On our travels we’ve been making a point of visiting as many of the National Parks as we can. Our visit to Key West gave us the opportunity to visit one of the most unique and isolated of the National Parks: The Dry Tortugas National Park. The park covers almost 65,000 square acres, but only about 100 acres of that is land. The rest is a marine preserve. The keystone of the park is Ft. Jefferson and it’s only accessible via seaplane or boat. For our visit we chose to get there using the National Park’s Ferry, the Yankee Freedom III.
We headed out from our hotel about 6:30am walking to the terminal, a large two-story structure beside the main Key West marina. It wasn’t long before we boarded the Yankee Freedom and were looking for a seat. Once aboard we spotted a table on the port side that had a couple sitting on one side and two empty spots on the other. We quickly slipped into the seats and introduced ourselves. Turns out that we chose tables wisely because we got great tablemates. They were John and Mirjam from The Netherlands, from a village just across the Zaan river from the Zaanse Schans which we visited in 2011. They were great traveling companions, sharing stories and generally making the day just that much better.
The seas were very calm on our 2 1/2 hour journey to the Tortugas. This made it so much easier to spot dolphins, flying fish, ballyhoos, huge jellyfish and sea turtles on the way. The gulf was full of life that morning and I quickly lost count of how many critters we saw. Throughout the trip the onboard rangers were talking to us, pointing out what we were seeing and telling us about all the marine life in the gulf. (BTW: Do you know the difference between a flying fish and a ballyhoo? Both are about 15 inches long and both come up out of the water. The flying fish has wing-like fins that allow it to fly out of the water for distances of about 150 feet. You can hear a “whirring” noise as they fly. Ballyhoos are flying-fish wannabes. They have no wings, but they try to fly anyway and they move across the sea like skipping stones; going ten to fifteen feet per jump and they may have ten jumps in a row. Both are fun to watch!)
After a couple of hours we could see the island on the horizon, then slowly the fort came into view. The closer we got the bigger the fort got. Turns out, the fort is huge, covering virtually an entire island! Later we found out that this was one of the largest forts ever built and is the largest masonry building in the Western Hemisphere. Construction here lasted over 30 years and ironically the fort was never finished nor was it ever actually used as a fort. However, it was used as a prison to house several of the co-conspirators of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination including Dr. Samuel Mudd.
The main attractions on this island are the fort itself and the sea life around it. I had planned on snorkeling but Mona wasn’t feeling quite up to par so we decided to walk around the fort’s moat. The water surrounding the fort was crystal clear and turned out to be almost as good as snorkeling. We had a great time walking and spotting barracuda, coral, sea urchins and all kinds of fish. In many ways, this was better than snorkeling because we had a much wider range of vision and could easily move from spot to spot to discover new sea life.
Next up was a tour of the fort itself. Our guide was Jeff and he was full of energy and passion for the Dry Tortugas. His job is to come out here and show the fort to others; and he comes on his vacations to explore and enjoy the fort alone. Talk about dedication! Jeff made even Mona like history and that’s no small feat!
The fort is immense and awe inspiring. There are over 16 million bricks in the fort and every one had to be brought by ship to this location; some came from as far as New England. The construction of the fort took over 30 years but it was never fully completed as war technology outdated the fort before it was done. However, it still accomplished its intended mission of keeping the shipping lanes safe because it intimidated anyone/any country that might be tempted to attack. With Jeff we spent an hour or so exploring the fort even climbing to the top for the beautiful view!
After the tour we were hot and hungry. No food is available on the island, but the ticket price for the Yankee Freedom includes lunch…and air conditioning! We went inside for a nice cool lunch of cold cuts, potato salad and lots of extras, including all the bottled water we wanted..and we wanted a lot!
Heading Back to Key West
One of things the guides had told us on the way to the park was that the time would go fast, and they were all too correct. It seemed as though we had just finished lunch and it was already time to go. By 2:30 all of our fellow travelers, about 80 0f them, were back on board and we headed back to Key West.
The seas were a little rougher on the way back so we didn’t see nearly as much wild life. But we had our new friends, John and Mirjam, so the trip back was just as good as the trip over.
If you’re in Key West and can spare a day, I highly recommend a journey to the Dry Tortugas. The trip takes about about ten hours altogether and you’ll get to visit one of the least visited National Parks in the United States. We loved it and hope you do, too!
Prepare to be hot. That means take sunscreen and hats. The boat will provide bottled water so you don’t have to carry that.
Book early. Space is limited and this tour sells out quickly in high season. (If the Yankee Freedom is full then you might consider taking a seaplane.)
If you’re sunbathing or snorkeling you’ll need your own towels. The boat provides snorkeling gear free of charge but you can bring your own if you wish.
You can find more information on the Dry Tortugas here: Dry Tortugas Information
Here’s information on the Yankee Freedom III: Yankee Freedom Info
And here’s a great place for more information on Key West: Florida Keys Information