Dry Tortugas National Park

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dry tortugas national park
©2006 National Park Services
Fort Jefferson, the largest coastal fort in the United States, occupies most of Garden Key and houses the Dry Tortugas National Park visitor center.
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Dry Tortugas National Park
PO Box 6208
Key West, FL 33041

Dry Tortugas is one of the most remote national parks in the lower 48 states. Set in the Gulf of Mexico about 70 miles west of Key West, Florida, the park protects 100 square nautical miles of sea, sand, and coral reefs around seven tiny islands known as the Dry Tortugas. Visitors may reach the park only by boat or seaplane and must bring all necessary food, water, and shelter with them.

Entrance fees: $5/adult for seven days

Visitor center: The visitor center is open year-round.

Other services: Boat pier and campround

Accommodations: Garden Key Campground. First-come, first-served.

Dry Tortugas National Park is located off the coast of southwestern Florida.
©2006 Publications International, Ltd.

Visiting Dry Tortugas National Park
Ponce de Leon sailed through the waters off the southwestern coast of Florida in 1513 and, noting the abundance of sea turtles, named them Las Tortugas ("the turtles"). They later became known as the Dry Tortugas, owing to the lack of fresh water.

The centerpiece of the park is Fort Jefferson, the largest brick and masonry structure in the Western Hemisphere and the biggest fort still standing from the 19th century. From the standpoint of natural history, the park is important to the region in that it protects seven coral islands -- the Dry Tortugas, the most pristine coral reef in the continental United States.

The Dry Tortugas islands are a wonderland of warm and azure water, white sandy beaches, and coral reefs brimming with life. Snorkeling, scuba diving, fishing, and bird-watching are the main pursuits there. On the next page, read some tips for sightseeing at Dry Tortugas.

Dry Tortugas National Park Facts
Region: Off Florida's southwestern coast
Established: 1992
Size: 64,700 acres
Terrain: Seven islands, coral reefs, and 100 square nautical miles of the Gulf of Mexico
Highlights: Fort Jefferson and Garden Key
Wildlife: Migratory birds, sea turtles, and saltwater fish.
Activities: Snorkeling, scuba diving, fishing, bird-watching, and camping

Sightseeing at Dry Tortugas National Park

Travelers to Dry Tortugas National Park are drawn in by the inviting beaches and warm waters. Opportunities abound for even a casual visitor to don a diving mask and snorkel to explore the rainbow world of coral reefs under the waves.

Built up over hundreds of thousands of years by tiny calcium-producing polyps, coral reefs attract a stunning variety of sea life. Among the many colorful species one is likely to see are blue-and-yellow-striped grunts, red or turquoise parrotfish, flat angelfish, trumpetfish, and prowling sharks and barracudas.  These reefs include substantial beds of turtle grass, as well as hard corals -- brain, elkhorn, and fan.

Staghorn and elk coral reach for the sunlight, sea fans wave gracefully, green turtles and loggerheads paddle lazily through the waves, and schools of brilliant blue tangs dart safely out of reach. Experienced divers may also explore more than a dozen shipwrecks within the boundaries of the park, some dating back to the late seventeenth century.

There is an abundance of wildlife above the surface, too. Situated on a main flyway between North and South America, the Tortugas are a major stopover for migratory birds, some of which travel as far north as Canada and even Alaska. Dozens of species may be seen in a single day in the park during the height of the spring and fall migrations.

One of the most dramatic events in the park occurs in February, when 100,000 sooty terns nest on Bush Key. Females lay their eggs on the sand and take turns protecting them with the males. The birds stay in the Tortugas until the young are old enough to migrate on their own. Although Bush Key is closed to visitors during the nesting season, the rookery may be observed from the fort on neighboring Garden Key.

Sea turtles also deposit eggs on the islands. As many as two or three times each year, females haul themselves onto the beach, dig a hole in the sand with their powerful flippers, and lay about a hundred golf-ball-sized eggs. Only a fraction of the hatchlings survive; most are eaten by other animals. The survivors return to the sea and take their place in the cycle of life that keeps this fragile ecosystem healthy.

Dry Tortugas National Park Photo Opportunities
An abundance of picturesque views -- both natural and man-made -- turn Dry Tortugas National Park into an excellent place for photo memories. We suggest getting your camera out for the following:

  • Fort Jefferson: Endless photo ops abound in and around Fort Jefferson. Surrounded by manicured lawns and palm trees, the outer walls of Fort Jefferson are at once regal and forbidding. As you tour the fort, you'll notice that views of the moat and seawall are especially striking. Try snapping a shot through one of the cannon windows, which provide a circular frame for the crumbling walls beyond.

    Dry Tortugas National Park encompasses Fort Jefferson, an abandoned military fort.
    ©2006 National Park Services
    The gallery on the first floor of Fort Jefferson features arched doorways.

  • Dry Tortugas Light Station: On Loggerhead Key, the highest of the islands, sits the Dry Tortugas Light Station. With the clear waters in the forefront, frame a picture of the lighthouse from one of the other islands.

  • Wildlife: If you visit the park during migration season, you won't have any trouble finding dozens of varieties of avian life. Among the birds that may be sighted on Dry Tortugas are diminutive western sandpipers, double-crested cormorants, masked boobies, peregrine falcons, roseate terns, brown pelicans, soaring frigate birds with seven-foot wingspans, and a wide variety of warblers.

The wildlife wonderland that now is Dry Tortugas National Park was undiscovered until the arrival of Ponce de Leon in the 16th century. Subsequently, the islands housed pirates, who claimed them as a base for their nefarious adventures. After Florida was acquired, the U.S. government began the construction of Fort Jefferson -- the ruins of which span most of Garden Key. On the next page, learn more about history of the Dry Tortugas.

The History of Dry Tortugas

Dry Tortugas National Park houses one of the largest coastal forts in the world. In 1840s, the United States government chose one of the islands -- Garden Key -- as the site of a massive fortification (the largest coastal fort in the country) designed to control access to the Gulf of Mexico. Construction of Fort Jefferson was begun in 1846 and continued for 30 years but was never completed.

The Dry Tortugas were declared a wildlife refuge by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908.
©2006 National Park Services
The Dry Tortugas were declared a wildlife refuge by President Theodore
Roosevelt in 1908. Fort Jefferson National Monument was created in 1935;
it was upgraded to a national park in 1992.

During the Civil War, it was used as a military prison by the Union Army. Among its most infamous inmates was Samuel Mudd, the doctor who set the broken leg of John Wilkes Booth after the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. The fort was abandoned in 1874, and the island and surrounding area were declared a wildlife refuge in 1908.

The ruins of several structures--including the officers' quarters, soldiers' barracks, and magazine--are preserved by the fort's parade ground.
©2006 National Park Services
The ruins of several structures -- including the officers' quarters, soldiers'
 barracks, and magazine -- are preserved by the fort's parade ground.

The fort's brick walls -- some of them eight feet thick and 50 feet high -- and the ruins of several buildings may be viewed on a self-guiding tour. Garden Key also offers a small visitor center, a boat pier, and the park's only campground.

Of course, there is much more to do at Dry Tortugas National Park than tour Fort Jefferson. The park is a favorite of divers and snorkelers, as well as beachcombers. In fact, the celebrated author and sports enthusiast Ernest Hemingway once fished for Atlantic marlin in these seas. Who says you have to travel to Micronesia to see a pristine reef? A short boat ride from the easily accessible islands of Key West will bring you to a reef system that is just as spectacular.

©Publications International, Ltd.

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