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These remote isles are a park lover's paradise. 

January 23, 2017

The seven isles of Dry Tortugas National Park cluster together like gemstones in the shimmering Gulf of Mexico waters, about 70 miles west of Key West. Only two of those islands—Garden Key and Loggerhead Key—evince signs of human development. The others serve largely as nature preserves for rare local bird populations like frigates, sooty terns, and brown noddy terns, among other species.

Park manager Glenn Simpson has worked for the National Parks Service for nearly two decades, but his first job predated his career. He was a student intern in 1994, working on shipwreck sites at Dry Tortugas. “It really does appeal to that Robinson Crusoe, desert island-sensibility," he admitted. The main island, Garden Key, is home to Fort Jefferson, a hexagonal former military fortification used as a prison in the 19th century that is “among the most ambitious architectural projects” in the NPS system, Simpson said. Thousands of workers and every piece of building material was brought in by boat—largely by sailboat. But there's more to do here in this stretch of paradise than just gawking at the impressive fort. Simpson shared some of his favorite tips for getting the most out of Dry Tortugas.

Get there by boat or seaplane

Nowadays people can make their way to Dry Tortugas using their own boats, a ferry, or a seaplane. Round-trip ferry rides take about two and a half hours each way, and include about five hours on Garden Key. Visitors can walk around the island, swim, and snorkel during their stay. Ferry fees include park admission, as well as breakfast and lunch on the boat, and cost $175 round-trip and $125 for kids. Spend a bit more to include a few nights camping on the island. Seaplanes, like a Key West Seaplane Adventure charter, can make the trip in about 25 minutes each way, and cost $329 round-trip for a half-day visit and $578 for a full day excursion. 

Don't drop anchor just anywhere

If you take your own boat to Dry Tortugas, you must check in at Fort Jefferson to get a free permit and to learn precisely where you may drop anchor and fish. (If you skip this step, you might get a citation.) Simpson also noted that boaters should bring plenty of fuel, because it can't be purchased in the park. And it's “very expensive to have delivery," Simpson added. 

Bring absolutely everything you need

It's easy to forget that this is a pretty remote part of the world. You'll find no fresh water, fuel, or other services on the Dry Tortugas. Ferry employees will sell minor sundries such as sunscreen, towels, T-shirts, and hats, and will sell breakfast or lunch to anyone (whether or not they rode the ferry). They’ll also provide freshwater showers on the back deck. But bring plenty of drinking water for your outings, as—like fuel—you won’t find it onshore.

Be prepared to get wet 

In addition to birders and history fanatics, the Dry Tortugas are a big attraction for avid kayakers, scuba divers, snorkelers, fishermen and women, and those who have simply told Simpson “this is one of our bucket list places." Divers love that the coral is “so far away from human development that the reef conditions are a lot better [than most]," he added, and “you can see a lot more tropical fish.” Of the marine life, fisher-folks can catch mutton snapper, black or red grouper, yellowtail, or hogfish in these waters.

It's a escape any time of year

Because the weather is almost always warm here—it may be 70 degrees in late January—Dry Tortugas is enormously popular year round. 

“I’d come in the summertime even if I was really hot,” said Simpson. “It’s 99 percent water here,” he noted, and “there are great opportunities to kayak.” The ferry will bring out three kayaks per trip for those who intend to camp overnight on Dry Tortugas.

In the summertime, paddling the open waters tends to be quite pleasant. You can get fairly close to the islands that are off-limits to human traffic, and take a look at their birds from about 100 feet out—or stop off at Loggerhead Key to admire the lighthouse. (Note that you’ll have to rent your own kayak in Key West, and coordinate with the ferry company in advance.)

Spend the night stargazing

Why camp someplace so tiny and remote, with so few amenities? Well, those crystal-clear waters—ideal for swimming and snorkeling—are one reason. Another is the astoundingly beautiful night sky, said Simpson. The park is actively pursuing an International Dark Sky designation, and stargazing enthusiasts will find “tremendous opportunities to do night sky photography.”

Explore a historic fort

Fort Jefferson, originally conceived as a military fortification, was also used to house prisoners. The most famous were four President Lincoln assassination conspirators, including Dr. Samuel Mudd, who fixed John Wilkes Booth’s leg. Mudd was imprisoned for three years, Simpson said, but was pardoned after helping other prisoners during a yellow fever outbreak. You can see the parts of Fort Jefferson where Mudd was imprisoned and wrote volumes of letters.

And as you take the ferry or seaplane into the area, look at the bricks enveloping the fort itself. They are, said Simpson, a visual representation of the Civil War itself. Originally purchased from the Pensacola area in about 1845, pink and brown bricks ring the bottom of the structure. As the war broke out, the Southern providers defaulted on their contracts, and bricks had to be ordered from New England. They are dark red—the classic Yankee style—and can be seen ringing the top of the structure all the way around—a demarcation line and a reminder of history.

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