The Dry Tortugas
are places not familiar to most Americans. Key West is a
five hour drive south and west of Miami and the Dry Tortugas are
another 70 miles due west by boat.
This is not a location for the casual
visitor . When I asked people about the location, one
person thought it was part of Cuba. Another thought it was a
territory of the United States, and on it goes.
Entrance to Fort Jefferson
The islands were discovered by that ubiquitous Florida explorer
Leon in 1513 and named for the abundant turtle life (Las
Tortugas).Later, because of the lack of fresh water, mariners added the
label “dry” to their charts. In 1832 naturalist
John James Audubon visited there when traveling from Key West to study the abundant
bird and marine life.
The next happening of note was construction of Ft. Jefferson,
named for President Thomas Jefferson, by the U.S. Army Corps of
Engineers beginning in 1846.
The Dry Tortugas are located along one of the world’s busiest
shipping lanes. Its strategic location was deemed as key to
protecting shipping through the Gulf of Mexico.
The building of a fort
in this remote location was seen as a necessity in the mid
1800’s. Ft. Jefferson, designed to support 450 cannons, is the
largest masonry structure in the Western Hemisphere.
Construction went on for over 30 years, ending in 1875. During
never a shot was fired in anger. Although the fort was never
estimates are that more than 16 million bricks were used during
Fort Jefferson Parade Grounds
Unless you have your own boat, getting to the most isolated
national park in the Continental United States usually means a
cruise on a catamaran
leaving Key West at 8 AM.
Arrival at the Ft. Jefferson dock takes 2 - 2 1/2 hours.
why go there in the first place? The Dry Tortugas, with Ft
Jefferson as its centerpiece, comprise seven undeveloped coral
and sand islands. Far removed from civilization, this is a
Fort Jefferson, Moat, Walkway, Gulf of Mexico
Dedicated as the Dry
Tortugas National Park in 1992, it covers 64,700 acres of
mostly open water. Tales of the pirates who roamed this area are
legend. The ocean bottom surrounding the islands is littered
Many are Spanish galleons still laden with gold and other
treasures, which are still to be found. Mel Fisher’s group is
still recovering treasures from the famous
View from gun port
Civil War buffs have a historic fort to explore. During the
Civil War, Ft.
Jefferson was used as a military prison for captured deserters.
was imprisoned here. He was accused as being an accomplice for
setting the broken leg of
John Wilkes Booth
Lincoln’s assassination. This was the last port of call
for the USS
it left for Havana where it blew up in the harbor precipitating
the Spanish-American War.
After docking at Garden Key, guides are available for free 45
minute narrated walking tours of the fort. But there is much
more available during your visit
to this historic site.
Guided tour of Fort Jefferson
are given gear before leaving the ship and are free to explore
the shallow waters surrounding the island.
wander the beaches hoping to hook the big one. There is even
free limited overnight primitive camping
if you make advance arrangements and bring your own equipment.
this is paradise. The islands of the Dry Tortugas are on the
main flyway from the United States to South America. Hundreds of
thousands of sooty terns nest there as do thousands of brown
boobies. You have to be a birder to appreciate these names.
Countless other species can be seen on their seasonal
National Park Service bird list for the Dry Tortugas
includes 299 species.
Now back to Key West from where your journey to the Dry Tortugas
begins and ends. Key
West is, well Key West. It too is a different world and the
unofficial capitol of the
as residents of the Keys refer to themselves. A day trip to the
Dry Tortugas would normally mean a stay of several days in this
West has an amazing amount of history for so small an island
(cay) and you have probably heard of the doings on Duvall St.
All of this information can easily be culled from the Internet
One of the Key West Train Tours
Sightseeing in Key West is a joy. Photographing old New
England-style houses can fill up most small capacity digital
cards and extra
batteries are a
must. A real camera
is preferable to a smart phone there because of the extent of
the available subject matter.
and sites of local interest are mostly located in the Old Town
section. But parking there can be difficult. Some
accommodations, like smaller B&Bs, might not have any available
you are in the Old Town area, much of the on-street parking is
by resident permit only although metered parking is provided.
Commercial parking lots can run from $13 to $30 per day.
Alternatives would include bicycles
(rental or bring your own), electric rental vehicles or the
touring trolleys which allow unlimited daily use throughout the
Now for a bit of trivia. Key West is famous, or infamous for the
roosters that roam the streets of the island. When residents
decided they had enough of these pesky though picturesque fowl,
a trapper was called in and as the street smart birds are
captured they are humanely relocated to a remote upstate
(northern Florida) location.
The famous six-toed cats from the Ernest Hemingway House can now
roam freely without fear of being attacked..
Key West residents
When you are ready to travel to a place that is almost foreign
the dollar is the official currency and English is the first
language, usually, a stay in Key
West with a day trip to the Dry Tortugas is waiting.
To make the best use of your time when visiting go to websites
for the Florida Keys
& Key West and also the
to check the many offerings.