead, which worked to boil salt water into fresh; the only problem was that they required mass amounts of fuel and since Fort Jefferson was controlled by the union, that fuel had to be shipped from a Union state, passing Confederate states to get there. 

Once the war started, construction materials changed too; most of the fort’s brick came from Pensacola, but when Florida joined the Confederacy, the fort’s builders had to start getting bricks for the third tier from the north. You can see where the fort changes from light brown to a darker red; the red bricks were shipped all the way from Maine.

After our tour, we grabbed some snorkel gear (included in the day trip price—getting out to Garden Key is pricey, but it was really nice to have meals, tours, and gear all taken care of once we were there). We headed over to North Beach to get in the water and have a look around. Snorkeling with kids is tricky. Graham loved it on St. John, but was decidedly not feeling it here, and I tried for a while to snorkel while holding Margi up out of the water on my back, which sort of worked, but she wasn’t feeling it either. So after snorkeling along Fort Jefferson’s moat wall for a while, David and I took turns going out to the coaling dock ruins for a little solo snork. Both of us ran into a 5 foot barracuda, which looked super mean and freaked us both out a bit. Otherwise, it was an incredible look at the 3rd largest coral reef in the world—behind Australia’s and Belize’s—which extends from Biscayne Bay out to the Tortugas. Snorkeling both enchants and terrifies me; I am always nervous about kicking the reef and the fish themselves occasionally freak me out. Still, it’s a good kind of scared, an out-of-my-comfort-zone experience that I really should seek out more of.

After we snorkeled, we walked along the moat wall for a bit before racing back to the boat for our return trip. I was so sad we couldn’t stay and camp—the sunsets over the fort and that turquoise water have to be incredible; ditto for the night sky all the way out there in the Gulf with no light pollution—but we did have Key West waiting for us on the other end of the boat ride, and Key West is never a bad thing. 

 We were the last ones on the boat and had no time to pose with the sign, but David did get this shot as we ran to get on board!
We were the last ones on the boat and had no time to pose with the sign, but David did get this shot as we ran to get on board!
 Graham got a free ice cream sandwich for doing his Jr. Ranger :).
Graham got a free ice cream sandwich for doing his Jr. Ranger :).

When we got back, we took a little jaunt around Old Town and tried some key lime pie. We spent the next day biking all around Key West, visiting Mallory Square, Fort Zachary Taylor, the Eco-Discovery Center, the southernmost point in the continental USA, and Ernest Hemingway’s house, which I’ve been dying to see for a long time. I am a massive Hemingway fan, and we’ve made it a point to visit Hem sites whenever we can, from Havana to Paris to Oak Park, Illinois. The tour of his house and studio was fascinating, plus we got to meet some of his famous six-toed cats and learn about his string of unhealthy marriages. David and I played a game of “Which wife would you have wanted to be?” and we both picked Hadley, even though I think her story is the saddest, because she got Hem’s young, hopeful heart, plus Paris in the roaring 20s and all those fabulous Lost Generation friends. 

On our way back to our hotel from downtown (we ended up at a hotel because there is nowhere to camp free in the Keys without risking a massive ticket, the campgrounds were 89 bucks a night, and we found a screaming deal on HotelTonight and gnabbed it because we wanted to shower), we biked around Mallory Square’s sunset celebration and got another piece of key lime pie (WE HAD TO.) And then we packed up and headed back to the mainland.

Dry Tortugas is now right near the top of my list of parks I want to revisit—and next time we will camp! And kayak! And lounge and laze! And explore every corner of the fort! But I think overall it’s not terrible to leave with longing, wanting much more time. Because Garden Key will be a place we dream about now, a place that will stand out as utterly perfect, and when we go back, we will have had all that in-between time to love it, which I know will make any more time we get to spend there even more special.

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