A brief history of Dry Tortugas National Park
Dry Tortugas National Park helps the reputation of poor misunderstood Ponce de Leon. His name is firmly linked to the erroneous myth, apparently started by a Spanish court chronicler wanting to make him seem foolish, that he was in search of a “Fountain of Youth”. He gets mocked for failing to find what he never sought and fails to get credit for something wonderful that he did discover; the Dry Tortugas islands in 1513.
Ponce, as we like to think of him, named the islands with the Spanish word for turtles. There were a lot of sea turtles on and around the islands at the time of discovery. Later someone added the word “dry” to let anyone planning to sail there know that there is no source of fresh water. That is still true so plan accordingly.
Fast forward to the 1800s. Not long after the War of 1812 the U.S. government decided to create a system of forts to protect the country’s coastlines. The primary fort for the southeast was built on the Dry Tortugas.
Over a period of nearly 30 years (1846-1875) more than 2,000 people (including slaves) lived and worked on the island. Using 16 million handmade bricks they created a six-sided fort that ultimately was never finished (in part because its weight started to cause the island to sink) or fully armed. But it did get across the “don’t mess with us” point it was trying to make.
The harbor at Dry Tortugas was used to blockade Southern ships during the U.S. Civil War. After the war it was used as a prison. Most of the prisoners were Union deserters with the most famous being Dr. Samuel Mudd, the physician who set the broken leg of John Wilkes Booth after Booth shot President Lincoln.
The Army abandoned the fort in 1874. In the early 1900s it was designated a bird reserve and eventually was upgraded to National Park status in 1992.
Things to do at Dry Tortugas National Park
Swim and snorkel
Brunette has been trying for literally 20 years to get to Dry Tortugas and snorkel. She almost got there on a family vacation to Key West. Her youngest son, who is now in the Coast Guard Reserve, wanted to see the fort. The weather failed to cooperate and the ferry was cancelled that day.
Brunette is not one to let go of much of anything in the way of memories. She especially hangs on to thwarted swimming goals until they are finally achieved. As much as we both enjoy swimming, the experience at Dry Tortugas had the most bucket list achieving importance for Brunette.
Unfortunately, the snorkeling was very poor (one lonely Pufferfish) on the day we visited. The swimming was lovely and the little beach area had nice sand. There were opportunities for a little shade for those not wanting to be in constant sun.
A Park Ranger told us the best snorkeling is in the summer months. We have spoken to people who have raved about the snorkeling. When we visited there had been several windy days that had stirred up the water and created poor visibility in the area around some pilings where it’s usually best to snorkel. If snorkeling is really important, try going in July or August. But remember that the island is only air-conditioned by nature!
Tour the fort
On some days Park Rangers stationed on the island conduct special tours and activities. Every day the staff of the Yankee Freedom provides two guided tours of 45 to 60 minutes in length. If, like two sisters we know, you fail to sign up for a guided tour you can walk the grounds and read the signs for a self-guided tour.
The best views are from the top of the fort which you can get to using the stairs in any of the fort’s interior corners. (There isn’t any other way to get up there.)
This is an idea that under 99.9% of circumstances we would never consider but it actually sounds like (rustic) fun here. There isn’t any electricity or running water and you have to bring all of your equipment and food. But the appeal of having the island semi to yourself (there’s a very limited number of campers allowed) is strong.
A Park Ranger told us that seeing the stars at night is beautiful because there isn’t any ambient light. You can also swim and snorkel before and after the day-trippers. And, if you’re in need of quiet, it’s hard to imagine a better setting. A nice feature of the island is that there aren’t any mosquitoes because there isn’t any standing water. That seems like a major plus for campers.
There are compost toilets available to campers and they can take advantage of the ferry’s toilets for the 4 hours it’s there each day. Campers can also cheat a bit on the whole food thing by getting lunch on the ferry for $7 each.
How to get to Dry Tortugas National Park
The critical first step in getting to Dry Tortugas National Park is to get to Key West, Florida. We were going there from Naples, Florida and were thrilled to make the trip via seaplane. Salt Island Seaplanes flew us down and back. They provided us with the rare experience of having our flights be a big part of what made the whole trip so much fun. How often can you say that?
We parked at the local airport, walked right out to the plane without any TSA presence and jumped onto the plane (OK, we were helped up a bit). And did we mention the free parking at the airport? Well, we did now.
Our pilot, Tomás, was disconcertingly young (Blonde thought he might be getting a Cub Scout badge in flying). He probably thought we were disconcertingly old, but everyone had a good time! The flight is only 45 minutes which is a huge improvement over a 4 or 5 hour drive.
We enjoyed seeing Naples from the air and being fairly low over a long expanse of the Gulf provided beautiful views. Tomás can often look down and see sharks and stingrays. We didn’t see any of those but it was interesting to come in over the Navy Seal training center on Key West. (We don’t know why our government spends so much money training seals but whatever…)
The Yankee Freedom ferry to Dry Tortugas
Dry Tortugas is 70 miles across open water on the Gulf of Mexico from Key West. The Yankee Freedom is the only ferry authorized to carry passengers to the park. The ferry goes every day, weather permitting, except Christmas Day. They don’t cancel because of rain. If you want to you will need to do so by 3:00 p.m. the day before your trip or 48 hours before your camping trip departure. The ferry sells out a lot so make your reservations before you get to Key West or you may end up waving from the shore.
If you take the ferry you check in at the ferry terminal at 7:00 a.m., depart at 7:30 a.m. and arrive back in Key West about 5:30 p.m. Breakfast and lunch are provided. Onboard you can purchase things you should have thought to bring along in the first place; sunscreen, towels, hats, underwater cameras, Dramamine, and water canteens that you can fill for free on the ship. They also provide free snorkel gear and all the barf bags you need.
The inside cabins are air-conditioned and have narrated DVDs telling you some of the history of the area and the National Park. We liked the seats outside on the top deck against the wall (facing the water) but you have to scramble to claim those as there are only 6.
The crew is honest about what the sea conditions are expected to be and if they say “rough” it’s smart to believe them. We are fairly seaworthy but needed motion sickness wristbands for the journey out and still felt queasy. We took Dramamine for the rockier return trip.
To make a reservation use this link.
Just as only one company is authorized to provide ferry service only one is permitted to take visitors via seaplane. This would be a fun option and you can do it as a half-day trip if you are pressed for time. Not surprisingly it’s considerably more expensive ($380 more per adult for a full day excursion) than the ferry.
If you’re really brave and have your own boat that can make a 140 mile round trip to Dry Tortugas you can do that (and we will probably hear about you on the evening news). Or you can charter a boat from one of these companies. Because it’s such a long journey you will probably be spending one or more nights on the boat.
Why you should go to Dry Tortugas National Park
It isn’t one of the well-known National Parks. When you tell people you went there you may get a follow-up question and how rare and gratifying is that when talking about your travels?
It’s a great park to satisfy travel companions with varying interests. A swimmer, a camper and a historian can all be made happy (and birders in certain seasons) on one outing.
It’s a nice break from the commercial aspects of Key West.
2016 is the centennial year of the National Park Service so go for the birthday party aspect of it.
If you’re American it’s somewhere that will actually make you feel OK with how a very small portion of your tax dollars are spent.
None of the Presidential candidates will be there.
Disclosure: Lucky us – we were comped for our flights with Salt Island Seaplanes and for the Yankee Freedom ferry trip.