Dry Tortugas National Park in Florida is the closest you can get to a tropical paradise for a day. The water is clear, the waves are gentle, and the sun is bright. The snorkeling and birding are phenomenal. And no one is pushing drinks on you.
It may be the most remote national park, and one of the least visited, in the East. In 2011, Dry Tortugas counted 75,171 visitors, a number that pales in comparision to the 934,351 visitors lured to Everglades National Park, its closest national park neighbor.
Dry Tortugas, which lies 70 miles west of Key West, consists of open water punctuated by several small islands. Garden Keys, where most visitors go, is the only one accessible by commercial ferry, the Yankee Freedom. You can go with a commercial seaplane, but if you think the boat is expensive ($165 for an adult, which includes $5 entrance fee for the park), you don’t even want to ask about the cost of flying ($280 for half-day, $495 for a full day).
My husband, Lenny, and I visited Dry Tortugas the week between Christmas and New Year's Day. After studying the park website and previous National Parks Traveler stories, we thought that there was too much to do to fit in a day and decided to camp for a night.
A Bit of History
Ponce de Leon first named the islands Las Tortugas (the turtles) in 1513. The name quickly changed to the Dry Tortugas on maps to show that there was no fresh water. John Jay Audubon came here in 1832 to observe birds and marine life.
Fort Jefferson, built between 1846 and 1875, takes up most of the land on Garden Keys. The fort was planned as a (late) reaction to the War of 1812. After the British burned Washington, D.C., Congress authorized Fort Jefferson and several similar forts up and down the East Coast, including Fort Sumter in South Carolina and Fort Pulaski in Georgia.
The six-sided fort with three levels was designed to hold 450 cannons and 1,500 men. The walls are between eight and 11 feet thick. A moat surrounds the structure to prevent storm surges from hitting the fort full force. The fort was built with many casemates (gun rooms), but not one shot was ever fired in anger from here. The fort was never finished.
Though it was located at the southernmost tip of Florida, the fort stayed in Union hands during the Civil War. It was used as a prison, mostly for deserters of the Union army. The most famous prisoner was Dr. Samuel Mudd, a physician convicted and imprisoned for aiding and conspiring with John Wilkes Booth in the 1865 assassination of President Lincoln. You'll see where Mudd was imprisoned by going through a portal, which says, "Whoso entereth here leaves all hopes behind."
Dr. Sim Smith, the army doctor on site, died in 1867 in a yellow fever epidemic. A memorial to the doctor and his son is located on the grounds. The fort was left without a medical officer and Mudd eagerly volunteered to work with the sick. Mudd was pardoned by President Andrew Johnson and left Fort Jefferson on March 11, 1869.
After the army abandoned the fort in 1875, the structure deteriorated. It was briefly used during the Spanish American War, but military presence ended in 1912. Dry Tortugas became a national monument in 1935 and a national park in 1992. Now the fort is sinking into the coral and the park has initiated a major effort to stabilize it.
What To Do In Dry Tortugas
Exploring The Fort
As soon as you get off the ferry, take the tour offered by a Yankee Freedom employee. There are no interpretive rangers at the moment in the park, an indication of poor park funding. Our tour guide was very knowledgeable and enthusiastic. Then you can spend more time exploring on your own. Walk on the top walls for great views and check out the lighthouse.
Swimming And Snorkeling
The beach slopes gently down to the tropical blue water. Even a snorkeling newbie like me was able to see coral and an assortment of fish. Yankee Freedom shows an instructional video on the way to the island and lends out snorkeling equipment.
You don't have to be a knowledgeable birder to enjoy the birds. Here the birds are big and recognizable and you can get quite close to them. Magnificent frigate birds (Fregata magnificens) -- magnificent is part of their name -- seem to float overhead with their 85-inch wingspan. Brown pelicans, cormorants, black-bellied plovers, and ruddy turnstones are common most of the year. My favorite is the royal tern with its orange bill and its black cap punk hairdo.
True birders know to visit between February and September when sooty terns gather on Bush Key to lay their eggs. More than 200 species of birds pass through the area during migration season, peaking in April through mid-May.
Walk the outside of the fort and observe the crumbling structure. Between October 15 and January 15 you can take the half-mile walk around Bush Key, which is connected to Garden Key by a short land bridge.
The visitor center and bookstore, located in the fort, are staffed by the Everglades Association, the cooperating association that supports the south Florida parks: Biscayne National Park, Dry Tortugas, Everglades National Park, and Big Cypress National Preserve.
On a table in the visitor center you'll find several notebooks filled with historical information on the fort and the Dry Tortugas. One of the most fascinating notebooks contains the correspondence between Dr. Richard Mudd, a grandson of Dr. Samuel Mudd, and President Jimmy Carter. Richard Mudd spent his whole life trying to clear his grandfather's name. Though President Andrew Johnson pardoned Samuel Mudd, a pardon is considered a statement of forgiveness but not innocence. President Jimmy Carter wrote the grandson that he was persuaded that the conviction was wrong but said that he couldn't set it aside. At the time of his death in 2002, Richard Mudd was still fighting for his grandfather's reputation and his case was pending in a federal appeals court.
Camping -The Logistics
Most visitors just come for the day, arriving on the island at 10:30 am, and getting back on the boat by 2:45 pm. Needless to say, you must come with everything you'll need on your stay, whether for the day or for a few days of camping. That includes food, water, and gear. And you must take all your trash when you leave.
The boat trip takes two and a half hours each way. Because we were camping, we had to arrive at the terminal at 6:30 a.m. to load our gear on the boat. Day trippers check in at 7:30 a.m. for an 8 a.m. departure. A lovely breakfast is served on the boat. Later a buffet lunch is available; both meals are included in the price of the trip.
After the day trippers get off the boat, a park ranger meets the campers and explains the rules to those staying overnight. Ranger Williams, one of the law enforcement rangers on the island, is also the emergency medical technician. “If you have a medical emergency in the middle of the night, come and knock on my door,” he says. Between 10 and 14 Park Service employees live in apartments in the fort.
“Also, from time to time, there may be Cuban refugees landing on Garden Key," Ranger Williams continues. "If that happens, come and get me. I call the Coast Guard, who checks them out.”
None of the campers expected this as part of a safety lecture and were flabbergasted.
Though Garden Key is further away from Cuba than Key West, there are fewer Coast Guard ships patrolling the area around the Dry Tortugas. So Cuban refugees have more of a chance to get “one dry foot” on land. And that’s all the Cubans need to be on their way to permanent residency and U.S. citizenship. The Cubans come in chugs, which look like large rowboats. One is permanently on exhibit in the fort.
The Yankee Freedom tour guide explains that the trip from Cuba takes two days. After the refugees are checked out, they're taken to the mainland on the Yankee Freedom, a trip that inspires the phrase "come to freedom on the Yankee Freedom." So while the rangers are safely tucked away in their air-conditioned apartments in Fort Jefferson, campers are the first line of defense if Cubans make it to Garden Key. It was an exciting prospect, but no one landed in the middle of the night while we were there.
Camping in Dry Tortugas is like car camping without the car. When boarding the boat, you hand over your camping luggage to the boat staff. Once you dock, you put your camping gear in a handcart and wheel it to the camping area--a couple of hundred yards. A staff member will assign campsites in an orderly manner. Though you can't reserve a site, you should feel comfortable that you'll have a place to pitch your tent. Each site has a picnic table and a barbecue grill. Composting toilets, reserved for campers, are closed until the day trippers leave. During the day, everyone uses the facilities on the boats.
You also need to rethink your usual camping menu because Yankee Freedom will not allow most camping fuel on the boat. You have a choice of using Sterno, charcoal, or just cold camping. For one night, we decided to bring Subway sandwiches for dinner. It was so warm that "cold camping" is a misnomer. I missed my cup of tea for breakfast.
You need to take all your camping gear such as a tent, sleeping bag, and pad. Though you're camping on the beach, the ground is solid so you'll probably want a foam pad or air mattress. Bring all your water because there's no stream around to fill up your water bottles. Water, water everywhere but not a drop to drink really applies here. For two days, we brought one and a half gallons each; Yankee Freedom recommends a gallon a person per day.
After the ferry leaves with the day trippers in the afternoon, campers are not the only visitors on Garden Key. Seaplanes bring their afternoon clients. Campers on private boats may come ashore but the island is definitely quieter. After dark, some campers get together to chat on the beach. You can walk around with a flashlight, feeling like you're on a deserted island. Alternatively, bring the Nevada Barr mystery, Flashback (An Anna Pigeon Novel), which intertwines two stories about the fort, one present day, and one during the Civil War.
Can you ask visitors to volunteer in a national park? Why not? Since our Congress and taxes are not funding the national parks adequately, parks are using volunteers for more functions. And volunteers love it.
In Dry Tortugas, volunteers must live in the fort for several weeks. I don't think they can get Boy Scout troops for a day to help clean up the island. That's where visitors can come in. While my husband and I were there, we spent about two hours picking up garbage.
I asked for large trash bags from the Yankee Freedom staff and told them that I was going to pick up garbage on Bush Key. The staff was both amused and bemused but said, "Yeah. Go for it." We found Styrofoam buoys, plastic bottles and even a propane can. Most of the junk was from boaters. Walkers who saw us probably through that we were wards of the court. They surely didn't volunteer to help. If you're staying on Dry Tortugas for more than a day, you have time to help the park in some way. Maybe you'll even encourage others to do the same.