A Day of Ferry, Fort, and Fish: Dry Tortugas National Park

A high-speed catamaran voyage of 70 miles each way along the Gulf of Mexico, exploration of a massive brick fort complete with a moat around it, and snorkeling underwater among the tropical coral and fish? We spent a day doing all of these things during our time in Dry Tortugas National Park, one of the remote parks in the lower 48 United States. 

Dry Tortugas National Park is located 70 miles west of Key West, Florida, and there are no roads to take you there. Instead, the only way to travel to the park is by boat or seaplane. Because of its remote location, there are few visitors. In 2016, 73,661 people visited Dry Tortugas, ranking it at 52nd among the 59 national parks. In the lower 48 states, only North Cascades in Washington and Isle Royale in Michigan had fewer national park visitors. 

Juan Ponce de León, who was a discoverer of Biscayne Bay, is also credited as the first European to set eyes upon Dry Tortugas in 1513. His crew caught 160 sea turtles (“tortugas” in Spanish), and the islands received their name. The “dry” portion was added later to maps of the area, alerting sailors to the lack of fresh water on shore. 

The park preserves seven islands in all, the westernmost of the Florida Keys. There are bird breeding grounds and coral reefs in the park, 99% of which lies on water. Dry Tortugas also has a historic side in the form of Fort Jefferson, the largest brick structure in the Western Hemisphere.

Our transportation to the park was on the Yankee Freedom III high-speed catamaran. It makes daily round trips from Key West, taking 2 ½ hours each way. The ferry was full with 175 passengers, and we found seats outside on the second level. We were fortunate to have calm seas both ways, although it was very hot, even in the shade.

On the Yankee Freedom III ferry going to Dry Tortugas National Park

We kept our eyes peeled for the first sighting of the park and its massive fort, built on Garden Key. After about two hours and fifteen minutes, the outline of the Fort Jefferson appeared on the horizon ahead of us. It was even larger than we expected. When the boat docked, we immediately headed inside the fort. 

Approaching Fort Jefferson
The Yankee Freedom III docked on Garden Key

When Florida was acquired from Spain in 1822, the Dry Tortugas were viewed as a strategic location to control ships sailing in the Gulf of Mexico. Construction of a fort began in 1847. Eventually more than 16 million bricks were used to build the structure. Over 2,000 arches were constructed and 141 cannons installed, each with a firing range of three miles. 

Fort Jefferson arches

The fort was half complete when the Civil War started in 1861. The Union controlled the fort, and construction slowly continued. We saw evidence of this in the different colors of bricks on the outside of the fort. The tan bricks, used prior to the war, came from Florida. During the war, with Florida in the Confederacy, red bricks had to be imported from Maine to continue its construction. 

Fort Jefferson exterior views – red bricks on top

Fort Jefferson was used as a military prison for captured Union deserters during the Civil War. After the war ended, four co-conspirators in Abraham Lincoln’s assassination were imprisoned in the fort. Included in those men was Dr. Samuel Mudd, who was convicted of setting the broken leg of John Wilkes Booth after he shot President Lincoln. Dr. Mudd was later pardoned in 1869 after saving many lives during a yellow fever outbreak on the island. In 1874, the fort was abandoned for good by the military. During Fort Jefferson’s entire history, it was never fired upon.

Plaque commemorating Dr. Mudd’s pardon

Using a file we had downloaded at the Key West ferry terminal prior to boarding, we took a self-guided tour of the fort. Or more accurately, we climbed all over the fort. After walking along the parade ground in the center of the structure, built to hold up to 1,500 soldiers, we took spiral stairs to the second level. There we saw the bakery, chapel, and Dr. Mudd’s prison cell. 

View of Fort Jefferson’s parade ground
Looking back at the spiral stairs
View outside of the second level

The roof level, called the terreplein, was the most interesting and scenic to explore. We viewed some of the ten Rodman cannons remaining, as well as the turquoise sea around us, so clear that we could see the coral reefs below the water. We got a better look at the metal lighthouse, currently covered in scaffolding. As we walked, we had to be careful where we stepped, as sections of the fort were in decay.

Rodman cannon on the terreplein
Walking along the fort’s terreplein with the lighthouse in the background
View of the water and coral from the fort

Also unique to the fort is the moat surrounding it. After we left the interior of Fort Jefferson we took a .6 mile walk around the moat, allowing us to better view the outside of the structure. 

View of the moat
Walking the moat trail

In addition to its rich history, Dry Tortugas is a tropical bird breeding ground. The official bird list contains 299 different species. Eight of those frequently nest in the park’s vicinity: the sooty tern, brown noddy, brown pelican, magnificent frigatebird, masked booby, roseate tern, bridled tern, and mourning dove. Our visit coincided with peak birdwatching, as dozens of migratory bird species pass through the park in a single day. Many of our fellow passengers had traveled on the ferry just to view birds and had their binoculars in hand.

As many as 100,000 sooty terns gather on neighboring Bush Key each year between mid-January and mid-October for nesting season. In 1908 the Dry Tortugas area became a wildlife refuge to protect the sooty tern nesting area from egg collectors. After obtaining national monument status in 1935, the area was expanded to 64,700 acres and re-designated as Dry Tortugas National Park on October 26, 1992. 

Because of the sooty tern nesting activity, we couldn’t walk all the way over to Bush Key, which is connected to Garden Key, but we walked to the edge of the key to watch and hear the hundreds of birds ahead of us. 

Looking towards Bush Key
The beach near Bush Key

Dry Tortugas also has an abundance of sea life in the coral reefs surrounding Garden Key. The ferry supplies free snorkeling equipment to passengers, so we took advantage of the opportunity to snorkel in two different places on Garden Key. The best snorkeling was along the outside moat wall, and we were able to observe several different types of fish below the surface. In addition, the 77 degree F water was refreshing to us with the hot conditions outside. 

Sandy snorkeling
Darren snorkeling
Photo of fish underwater taken by Darren while snorkeling

After about 4 1/2 hours on shore, it was time to board the Yankee Freedom III for the trip back to Key West. We again sat on the outside upper level and enjoyed the view of endless water around us during the 2 ½ hour journey back to civilization. It had been a day full of history and natural beauty on the ground and below the sea at Dry Tortugas National Park. Visiting this remote place was a unique experience, and something that we will remember for a long time.

Our third and final visit to Florida’s national parks now complete, we will head north to South Carolina and one of America’s newest parks: Congaree.

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