Exploring the Dry Tortugas National Park

Exploring the Dry Tortugas National Park

Dry Tortugas National Park: General Summary

The Dry Tortugas National Park is a National Park of the United States. The spectacular and divine wonderland is located in the Gulf of Mexico, about 68 miles (109 km) west of Key West. It is home to Fort Jefferson and the seven Dry Tortugas islands – the most isolated islands of the Florida Keys.

Dry Tortugas National Park is a matchless and distinctive US Natural Park thanks to its assortment of mainly untouched tropical ecology mixed in with artifacts of historical times. This National Park is known for its bright and multi-colored and untouched coral reefs, abundant sea life, legends of sunken treasures and shipwrecks, and tropical bird breeding grounds.

The main attraction of the Dry Tortugas National Park is Fort Jefferson – a colossal coastal fortress that was left unfinished. Fort Jefferson is the biggest brick masonry formation in the Western Hemisphere – it is made of over 16 million bricks! It is the third biggest fort in the United States, after Fort Adams, Rhode Island and Fort Monroe, Virginia. The fort was built in the civil era on about 16 acres of land.

Dry Tortugas National Park comes under the Everglades & Dry Tortugas Biosphere Reserve that was founded by UNESCO in 1976 under the umbrella of its Man and the Biosphere Program. The stretch of islands that come under the National Park has the most undisturbed body of coral reefs amongst all of the Florida Keys reefs.

You can reach and visit the Dry Tortugas National Park only by a boat or seaplane. The park offers a wide array of water related activities such as snorkeling, scuba diving, and kayaking. It is also a great place for fishing enthusiasts as the seawater offers saltwater fishing opportunities.


Date of Establishment

The Dry Tortugas National Park was initially known as the Fort Jefferson National Monument. The name was designated on January 4, 1935, by the US President Franklin D. Roosevelt under the Antiquities Act. The park was then expanded in 1983 and later renamed by the Congress as the Dry Tortugas National Park on October 26, 1992. It covers an expansive area of 47,125 acres and is managed by the workforce behind Everglades National Park. The park was founded to protect the marine ecosystems and the island of the Dry Tortugas to conserve Fort Jefferson and the submerged cultural relics – shipwrecks – and allow regulated access to the public. Around 63,000 visitors visited the park yearly, from the year 2008 to 2017.


Popular Season to Visit

The weather in the Dry Tortugas is subtropical – the temperature ranges from 60°F to 90°F and the weather is warm and tropical. The temperatures can go as low as mid-50s during the coldest winter months. Most travelers agree that the ideal time to visit the Dry Tortugas is from November to April.

However, the Key West seas are likely to be rougher and the winds are stronger from October to January. Although the summer seas are not as forceful, the summertime hurricane spell terrorizes the Dry Tortugas islands with spur-of-the-moment hurricanes that can be quite forceful even if they are well off at a safe distance from the Tortugas.

So, the best months to visit the park are from February to April. The weather is thoroughly pleasant throughout these months – there is no threat of rainfall, hurricanes, or strong winds. Regrettably, these are also the busiest most-touristy months down in Key West. So, make sure to book your seaplane ride well in advance so that you can enjoy the Dry Tortugas National Park in all its glory.


Introduction

The Dry Tortugas National Park is situated 68 miles (109 km) west of Key West, Florida. It is an archipelago of small coral islands or keys situated in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico. The islands are totally isolated from our modern world. The only other land in sight is other equally tiny islands. The Dry Tortugas National Park has no electricity or running water! The islands are devoid of any modern technology; the boats and the Dry Tortugas lighthouse are your only connection to the post-modern age.

Dry Tortugas National Park is 47,125 acres wide and is run by the workforce behind Everglades National Park. The expansive park area is more than 99 percent water – the total land area covered by the park is only 104 acres (0.2 sq mi; 0.4 km2). It is bordered on the northwest by the Tortugas Ecological Reserve and on the south, west and east by the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

On January 19, 2007, the western and northern areas of the park, including the central island group— covering an area of 46-square-mile (120 km) — were designated as "research natural area". Visitors are prohibited to fish in this part of the park area and ferries also cannot dock inside this area unsanctioned. Boats and ferries that wish to dock inside the natural research area must utilize the designated mooring docks or buoys.

The must-visit man-made feature of the Dry Tortugas National Park is the Civil War relic, Fort Jefferson. It is a treasure waiting to be explored by history buffs. The fort was used as a prison by the military during the civil war era. The unfinished fort was employed to keep captured deserters and traitors as inmates. Dr. Samuel Mudd was famously imprisoned at the fort; he was charged with being an accomplice in setting the shattered leg of John Wilkes Booth after the assassination of President Lincoln. The fort also acted as the last port of call for the USS Maine before it fatefully left for Havana, where it blew up to result in the impetus of the Spanish-American War.


Apart from this magnificent remnant of the Civil War era, the Dry Tortugas National Park has seven western-most islands of the West Key. The most prominent keys of the Dry Tortugas are Loggerhead and Garden Keys. However, Garden Key is the most popular one, thanks to the massive structure of Fort Jefferson sprawled across it and the two Dry Tortugas ferries dock. It is also the only key of the Dry Tortugas where visitors are permitted to set up camp .

Loggerhead Island houses the Dry Tortugas lighthouse. It is also the largest of all the Keys. It is 250 by 1,200 meters and stands three meters above sea level. Some of the other keys have slight mangrove plantations or other types of vegetation and comprise of patches of grass and sand.

Bush Key is the third key of the island and is pretty close to Garden Key – if the sea tide is low enough, the two keys are connected by a small sand path. Bush Key was previously known as Hog Island thanks to the hogs that were raised on this key to feed the prisoners locked up in Ford Jefferson. You can’t visit the Bush from April to September because of the large number of noddys and terns that breed there during these months.


Then there’s Long Key— a mid-sized Tortugas Island, which is located some 50 meters south of Bush Key. Next, there’s Hospital Key, this is where a small hospital was built for the residents and inmates of Fort Jefferson. The sixth island of the Dry Tortugas is Middle Key; it is around 2.5 kilometers east of Hospital Key. This island often disappears entirely for weeks and months at end thanks to a variety of seasonal, tidal, and weather conditions and its low sea levels. Lastly, the smallest of the seven keys is East Key; it is based on a small 100 by 200 meters ground area.

The park is situated in a region that has a tropical savanna climate. The Atlantic hurricane season coincides with the rainy season from May to October, and the dry season extends from November to April. In spite of intermittent exposure to tropical systems, the Tortugas is Florida’s driest place, with a yearly rainfall of around 36 inches (91 cm). The best and safest time to visit the park is from February to April – the weather stays pleasant throughout these months.

There is no large tropical forest or woods canopy on the islands, and the sandy, quick-draining loam and intense sunlight only add to the drought-like environment of the islands. Seasonally, there is little difference in temperature— 90 °F (32 °C) is the average high temperature in the summer season and 66 °F (19 °C) is the average low temperature in the winter season.

The Dry Tortugas National Park is inarguably a splendid sight to behold. Anyone who has been to the Dry Tortugas National Park even once certifies that they’ve seen nothing like it in all of the United States. The seven keys and Fort Jefferson – with is rich history – continue to mesmerize and attract tourists from all over the world. The picturesque and undisturbed coral reef and various striking views that the islands offers are sure to inspire you. But wait! There is more!


The Dry Tortugas with its ideal subtropical climate acts as the perfect breeding ground for a whopping 300 species of birds – including flamingoes, limpkins, cranes, oystercatchers, stilts, avocets, lapwings, plovers, ducks, geese, pigeons, waterfowls, grebes, doves, cuckoos, etc. The gorgeous turquoise waters that surround the park land also offer a wealth of sea life – including sea turtles, vivid reef fish, grouper, amberjacks, stingrays, tarpon, and many other types of reef species!

The park’s plant life consists of primarily plant species that is characteristically native of the Caribbean Islands – including sedges, herbaceous flora, grasses, shrubs, and trees. However, the largest islands –Loggerhead and Garden – have a substantially large variety of exotic plant life because of continuous human habitation

Visitors also head to the Dry Tortuga National Park to marvel at the seven keys. Plus, this park presents delightful opportunities for water-related adventures such as fishing, snorkeling, and kayaking. Visitors often flock to the park for an amazing camping experience at the Garden Campgrounds as well. Plus, the sea water that encompasses the park land is littered with shipwrecks, mostly Spanish galleons, that are loaded with gold and other treasures.

If you’re a fan of civil war history, gorgeous islands, coral reefs, and abundant bird and sea life, then this is the place you should visit for an unforgettable experience. Offering many attractions, your visit to the Dry Tortugas National Park might just be the uplifting and stimulating encounter with nature that you’ve been waiting for all this time.

So, let’s dive into the world of the Dry Tortugas National Park and see the wonders that lie there!


A Brief History

The Dry Tortugas islands were originally discovered in 1513 by the ubiquitous Florida explorer Ponce de Leon in 1513. He named them Las Tortugas because of the abundance of turtle life on the islands. Eventually, due to the complete lack of freshwater, sailors added the tag “dry” to their maps.

In 1832, naturalist John James Audubon traveled to the island from Key West in order to observe and document the rich marine and bird life of the archipelago. Later on, in 1846, the US Army Corps began constructing Fort Jefferson, named after the President Thomas Jefferson.

The Dry Tortugas are situated down the length of one of the world’s most active shipping lanes. This strategic location of the Tortugas was seen as a major aspect of protecting shipping activity through the Gulf of Mexico. Hence, the construction of the Fort on the Garden Key was seen as a prerequisite to provide this protection in the mid 1800s.

Fort Jefferson, the biggest masonry edifice in the Western Hemisphere, was constructed to hold up 450 cannons! The construction of this grand fort used up over 16 million bricks and went on for more than 30 years and finally ended in 1875. Despite such a long time period, the construction of the fort was never completed.


Geology

Dry Tortugas National Park is near the southwestern boundary of the Florida Peninsula. The Peninsula is the only partially exposed above sea level. The submerged section of the platform goes as deep as 300 feet (90 meters). Beyond this spot, the sea floor plunges abruptly to over 10,000 feet (3,000 meters).

The Florida Platform has been amassing ocean sediments since the Atlantic Ocean crater began to shape roughly 200 million years ago. The seabed around the Dry Tortugas National Park is made up of more than 15,000 feet (5,000 meters) of thick carbonate rock sediments, such as dolomite and limestone, that make up the Florida Platform. These rocks continue to formulate as the calcareous skeletons and shells of dead marine life continue to fall on the submerged parts of the platform.

During the last ice age, known as the Pleistocene Epoch (2.6 million–11,700 years ago), sea levels climbed and plunged continually in reaction to the to and fro movement of continental glacial sheets. Throughout the ice age, most of the Florida Platform was exposed to nature while being above sea level. Throughout interglacial periods, the Florida Platform remained widely submerged, which fostered the establishment of coral reefs on the outskirts of the small Florida peninsula. Gradually, sea levels dropped to their current position, which exposed the tips of these reefs that now make up the famous Florida Keys, including the Dry Tortugas.


The Dry Tortugas National Park is also home to more than 50 live coral reef species – including the endangered staghorn (Acropora cervicornis) and elkhorn (Acropora palmata) species. These species act as the main attraction of the park. These immaculate and isolated reefs have been growing for the last 11,700 years – in fact, in some regions of the park, these reefs are over 50 feet (15 meters) thick!

Although the isolated Dry Tortugas coral reefs are more striking to look at than some of the more conveniently accessible reefs, their health has been waning since the 1980s due to growing coral bleaching and disease outbreaks. In fact, coral reef healing and rehabilitation is a major concern in the park since thorough research is required to find out the root of the decline in stony coral cover and ways to foster fresh growth on reefs. In a bid to protect the reefs and other marine life, a no-take, no-anchor Research Natural Area was built in the park in 2007. The work done by the Research Natural Area has actually helped improve the condition of the resources found within the boundaries of the Dry Tortugas National Park.


Seagrass is also an essential geological element of the Dry Tortugas National Park. It provides the coral reefs and other ocean habitat some much-needed protection against costal storms and tropical hurricanes. It also provides shelter to the small marine life growing in the park and provides food opportunities to the foraging marine life species. A variety of seagrass species grow in the park waters – the shallow flats are dominated by turtle grass (Thalassia testudinum), the moderately deep grass beds are a mix of manatee and turtle grass (Syringodium filiforme), while the deepest regions are home to tape grass (Halophila spp.).

More than half the seafloor in the Dry Tortugas National Park is layered by free-floating sediments that make up shallow sand pools. Sand ripples created by flowing seawater are a common feature of the park. The Dry Tortugas also has fossils situated in sand banks, coral reefs, bedrock limestone, and on the islands that make up the park. The fossils that are accessible to park visitors include mollusks, corals, invertebrates, calcareous algal, and microfauna fossils.


Almost all of the islands are made up of coral rubble and carbonate sand, except for Loggerhead Key, which contains the most widespread emergence of beachrock in all of south Florida. All of the seven small islands that presently exist in the park are continually evolving, thanks to the tropical storms and hurricanes that are a common occurrence in the Florida Keys. The storms alter the form of the islands and wipe out channels linking the islands. At times, they even cause the smaller islands to submerge and disappear entirely from the surface. These shoreline alterations affect the ongoing ecosystems operating in the park, the facilities and services on the islands, and visitors’ accessibility to the park.


Planning Your Itinerary

With so much to offer, Dry Tortugas National Park is a must-visit. So, let’s talk about how you should plan your itinerary when you are visiting this striking park.


When to Visit

The Dry Tortugas National Park waters are calm and clear from February to May. However, if you want to witness sea turtles coming on land and laying their eggs and snorkel in shallow waters, then you should definitely visit the park from June to September. As for bird-watching enthusiasts, April to mid-May is the ideal time since it is the peak migration spell for birds.


How to Reach the Park

Some visitors travel to the Dry Tortugas National Park in their own private boats; however, most visitors arrive at the Dry Tortugas National Park in designated park ferries – Yankee Freedom III catamaran – or via the park seaplane that leaves from Key West.

The seaplane and ferries drop off the park visitors at Garden Key and do not offer transportation to the other keys. To visit the other keys and spend an unlimited amount of time at the park, it’s ideal to visit in your own boat. You will simply have to file a free boat permit upon arrival, and you would be good to go! However, you can only dock during the daytime, and not between 10 am-3 pm since that is when the service ferries are docked.


However, taking the Yankee Freedom III ferry provided by the National Park Service is the most popular way to reach the park. It’s a 2.5-hour ferry ride that will take you over magical turquoise waters. Booking a day trip with the ferry allows you to spend around 4 to 5 hours on the Garden Key. The day trip includes a park ranger-led tour of Fort Jefferson and will cost you $175 per person. If you want to book a seaplane to visit the island, it will cost you about $300 per person. The plane will take off from Key West Airport, and you will reach the island in around 40 minutes. However, booking a seaplane tour is not ideal if you want to spend more than a few hours visiting the park since the majority of seaplane tours allocate only two to three hours of time to visit the island.


Where to Stay

If you want to stay overnight at the park, you can do so at the Garden Key campground. It has 10 campsites – eight individual, one group, and one lush overflow spot – that operate on “first-come, first-serve” basis. The cost of staying at a campsite for one night is a mere $15. Camping at Garden Key offers you the opportunity to witness the most gorgeous sunsets and have an amazing stargazing experience. All campsites have a three-night maximum rule for visitors that arrive at the park via a ferry and a 14-day rule for those who come via private boats. Ferries have limited space for 10 campers only, so book in advance if you want to camp at the park. Seaplanes don’t let campers on board due to the extra luggage weight of camping gear.


Where to Eat

Since the Dry Tortugas National Park is so isolated from the rest of the world, there are no shops, restaurants, or any other services that provide water, food, or fuel anywhere on the park. The ferry offers breakfast and lunch to its passengers. If you plan on visiting the park on your own, you need to come with your own food and water supplies. If you plan on camping, make sure to bring at least two gallons of water per person (per day) for your stay.


Fees & Permits

The entrance fee for Dry Tortugas National Park is $15 per individual—if you are under 15, then you are exempt from paying any fee— and you can avail it for 7 consecutive days. If you take the ferry to the park, you won’t have to pay the entrance fee since the ferry ticket includes the entrance fee to both the Dry Tortugas National Park and Fort Jefferson. If you go via seaplane, you will have to pay the fee upon check-in.


What to Do

Here are some of the things that you can do on your visit to the Dry Tortugas National Park.




Explore Fort Jefferson

Fort Jefferson, erected at the Dry Tortugas National Park on its Garden Key, is an expansive work of art and was the most sophisticated military construction project of the early 1800s. You can take a guided tour of the fort and explore the moat and the brick corridors that resonate with civil war history. You can read the information written on the plaques placed at various junctures throughout the fort.




Snorkel in the Park Water

The Dry Tortugas National Park houses 67,000 acres of abundant coral reef. Since the park is so far removed from inhabited land, the reef in this area is largely pristine and undamaged. The park houses more marine life habitats than you’d find anywhere else in the US. The park waters are also extraordinarily clear, particularly in the summer season, which makes snorkeling in this region far better than diving in the rest of the Florida Keys.

If you snorkel during the daytime, you’re likely to see parrot fish, nurse sharks, moray eels, angelfish, and all sorts of tropical marine life. If you plan on staying overnight at the park, make sure to bring a dive light along with you to swim the shallow waters near Fort Jefferson’s moat border at night. You will probably come across unusual nocturnal sea creatures like basket starfish and octopus.




Reef Dive in the Park Waters


The Dry Tortugas sits right in the middle of trade routes from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic. The shallow coral reefs of the keys caused a lot of shipwrecks in the old days. These reefs and wrecks make this National Park one of the most unique dive sites in the US. However, an overnight live-aboard dive trip to this undisturbed reef range can cost you a more than a whopping $2,000.

The most popular dive that visitors make is to the wreck of the Windjammer, a ship with an iron-hull that was wrecked around Loggerhead Key in 1901. For a fantastic reef diving experience, Pulaski Shoals is the simplest dive that offers the most diverse range of reef species. It’s a sequence of reef heads with schools of fish that feed off the coral and carcasses of multiple ships.




Bird Watch on the Keys

Dry Tortugas National Park is one of the most popular birding spots amongst bird watching enthusiasts in all of North America. More than 300 species of birds live in and around the park. The fish that swim around the coral reefs make the park a popular area for frigate birds – every September 100,000 sooty terns lay their eggs in the area! Rare birds such as black noddy, golden warblers, and red-footed boobies have also been spotted in the Dry Tortugas region.


The Top Attractions at the Dry Tortugas National Park

The Dry Tortugas National Park offers its visitors the chance to explore abundant sea life and an architectural wonder steeped in American History. So, let’s look at some of the top park attractions.


Garden Key

Garden Key is the second largest island in the Dry Tortugas, after Loggerhead Key. It is roughly 14 acres in size and has seen the brunt of human interaction. It is home to the historic Fort Jefferson, one of the country’s major 19th century forts and the central cultural edifice of the Dry Tortugas National Park. Garden Key is also home to the park headquarters, campsites, visitor center, and some amazing swimming and snorkeling locations.

If you travel on a personal or private boat to the Garden Key, you will have to pay an entrance fee as well as file for a free boat permit. There are various activities that you can partake in once you are on the Loggerhead Key such as camping, fishing, hiking, wildlife viewing, boating, night sky viewing, swimming, and snorkeling.


Fort Jefferson

Fort Jefferson was constructed to safeguard the most tactical deepwater harbor in North America. The magnificent six-sided fortress doesn’t have a single structure joint, but still consists of entryways and arches. It is the biggest brickwork structure in all of Western Hemisphere – over 16 million bricks were used to construct the unfinished fort! On a hot day, the fort can swell nearly 2ft in width without any outstanding damage to the edifice.

In its prime, Fort Jefferson housed 1,729 individuals. It was more densely inhabited than Manhattan. However, the fort wasn’t just for US troops; it also acted as an island prison for army deserters. The rich history of the fort, along with its architectural integrity and remarkable masonry, makes it a must-visit sight on your visit to the Dry Tortugas.


Garden Key Light

The Garden Key light situated on the eastern shore of Garden Key is a 65-foot tall lighthouse that was built in 1826. The lighthouse saw a lot of controversy as the design of the lantern that was meant to guide ships at night was flawed and resulted in many shipwrecks off the coast of the island. The Garden Key Light was later equipped with 21-inch reflectors and a new lens and renamed as Tortugas Harbor Light. You can visit the lighthouse on your day tour to the park.


Bush Key

If you visit the Dry Tortugas National Park during late fall or early winter, you can explore the underdeveloped, subtropical island known as Bush Key. When Bush Key is open to visitors, they can walk to and back from the 1 mile round trip beach trail on Bush Key from sunrise to sunset.

During the nesting season, this little island, formed on only 16 acres of land, is home to bird species not found anywhere else in the continental US. About 4,500 brown noddies and 80,000 sooty terns make nests on the island from February to September; this is also when it is closed to visitors.


Loggerhead Key

Named after loggerhead sea turtles, Loggerhead Key is the largest island of the seven islands that make up the Dry Tortugas National Park. It houses a vital lighthouse with a rich history and has various shipwrecks lying at the depths of its waters. Loggerhead Key is where the momentous Carnegie Laboratory for Marine Ecology formerly stood.

The island is situated at a distance of 3 miles from Garden Key. It is open to visitors throughout the day only. To visit the park, you must have a private boat or a kayak that you stored on the ferry. If you are coming to the park in a private boat or ship, you must first check in and file a boat permit on Garden Key before heading to Loggerhead Key.

Once on the island, you must stay on marked paths and trails on the island to maintain the integrity of the land. All the buildings on this island and the boat harbors located on it are closed to the general public. There are various activities that you can partake in once you are on the Loggerhead Key, such as hiking, wildlife viewing, boating, swimming, and snorkeling.


Loggerhead Light

The Loggerhead Light, initially named the Dry Tortugas Light, was built in 1858 as a result of the numerous technical problems that came with the lantern of the Garden Key Light. This lighthouse was loftier, brighter, and outfitted with a more contemporary optical lens than the Garden Key Lighthouse.

While the lighthouse was being built, a contractor completed the construction of a house and kitchen. The house burned down in 1945, but the kitchen stands to date and is now used by National Park Service volunteer custodians. Another lighthouse keeper's house was built for the keeper’s family in the 1920s, a little north of the lighthouse. You can view the lighthouse on the Loggerhead Key after taking a permit for your private boat during the day.


Windjammer

The Windjammer is a shipwreck site situated a little south of the Loggerhead Key on Loggerhead Reefs. The shipwreck was discovered in 1971 by an archaeological survey team. However, it was not until 1990 that the ship was recognized as the Norwegian Avanti, which went under on 22nd January 1907 while it was en route from Pensacola to Montevideo, Uruguay. The Avanti was an iron-hulled ship that weighed around 1,862 tons and was transporting lumber when it was lost.

The events of the wreck are still not known; however, it is speculated that the ship was lost and wrecked in a storm. The Windjammer shipwreck is divided into two major debris areas: the bow portion of the ship lies in an east-west bearing and is roughly 110 feet in length; while the stern, mizzen and main-mast of the ship lie in a north-south bearing and the whole wreck is also about 110 feet in length. You can dive into the waters of the Loggerhead Key to behold this magnificent wreck and enjoy the surrounding coral reefs – it’s the most popular dive that the park visitors like to make.


Texas Rock

This area is north of Garden Key in roughly 55 feet of water. The sea bed has a massive stack of coral reef that comes out of the sand at about 55-60 feet of water and rises to a depth of 35 feet. This coral reef is quite remote and is encircled by sand. You might even find some black corals in the reef!

The fascinating bit is the school of fish that you’d find piled up from the top of the coral reef to almost the surface of the ocean – they are usually so dense that at first, you might confuse them to be an extension of the coral reef.

If you are into underwater photography, then this is your coral heaven; you will find almost every kind of stony coral in this area, except for staghorn and elkhorn. In fact, this region is used as a coral expansion monitoring station for continuing research at the park.


Moat Wall

In order to defend Fort Jefferson from a marine life assault and the coarse waters of the Gulf of Mexico, a moat wall was built to encircle the fort. This wall created a wonderful opportunity for park visitors to swim around it. You can swim around the wall to discover magnificent cultural relics and the outstanding marine life of the park. You can look forward to seeing cement barrels, nurse sharks, anchor chains and reef squid!


The moat wall also offers snorkelers a wonderful opportunity for night diving. Familiarize yourself with the water during the day. At night, plunge into the water with a high-intensity dive light. The best area for night diving is the beach area on the west side of the fort wall. From this area, you can swim along the moat wall and see sea creatures that you wouldn’t be able to see during a day snorkel. Octopus and basket starfish are common sights during the night. Other sea creatures that you might see swimming in the waters during the night are decorator crabs, lobsters, arrowhead crabs, squids, and coral shrimps.


Best Accommodations

Since Dry Tortugas National Park is mostly sea based, there is just one place in the whole park that you can actually stay.


Garden Key Campground

The campground at Garden Key, situated just south of the majestic Fort Jefferson, offers visitors wonderful opportunities to explore the park at their own pace. However, if you plan on camping at the park, you can either come in your own boat with your gear or book the Yankee Freedom Ferry, which takes only 10 campers per visit.

The campground has limited space; the eight standard sites with numbered tables operate on a first-come, first -served basis. It also has an overflow area for visitors to share with other campers. It is a grassy area situated around the standard sites. Then there’s the group site, which is offered to groups of 10 to 20 campers and must be pre-booked.

You must come fully equipped with your own camping gear, water, food, and all other essentials since the campsites only offer composting toilets, picnic tables, posts for hanging food, and BBQ grills. Lighting a fire is not allowed on the sites, you can use the grill for cooking your food. Each site has room for three tents and six campers only. If you stay at the campsite, it will cost you $15 per night.


Safety Travelling Tips

Here are a few safety and travel tips that you need to remember on your visit to the Dry Tortugas National Park.


For Camping at Garden Key

  • Water and Food: There’s no running freshwater at the park, take at least two gallons per person per day. Bring food with you in hard containers to protect it from crabs and rats. Make use of the hanging posts available at the campsites to hang your food. Keep extra food and water for possible ferry cancellations.

  • Camping Gear: Make sure to bring your own camping gear with you – sleeping bags, pads, and sturdy stakes to account for the regular strong winds.
  • Cooking: Make sure to bring waterproof matches and lighters with you. Also, pack essential cooking utensils, trash bags, and biodegradable soaps.
  • Clothing Items and Accessories: Make sure to pack clothes suited for both cold and warm weather. Also, pack your raincoats and a few lightweight long-sleeve clothes for protection from the sun and island bugs. Don’t forget to pack a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses as well.
  • Personal and First-Aid Equipment: Make sure that you keep all basic first-aid tools and your standard medicines. Also, keep flashlights with spare batteries, diving lights, binoculars, and snorkeling gear. Make sure to stock up on sunscreen and insect repellents as well.


For Snorkeling in the Park Waters

  • You can also snorkel around the moat wall and near the campground waters.

  • Make sure you have all your safety gear on properly before heading out in the water since you are responsible for your own safety; the park doesn’t have any lifeguards on duty.
  • You must display an approved dive flag at all times when you head outside the designated snorkeling area.
  • Always use the buddy system for snorkeling – don’t head out in the water alone.
  • Make sure you don’t harm the coral reef and sea-life by touching or disrupting it.
  • If you head outside the designated area, be wary of marine life such as jellyfish – they can unknowingly cause harm to you.


For Kayaking in the Park Waters

  • Make sure that the water is calm for kayaking before stepping out into the sea.

  • Make sure to keep a VHF radio with you on your kayak.
  • Have a secure self-rescue plan in place in case things go wrong.
  • Always keep a map to identify your location in the park waters.
  • Make sure to keep something with you that will help you point out your location to searchers.
  • Keep an anchor or ample line in your kayak, which you can tie to markers to minimize chances of drift.
  • Make sure that you have a clear lay of the land; memorize or keep a record on the landing markers and mooring posts on the Loggerhead Key.


For Bringing Pets to the Park

You can bring your pets to the Dry Tortugas National Park on a day’s visit; however, be mindful of the following rules:

  • You can take your pets on your visit to the Garden Key, but you can’t take them inside Fort Jefferson.

  • You can’t take your pets to any of the other six keys of the park.
  • You must keep your pet on a leash and under your control at all times.
  • You must remove your pet’s waste from the park.


Parting Words

The Dry Tortugas National Park is an undisputed bequest from nature to the United States. Herein, you will discover the most breathtaking relics, including the Fort Jefferson, striking and undisturbed coral reefs, and sea life in abundance. Head over to the Dry Tortugas for an unforgettable experience that you will cherish for a long time. It is a great place to make brilliant fun-filled memories and admire the best that the ocean has to offer.

And, while you’re at it, make certain to take this comprehensive guide with you on your adventure to the Dry Tortugas National Park. So what are you waiting for; it’s time to pack your stuff and head out.

Safe Travels!

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Exploring the Dry Tortugas National Park

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Exploring the Dry Tortugas National Park

Dry Tortugas National Park: General Summary

The Dry Tortugas National Park is a National Park of the United States. The spectacular and divine wonderland is located in the Gulf of Mexico, about 68 miles (109 km) west of Key West. It is home to Fort Jefferson and the seven Dry Tortugas islands – the most isolated islands of the Florida Keys.

Dry Tortugas National Park is a matchless and distinctive US Natural Park thanks to its assortment of mainly untouched tropical ecology mixed in with artifacts of historical times. This National Park is known for its bright and multi-colored and untouched coral reefs, abundant sea life, legends of sunken treasures and shipwrecks, and tropical bird breeding grounds.

The main attraction of the Dry Tortugas National Park is Fort Jefferson – a colossal coastal fortress that was left unfinished. Fort Jefferson is the biggest brick masonry formation in the Western Hemisphere – it is made of over 16 million bricks! It is the third biggest fort in the United States, after Fort Adams, Rhode Island and Fort Monroe, Virginia. The fort was built in the civil era on about 16 acres of land.

Dry Tortugas National Park comes under the Everglades & Dry Tortugas Biosphere Reserve that was founded by UNESCO in 1976 under the umbrella of its Man and the Biosphere Program. The stretch of islands that come under the National Park has the most undisturbed body of coral reefs amongst all of the Florida Keys reefs.

You can reach and visit the Dry Tortugas National Park only by a boat or seaplane. The park offers a wide array of water related activities such as snorkeling, scuba diving, and kayaking. It is also a great place for fishing enthusiasts as the seawater offers saltwater fishing opportunities.


Date of Establishment

The Dry Tortugas National Park was initially known as the Fort Jefferson National Monument. The name was designated on January 4, 1935, by the US President Franklin D. Roosevelt under the Antiquities Act. The park was then expanded in 1983 and later renamed by the Congress as the Dry Tortugas National Park on October 26, 1992. It covers an expansive area of 47,125 acres and is managed by the workforce behind Everglades National Park. The park was founded to protect the marine ecosystems and the island of the Dry Tortugas to conserve Fort Jefferson and the submerged cultural relics – shipwrecks – and allow regulated access to the public. Around 63,000 visitors visited the park yearly, from the year 2008 to 2017.


Popular Season to Visit

The weather in the Dry Tortugas is subtropical – the temperature ranges from 60°F to 90°F and the weather is warm and tropical. The temperatures can go as low as mid-50s during the coldest winter months. Most travelers agree that the ideal time to visit the Dry Tortugas is from November to April.

However, the Key West seas are likely to be rougher and the winds are stronger from October to January. Although the summer seas are not as forceful, the summertime hurricane spell terrorizes the Dry Tortugas islands with spur-of-the-moment hurricanes that can be quite forceful even if they are well off at a safe distance from the Tortugas.

So, the best months to visit the park are from February to April. The weather is thoroughly pleasant throughout these months – there is no threat of rainfall, hurricanes, or strong winds. Regrettably, these are also the busiest most-touristy months down in Key West. So, make sure to book your seaplane ride well in advance so that you can enjoy the Dry Tortugas National Park in all its glory.


Introduction

The Dry Tortugas National Park is situated 68 miles (109 km) west of Key West, Florida. It is an archipelago of small coral islands or keys situated in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico. The islands are totally isolated from our modern world. The only other land in sight is other equally tiny islands. The Dry Tortugas National Park has no electricity or running water! The islands are devoid of any modern technology; the boats and the Dry Tortugas lighthouse are your only connection to the post-modern age.

Dry Tortugas National Park is 47,125 acres wide and is run by the workforce behind Everglades National Park. The expansive park area is more than 99 percent water – the total land area covered by the park is only 104 acres (0.2 sq mi; 0.4 km2). It is bordered on the northwest by the Tortugas Ecological Reserve and on the south, west and east by the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

On January 19, 2007, the western and northern areas of the park, including the central island group— covering an area of 46-square-mile (120 km) — were designated as "research natural area". Visitors are prohibited to fish in this part of the park area and ferries also cannot dock inside this area unsanctioned. Boats and ferries that wish to dock inside the natural research area must utilize the designated mooring docks or buoys.

The must-visit man-made feature of the Dry Tortugas National Park is the Civil War relic, Fort Jefferson. It is a treasure waiting to be explored by history buffs. The fort was used as a prison by the military during the civil war era. The unfinished fort was employed to keep captured deserters and traitors as inmates. Dr. Samuel Mudd was famously imprisoned at the fort; he was charged with being an accomplice in setting the shattered leg of John Wilkes Booth after the assassination of President Lincoln. The fort also acted as the last port of call for the USS Maine before it fatefully left for Havana, where it blew up to result in the impetus of the Spanish-American War.


Apart from this magnificent remnant of the Civil War era, the Dry Tortugas National Park has seven western-most islands of the West Key. The most prominent keys of the Dry Tortugas are Loggerhead and Garden Keys. However, Garden Key is the most popular one, thanks to the massive structure of Fort Jefferson sprawled across it and the two Dry Tortugas ferries dock. It is also the only key of the Dry Tortugas where visitors are permitted to set up camp .

Loggerhead Island houses the Dry Tortugas lighthouse. It is also the largest of all the Keys. It is 250 by 1,200 meters and stands three meters above sea level. Some of the other keys have slight mangrove plantations or other types of vegetation and comprise of patches of grass and sand.

Bush Key is the third key of the island and is pretty close to Garden Key – if the sea tide is low enough, the two keys are connected by a small sand path. Bush Key was previously known as Hog Island thanks to the hogs that were raised on this key to feed the prisoners locked up in Ford Jefferson. You can’t visit the Bush from April to September because of the large number of noddys and terns that breed there during these months.


Then there’s Long Key— a mid-sized Tortugas Island, which is located some 50 meters south of Bush Key. Next, there’s Hospital Key, this is where a small hospital was built for the residents and inmates of Fort Jefferson. The sixth island of the Dry Tortugas is Middle Key; it is around 2.5 kilometers east of Hospital Key. This island often disappears entirely for weeks and months at end thanks to a variety of seasonal, tidal, and weather conditions and its low sea levels. Lastly, the smallest of the seven keys is East Key; it is based on a small 100 by 200 meters ground area.

The park is situated in a region that has a tropical savanna climate. The Atlantic hurricane season coincides with the rainy season from May to October, and the dry season extends from November to April. In spite of intermittent exposure to tropical systems, the Tortugas is Florida’s driest place, with a yearly rainfall of around 36 inches (91 cm). The best and safest time to visit the park is from February to April – the weather stays pleasant throughout these months.

There is no large tropical forest or woods canopy on the islands, and the sandy, quick-draining loam and intense sunlight only add to the drought-like environment of the islands. Seasonally, there is little difference in temperature— 90 °F (32 °C) is the average high temperature in the summer season and 66 °F (19 °C) is the average low temperature in the winter season.

The Dry Tortugas National Park is inarguably a splendid sight to behold. Anyone who has been to the Dry Tortugas National Park even once certifies that they’ve seen nothing like it in all of the United States. The seven keys and Fort Jefferson – with is rich history – continue to mesmerize and attract tourists from all over the world. The picturesque and undisturbed coral reef and various striking views that the islands offers are sure to inspire you. But wait! There is more!


The Dry Tortugas with its ideal subtropical climate acts as the perfect breeding ground for a whopping 300 species of birds – including flamingoes, limpkins, cranes, oystercatchers, stilts, avocets, lapwings, plovers, ducks, geese, pigeons, waterfowls, grebes, doves, cuckoos, etc. The gorgeous turquoise waters that surround the park land also offer a wealth of sea life – including sea turtles, vivid reef fish, grouper, amberjacks, stingrays, tarpon, and many other types of reef species!

The park’s plant life consists of primarily plant species that is characteristically native of the Caribbean Islands – including sedges, herbaceous flora, grasses, shrubs, and trees. However, the largest islands –Loggerhead and Garden – have a substantially large variety of exotic plant life because of continuous human habitation

Visitors also head to the Dry Tortuga National Park to marvel at the seven keys. Plus, this park presents delightful opportunities for water-related adventures such as fishing, snorkeling, and kayaking. Visitors often flock to the park for an amazing camping experience at the Garden Campgrounds as well. Plus, the sea water that encompasses the park land is littered with shipwrecks, mostly Spanish galleons, that are loaded with gold and other treasures.

If you’re a fan of civil war history, gorgeous islands, coral reefs, and abundant bird and sea life, then this is the place you should visit for an unforgettable experience. Offering many attractions, your visit to the Dry Tortugas National Park might just be the uplifting and stimulating encounter with nature that you’ve been waiting for all this time.

So, let’s dive into the world of the Dry Tortugas National Park and see the wonders that lie there!


A Brief History

The Dry Tortugas islands were originally discovered in 1513 by the ubiquitous Florida explorer Ponce de Leon in 1513. He named them Las Tortugas because of the abundance of turtle life on the islands. Eventually, due to the complete lack of freshwater, sailors added the tag “dry” to their maps.

In 1832, naturalist John James Audubon traveled to the island from Key West in order to observe and document the rich marine and bird life of the archipelago. Later on, in 1846, the US Army Corps began constructing Fort Jefferson, named after the President Thomas Jefferson.

The Dry Tortugas are situated down the length of one of the world’s most active shipping lanes. This strategic location of the Tortugas was seen as a major aspect of protecting shipping activity through the Gulf of Mexico. Hence, the construction of the Fort on the Garden Key was seen as a prerequisite to provide this protection in the mid 1800s.

Fort Jefferson, the biggest masonry edifice in the Western Hemisphere, was constructed to hold up 450 cannons! The construction of this grand fort used up over 16 million bricks and went on for more than 30 years and finally ended in 1875. Despite such a long time period, the construction of the fort was never completed.


Geology

Dry Tortugas National Park is near the southwestern boundary of the Florida Peninsula. The Peninsula is the only partially exposed above sea level. The submerged section of the platform goes as deep as 300 feet (90 meters). Beyond this spot, the sea floor plunges abruptly to over 10,000 feet (3,000 meters).

The Florida Platform has been amassing ocean sediments since the Atlantic Ocean crater began to shape roughly 200 million years ago. The seabed around the Dry Tortugas National Park is made up of more than 15,000 feet (5,000 meters) of thick carbonate rock sediments, such as dolomite and limestone, that make up the Florida Platform. These rocks continue to formulate as the calcareous skeletons and shells of dead marine life continue to fall on the submerged parts of the platform.

During the last ice age, known as the Pleistocene Epoch (2.6 million–11,700 years ago), sea levels climbed and plunged continually in reaction to the to and fro movement of continental glacial sheets. Throughout the ice age, most of the Florida Platform was exposed to nature while being above sea level. Throughout interglacial periods, the Florida Platform remained widely submerged, which fostered the establishment of coral reefs on the outskirts of the small Florida peninsula. Gradually, sea levels dropped to their current position, which exposed the tips of these reefs that now make up the famous Florida Keys, including the Dry Tortugas.


The Dry Tortugas National Park is also home to more than 50 live coral reef species – including the endangered staghorn (Acropora cervicornis) and elkhorn (Acropora palmata) species. These species act as the main attraction of the park. These immaculate and isolated reefs have been growing for the last 11,700 years – in fact, in some regions of the park, these reefs are over 50 feet (15 meters) thick!

Although the isolated Dry Tortugas coral reefs are more striking to look at than some of the more conveniently accessible reefs, their health has been waning since the 1980s due to growing coral bleaching and disease outbreaks. In fact, coral reef healing and rehabilitation is a major concern in the park since thorough research is required to find out the root of the decline in stony coral cover and ways to foster fresh growth on reefs. In a bid to protect the reefs and other marine life, a no-take, no-anchor Research Natural Area was built in the park in 2007. The work done by the Research Natural Area has actually helped improve the condition of the resources found within the boundaries of the Dry Tortugas National Park.


Seagrass is also an essential geological element of the Dry Tortugas National Park. It provides the coral reefs and other ocean habitat some much-needed protection against costal storms and tropical hurricanes. It also provides shelter to the small marine life growing in the park and provides food opportunities to the foraging marine life species. A variety of seagrass species grow in the park waters – the shallow flats are dominated by turtle grass (Thalassia testudinum), the moderately deep grass beds are a mix of manatee and turtle grass (Syringodium filiforme), while the deepest regions are home to tape grass (Halophila spp.).

More than half the seafloor in the Dry Tortugas National Park is layered by free-floating sediments that make up shallow sand pools. Sand ripples created by flowing seawater are a common feature of the park. The Dry Tortugas also has fossils situated in sand banks, coral reefs, bedrock limestone, and on the islands that make up the park. The fossils that are accessible to park visitors include mollusks, corals, invertebrates, calcareous algal, and microfauna fossils.


Almost all of the islands are made up of coral rubble and carbonate sand, except for Loggerhead Key, which contains the most widespread emergence of beachrock in all of south Florida. All of the seven small islands that presently exist in the park are continually evolving, thanks to the tropical storms and hurricanes that are a common occurrence in the Florida Keys. The storms alter the form of the islands and wipe out channels linking the islands. At times, they even cause the smaller islands to submerge and disappear entirely from the surface. These shoreline alterations affect the ongoing ecosystems operating in the park, the facilities and services on the islands, and visitors’ accessibility to the park.


Planning Your Itinerary

With so much to offer, Dry Tortugas National Park is a must-visit. So, let’s talk about how you should plan your itinerary when you are visiting this striking park.


When to Visit

The Dry Tortugas National Park waters are calm and clear from February to May. However, if you want to witness sea turtles coming on land and laying their eggs and snorkel in shallow waters, then you should definitely visit the park from June to September. As for bird-watching enthusiasts, April to mid-May is the ideal time since it is the peak migration spell for birds.


How to Reach the Park

Some visitors travel to the Dry Tortugas National Park in their own private boats; however, most visitors arrive at the Dry Tortugas National Park in designated park ferries – Yankee Freedom III catamaran – or via the park seaplane that leaves from Key West.

The seaplane and ferries drop off the park visitors at Garden Key and do not offer transportation to the other keys. To visit the other keys and spend an unlimited amount of time at the park, it’s ideal to visit in your own boat. You will simply have to file a free boat permit upon arrival, and you would be good to go! However, you can only dock during the daytime, and not between 10 am-3 pm since that is when the service ferries are docked.


However, taking the Yankee Freedom III ferry provided by the National Park Service is the most popular way to reach the park. It’s a 2.5-hour ferry ride that will take you over magical turquoise waters. Booking a day trip with the ferry allows you to spend around 4 to 5 hours on the Garden Key. The day trip includes a park ranger-led tour of Fort Jefferson and will cost you $175 per person. If you want to book a seaplane to visit the island, it will cost you about $300 per person. The plane will take off from Key West Airport, and you will reach the island in around 40 minutes. However, booking a seaplane tour is not ideal if you want to spend more than a few hours visiting the park since the majority of seaplane tours allocate only two to three hours of time to visit the island.


Where to Stay

If you want to stay overnight at the park, you can do so at the Garden Key campground. It has 10 campsites – eight individual, one group, and one lush overflow spot – that operate on “first-come, first-serve” basis. The cost of staying at a campsite for one night is a mere $15. Camping at Garden Key offers you the opportunity to witness the most gorgeous sunsets and have an amazing stargazing experience. All campsites have a three-night maximum rule for visitors that arrive at the park via a ferry and a 14-day rule for those who come via private boats. Ferries have limited space for 10 campers only, so book in advance if you want to camp at the park. Seaplanes don’t let campers on board due to the extra luggage weight of camping gear.


Where to Eat

Since the Dry Tortugas National Park is so isolated from the rest of the world, there are no shops, restaurants, or any other services that provide water, food, or fuel anywhere on the park. The ferry offers breakfast and lunch to its passengers. If you plan on visiting the park on your own, you need to come with your own food and water supplies. If you plan on camping, make sure to bring at least two gallons of water per person (per day) for your stay.


Fees & Permits

The entrance fee for Dry Tortugas National Park is $15 per individual—if you are under 15, then you are exempt from paying any fee— and you can avail it for 7 consecutive days. If you take the ferry to the park, you won’t have to pay the entrance fee since the ferry ticket includes the entrance fee to both the Dry Tortugas National Park and Fort Jefferson. If you go via seaplane, you will have to pay the fee upon check-in.


What to Do

Here are some of the things that you can do on your visit to the Dry Tortugas National Park.




Explore Fort Jefferson

Fort Jefferson, erected at the Dry Tortugas National Park on its Garden Key, is an expansive work of art and was the most sophisticated military construction project of the early 1800s. You can take a guided tour of the fort and explore the moat and the brick corridors that resonate with civil war history. You can read the information written on the plaques placed at various junctures throughout the fort.




Snorkel in the Park Water

The Dry Tortugas National Park houses 67,000 acres of abundant coral reef. Since the park is so far removed from inhabited land, the reef in this area is largely pristine and undamaged. The park houses more marine life habitats than you’d find anywhere else in the US. The park waters are also extraordinarily clear, particularly in the summer season, which makes snorkeling in this region far better than diving in the rest of the Florida Keys.

If you snorkel during the daytime, you’re likely to see parrot fish, nurse sharks, moray eels, angelfish, and all sorts of tropical marine life. If you plan on staying overnight at the park, make sure to bring a dive light along with you to swim the shallow waters near Fort Jefferson’s moat border at night. You will probably come across unusual nocturnal sea creatures like basket starfish and octopus.




Reef Dive in the Park Waters


The Dry Tortugas sits right in the middle of trade routes from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic. The shallow coral reefs of the keys caused a lot of shipwrecks in the old days. These reefs and wrecks make this National Park one of the most unique dive sites in the US. However, an overnight live-aboard dive trip to this undisturbed reef range can cost you a more than a whopping $2,000.

The most popular dive that visitors make is to the wreck of the Windjammer, a ship with an iron-hull that was wrecked around Loggerhead Key in 1901. For a fantastic reef diving experience, Pulaski Shoals is the simplest dive that offers the most diverse range of reef species. It’s a sequence of reef heads with schools of fish that feed off the coral and carcasses of multiple ships.




Bird Watch on the Keys

Dry Tortugas National Park is one of the most popular birding spots amongst bird watching enthusiasts in all of North America. More than 300 species of birds live in and around the park. The fish that swim around the coral reefs make the park a popular area for frigate birds – every September 100,000 sooty terns lay their eggs in the area! Rare birds such as black noddy, golden warblers, and red-footed boobies have also been spotted in the Dry Tortugas region.


The Top Attractions at the Dry Tortugas National Park

The Dry Tortugas National Park offers its visitors the chance to explore abundant sea life and an architectural wonder steeped in American History. So, let’s look at some of the top park attractions.


Garden Key

Garden Key is the second largest island in the Dry Tortugas, after Loggerhead Key. It is roughly 14 acres in size and has seen the brunt of human interaction. It is home to the historic Fort Jefferson, one of the country’s major 19th century forts and the central cultural edifice of the Dry Tortugas National Park. Garden Key is also home to the park headquarters, campsites, visitor center, and some amazing swimming and snorkeling locations.

If you travel on a personal or private boat to the Garden Key, you will have to pay an entrance fee as well as file for a free boat permit. There are various activities that you can partake in once you are on the Loggerhead Key such as camping, fishing, hiking, wildlife viewing, boating, night sky viewing, swimming, and snorkeling.


Fort Jefferson

Fort Jefferson was constructed to safeguard the most tactical deepwater harbor in North America. The magnificent six-sided fortress doesn’t have a single structure joint, but still consists of entryways and arches. It is the biggest brickwork structure in all of Western Hemisphere – over 16 million bricks were used to construct the unfinished fort! On a hot day, the fort can swell nearly 2ft in width without any outstanding damage to the edifice.

In its prime, Fort Jefferson housed 1,729 individuals. It was more densely inhabited than Manhattan. However, the fort wasn’t just for US troops; it also acted as an island prison for army deserters. The rich history of the fort, along with its architectural integrity and remarkable masonry, makes it a must-visit sight on your visit to the Dry Tortugas.


Garden Key Light

The Garden Key light situated on the eastern shore of Garden Key is a 65-foot tall lighthouse that was built in 1826. The lighthouse saw a lot of controversy as the design of the lantern that was meant to guide ships at night was flawed and resulted in many shipwrecks off the coast of the island. The Garden Key Light was later equipped with 21-inch reflectors and a new lens and renamed as Tortugas Harbor Light. You can visit the lighthouse on your day tour to the park.


Bush Key

If you visit the Dry Tortugas National Park during late fall or early winter, you can explore the underdeveloped, subtropical island known as Bush Key. When Bush Key is open to visitors, they can walk to and back from the 1 mile round trip beach trail on Bush Key from sunrise to sunset.

During the nesting season, this little island, formed on only 16 acres of land, is home to bird species not found anywhere else in the continental US. About 4,500 brown noddies and 80,000 sooty terns make nests on the island from February to September; this is also when it is closed to visitors.


Loggerhead Key

Named after loggerhead sea turtles, Loggerhead Key is the largest island of the seven islands that make up the Dry Tortugas National Park. It houses a vital lighthouse with a rich history and has various shipwrecks lying at the depths of its waters. Loggerhead Key is where the momentous Carnegie Laboratory for Marine Ecology formerly stood.

The island is situated at a distance of 3 miles from Garden Key. It is open to visitors throughout the day only. To visit the park, you must have a private boat or a kayak that you stored on the ferry. If you are coming to the park in a private boat or ship, you must first check in and file a boat permit on Garden Key before heading to Loggerhead Key.

Once on the island, you must stay on marked paths and trails on the island to maintain the integrity of the land. All the buildings on this island and the boat harbors located on it are closed to the general public. There are various activities that you can partake in once you are on the Loggerhead Key, such as hiking, wildlife viewing, boating, swimming, and snorkeling.


Loggerhead Light

The Loggerhead Light, initially named the Dry Tortugas Light, was built in 1858 as a result of the numerous technical problems that came with the lantern of the Garden Key Light. This lighthouse was loftier, brighter, and outfitted with a more contemporary optical lens than the Garden Key Lighthouse.

While the lighthouse was being built, a contractor completed the construction of a house and kitchen. The house burned down in 1945, but the kitchen stands to date and is now used by National Park Service volunteer custodians. Another lighthouse keeper's house was built for the keeper’s family in the 1920s, a little north of the lighthouse. You can view the lighthouse on the Loggerhead Key after taking a permit for your private boat during the day.


Windjammer

The Windjammer is a shipwreck site situated a little south of the Loggerhead Key on Loggerhead Reefs. The shipwreck was discovered in 1971 by an archaeological survey team. However, it was not until 1990 that the ship was recognized as the Norwegian Avanti, which went under on 22nd January 1907 while it was en route from Pensacola to Montevideo, Uruguay. The Avanti was an iron-hulled ship that weighed around 1,862 tons and was transporting lumber when it was lost.

The events of the wreck are still not known; however, it is speculated that the ship was lost and wrecked in a storm. The Windjammer shipwreck is divided into two major debris areas: the bow portion of the ship lies in an east-west bearing and is roughly 110 feet in length; while the stern, mizzen and main-mast of the ship lie in a north-south bearing and the whole wreck is also about 110 feet in length. You can dive into the waters of the Loggerhead Key to behold this magnificent wreck and enjoy the surrounding coral reefs – it’s the most popular dive that the park visitors like to make.


Texas Rock

This area is north of Garden Key in roughly 55 feet of water. The sea bed has a massive stack of coral reef that comes out of the sand at about 55-60 feet of water and rises to a depth of 35 feet. This coral reef is quite remote and is encircled by sand. You might even find some black corals in the reef!

The fascinating bit is the school of fish that you’d find piled up from the top of the coral reef to almost the surface of the ocean – they are usually so dense that at first, you might confuse them to be an extension of the coral reef.

If you are into underwater photography, then this is your coral heaven; you will find almost every kind of stony coral in this area, except for staghorn and elkhorn. In fact, this region is used as a coral expansion monitoring station for continuing research at the park.


Moat Wall

In order to defend Fort Jefferson from a marine life assault and the coarse waters of the Gulf of Mexico, a moat wall was built to encircle the fort. This wall created a wonderful opportunity for park visitors to swim around it. You can swim around the wall to discover magnificent cultural relics and the outstanding marine life of the park. You can look forward to seeing cement barrels, nurse sharks, anchor chains and reef squid!


The moat wall also offers snorkelers a wonderful opportunity for night diving. Familiarize yourself with the water during the day. At night, plunge into the water with a high-intensity dive light. The best area for night diving is the beach area on the west side of the fort wall. From this area, you can swim along the moat wall and see sea creatures that you wouldn’t be able to see during a day snorkel. Octopus and basket starfish are common sights during the night. Other sea creatures that you might see swimming in the waters during the night are decorator crabs, lobsters, arrowhead crabs, squids, and coral shrimps.


Best Accommodations

Since Dry Tortugas National Park is mostly sea based, there is just one place in the whole park that you can actually stay.


Garden Key Campground

The campground at Garden Key, situated just south of the majestic Fort Jefferson, offers visitors wonderful opportunities to explore the park at their own pace. However, if you plan on camping at the park, you can either come in your own boat with your gear or book the Yankee Freedom Ferry, which takes only 10 campers per visit.

The campground has limited space; the eight standard sites with numbered tables operate on a first-come, first -served basis. It also has an overflow area for visitors to share with other campers. It is a grassy area situated around the standard sites. Then there’s the group site, which is offered to groups of 10 to 20 campers and must be pre-booked.

You must come fully equipped with your own camping gear, water, food, and all other essentials since the campsites only offer composting toilets, picnic tables, posts for hanging food, and BBQ grills. Lighting a fire is not allowed on the sites, you can use the grill for cooking your food. Each site has room for three tents and six campers only. If you stay at the campsite, it will cost you $15 per night.


Safety Travelling Tips

Here are a few safety and travel tips that you need to remember on your visit to the Dry Tortugas National Park.


For Camping at Garden Key

  • Water and Food: There’s no running freshwater at the park, take at least two gallons per person per day. Bring food with you in hard containers to protect it from crabs and rats. Make use of the hanging posts available at the campsites to hang your food. Keep extra food and water for possible ferry cancellations.

  • Camping Gear: Make sure to bring your own camping gear with you – sleeping bags, pads, and sturdy stakes to account for the regular strong winds.
  • Cooking: Make sure to bring waterproof matches and lighters with you. Also, pack essential cooking utensils, trash bags, and biodegradable soaps.
  • Clothing Items and Accessories: Make sure to pack clothes suited for both cold and warm weather. Also, pack your raincoats and a few lightweight long-sleeve clothes for protection from the sun and island bugs. Don’t forget to pack a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses as well.
  • Personal and First-Aid Equipment: Make sure that you keep all basic first-aid tools and your standard medicines. Also, keep flashlights with spare batteries, diving lights, binoculars, and snorkeling gear. Make sure to stock up on sunscreen and insect repellents as well.


For Snorkeling in the Park Waters

  • You can also snorkel around the moat wall and near the campground waters.

  • Make sure you have all your safety gear on properly before heading out in the water since you are responsible for your own safety; the park doesn’t have any lifeguards on duty.
  • You must display an approved dive flag at all times when you head outside the designated snorkeling area.
  • Always use the buddy system for snorkeling – don’t head out in the water alone.
  • Make sure you don’t harm the coral reef and sea-life by touching or disrupting it.
  • If you head outside the designated area, be wary of marine life such as jellyfish – they can unknowingly cause harm to you.


For Kayaking in the Park Waters

  • Make sure that the water is calm for kayaking before stepping out into the sea.

  • Make sure to keep a VHF radio with you on your kayak.
  • Have a secure self-rescue plan in place in case things go wrong.
  • Always keep a map to identify your location in the park waters.
  • Make sure to keep something with you that will help you point out your location to searchers.
  • Keep an anchor or ample line in your kayak, which you can tie to markers to minimize chances of drift.
  • Make sure that you have a clear lay of the land; memorize or keep a record on the landing markers and mooring posts on the Loggerhead Key.


For Bringing Pets to the Park

You can bring your pets to the Dry Tortugas National Park on a day’s visit; however, be mindful of the following rules:

  • You can take your pets on your visit to the Garden Key, but you can’t take them inside Fort Jefferson.

  • You can’t take your pets to any of the other six keys of the park.
  • You must keep your pet on a leash and under your control at all times.
  • You must remove your pet’s waste from the park.


Parting Words

The Dry Tortugas National Park is an undisputed bequest from nature to the United States. Herein, you will discover the most breathtaking relics, including the Fort Jefferson, striking and undisturbed coral reefs, and sea life in abundance. Head over to the Dry Tortugas for an unforgettable experience that you will cherish for a long time. It is a great place to make brilliant fun-filled memories and admire the best that the ocean has to offer.

And, while you’re at it, make certain to take this comprehensive guide with you on your adventure to the Dry Tortugas National Park. So what are you waiting for; it’s time to pack your stuff and head out.

Safe Travels!