Dry Tortugas National Park

Fort Jefferson, Dry Tortugas National Park

There are times when just getting to our destination is a story in itself.  Getting to Fort Jefferson located in the Dry Tortugas National Park was an adventure of perseverance and determination.

When the decision to go to The Dry Tortuga was made, all the details were yet to be finalized.  Knowing we had limited choices to get to the park I looked online and saw there were still quite a few openings available on the only authorized concessionaire for the park, tickets are nonrefundable, and at $200.00 per ticket I wanted to make sure I had the correct dates. 

Once my wonderful husband Phil decided to meet me in Miami and join me on our Key West adventure, airfare, hotels, and car rental were booked.  No, he doesn’t ride on the back of my bike.  I then went to the ferry site only to see that the whole month was officially sold out.  I was told that we could come on the day of sail to see if there are any cancellations.  We were only in the area for two full days so Sunday was going to be the only day we could go.   I went to the ferry station the day before to make sure I knew where it was.  Good thing because I got lost getting there.  The funny thing about GPS if you put the wrong address in it leads you to the wrong location.

The cashier said that you never know if there will be any cancellations, but contrary to the website instructions of showing up at 6:30 am he said some people come as early as 5:00 am.  It will be a first come first serve situation.   Deciding it was not necessary for both of us to get up at 4:00 am and wait until 6:30 am and it was Father’s Day, I said I would get up and go and wait in line.  As it turns out it is very dark at 4:45 am and I was not up for walking to the ferry docks alone.   Phil got out of bed and walked me to the ferry.  We arrived at 5:15 am and were the fourth and fifth in line. After Phil left for the hotel, I stayed to add our names to the signup sheet at 6:30 am. The person in charge told all the stand-by passengers to come back at 7:30 am to check if we will be on today’s ferry. 

Dry Tortugas National Park Ferry: www.yankeefreedom.com

Back to the room, got Phil, and got all the supplies we will need for the day.  The first standby got her “golden ticket”.  The rest of us continue to wait and see.  The cashier came out and called the next two names on the list.  I was feeling a little disappointed but remained hopeful.  The ferry was to leave in about ten minutes.   The cashier called out the next four people and said that was all they could take today.  Phil and I were going to the park.  We were excited but also felt a tinge of sadness for those who weren’t chosen.  It was a two-hour ferry ride to the Dry Tortuga.   Coffee, juice, and bagels were provided.  Later we would receive a picnic lunch and free snorkel gear. 

I am not entirely certain, but is there a greater sense of satisfaction when one must work hard to achieve a goal? Personally, I found that I experienced a heightened level of excitement when I had to put in effort rather than simply showing up at the designated departure time.

Located 70 miles from Key West there is a cluster of seven islands, composed of coral reefs and sand called the Dry Tortugas. Originally called Las Tortugas (The Turtles) because of the abundant sea turtles in 1513 by the Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon.   The island was used as a stopover by many mariners who would write on their charts “Dry Tortugas”, indicating no fresh water on the island.  By 1929 the Unites States knew it could control the Gulf of Mexico and protect the Atlantic-bound Mississippi trade and began building Fort Jefferson to protect the waterways.  Construction started in 1846, lasted for over 30 years, and was never finished.  During the civil war, the fort was used as a military prison.  One famous prisoner Dr. Samuel Alexander Mudd was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment at Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas.   John Wilkes Booth, on the run after assassinating Abraham Lincoln, came to Dr. Mudd’s farm needing medical help in the early morning hours of April 15, 1865. Dr. Mud treated John Wilkes Booth and was convicted to life in prison as a coconspirator.  He later saved dozens of lives in a yellow fever outbreak at the fort which eventually led him to receive a pardon.

The Fort was built with a moat, which was used to be the receptacle for all the island waste, yup a large toilet bowl.  The theory was that as the ocean tides would come and fill (flush) the moat then all the sewage would be dispersed out into the ocean.  Yes, I know Yuck!  The problem being the difference between high tide and low tide was one foot.  Leaving the moat to become a large toilet that would not flush.  Explaining the yellow fever outbreak, caused by mosquito infestation, perhaps?

In 1908 Dry Tortuga became a wildlife refuge, and a national monument in 1935 then redesignated in 1992 as a National Park.

Overnight camping is limited.  Make an advance camping reservation and advise that you will be camping as there is only space for up to 10 campers per day.

Camping transportation is limited to private vessel, permitted tour guides, or commercial ferry. Reservations on the Yankee Freedom ferry are limited and sell out months in advance. Let the Ferry know in advance if you plan on bringing a Kayak with you. Once you arrive at Garden Key, camping is first come, first served for all regular sites (up to 6 people). All camping fees are paid on Garden Key and all LARGE groups of 10-20 require an advance reservation with the Park. 

While on the Island we took advantage of the tour, had a picnic, snorkeled and before we knew it, it was time to get on the ferry and head back to Key West. 

Like elsewhere in the Florida Keys, we have recently seen an increase in Cuban migrants arriving by boat from Cuba and landing on the islands of Dry Tortugas National Park. You may observe migrant landings at the park and visitor areas may be impacted.  From the National Parks website