Dry Tortugas National Park: Haunted by history, heralded by its marine life


63 Parks Traveler started with a simple goal: to visit every national park in the US. Avid backpacker and public lands nerd Emily Pennington saved up, built a small van to travel and live in, and hit the road, practicing the best COVID-19 safety protocols on the go. Parks as we know them are changing rapidly and I wanted to see you before it’s too late. Dry Tortugas is her 57th visit to the park.

A strong wind whipped the tops of the palm trees into a frenzy as I boarded the yankee liberty in Key West, Florida. Dry Tortugas is one of the country’s few national parks centered on an island, and getting to its remote location 70 miles to the west would be a challenge, even in good weather. I gritted my teeth and zipped up my windshell as the boat rocked and rolled for nearly two and a half hours.

Like a mirage, the park appeared, a small series of islets surrounded by shimmering aquamarine seawater, with its main attraction, the Civil War-era Fort Jefferson, sitting squat in the middle of Garden Key, huge and red. oxide.

Given the gales, as soon as I landed, I rushed to the shelter of the fort for a guided tour. The hexagonal structure was massive, built on 47 acres, with over 16 million handcrafted bricks, the project took over 30 years to complete, and it inspired dreams of pirates and frigatebirds as I stood at its center. Our guide, a long-haired Floridian in cargo shorts and wraparound sunglasses, led the group through the startlingly green, overgrown fields inside the citadel, past historic canyons and hallways that reminded me of an MC Escher drawing.

One of the many corridors inside the fort.
One of the many corridors inside the fort. (Photo: Emily Pennington)

The Dry Tortugas were first discovered by Ponce de León on an expedition in 1513, named for their lack of fresh water and abundance of delicious sea turtles, which sailors ate. Pirates frequented the area throughout the 1700s, often using the small islands as a base and attacking merchant ships en route to and from the Gulf of Mexico. But the real development did not start here until after the War of 1812; the US government acquired the Dry Tortugas from Spain and decided to build a series of coastal forts from Maine to Texas, Fort Jefferson being the grandest of them all. The reasoning was that, as a budding superpower, it needed the Dry Tortugas to defend one of the most strategic deepwater anchorages in North America. Later, when the Civil War began, it was this fort that helped block the southern sea lanes, strengthening the Union Army.

Wandering around with only a few dozen tourists behind me, it was hard to imagine that this bastion once housed nearly 2,000 men and women, many of whom were slaves tasked with the grueling work of erecting the massive fortress.

When the tour concluded, I shuffled off with a load of borrowed snorkel gear, bobbing up and down in the churning blue waves while trying to spot the occasional coral or sea sponge. The park was the first marine area designated a national monument, and with its abundance of Technicolor tropical fish, nesting sea turtles, and vast colonies of seabirds, it was easy to see why. I was adrift in an oasis of life.

I boarded the ship back feeling spacey and happy, as if I had just fallen through an ocean of time itself. The return journey was arduous, icy and unstable, with saltwater spraying the ferry’s hull for hours. But I did not care. Lost in my dreams, the long drive made me realize how remote the park was and how much more extraordinary it made it.

63 Parks Traveler Dry Tortugas Info

Size: 47,125 acres

Location: Southwest Florida, 70 miles from Key West

Created in: 1935 (Fort Jefferson National Monument), 1992 (Dry Tortugas National Park)

Better for: Boating, History Buffs, Snorkeling, Scuba Diving, Bird Watching, Lounging on the Beach

When to go: June through November (70 to 92 degrees) is considered hurricane season in this region, and ferry service is regularly canceled when storms hit. December (67 to 76 degrees) to May (75 to 86 degrees) are the mildest months to visit and least prone to bad weather.

Where to stay: Before and after your trip, you’ll likely want to enjoy Key West’s quirky seaside town, home to airy bungalows, developed campgrounds and, of course, endless slices of Key Lime Pie.

mini adventure: all aboard the yankee liberty! This high-speed catamaran transports up to 175 visitors a day to and from the park during peak season. An all-day tour is one of the best and most family-friendly ways to enjoy the Dry Tortugas; Includes lunch, snorkel gear, and a guided walking tour of Fort Jefferson.

Mega Adventure: To really enjoy the soul of a park, you often have to spend the night. Although reservations fill up quickly, Dry Tortugas offers ten Garden Key campgrounds for adventurous souls who want to sleep between the sand and the surf. Star gazers will be rewarded: the Milky Way comes to life as very little light pollution reaches this remote location.

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