Dry Tortugas National Park is one of the most beautiful marine parks in the U.S. the picturesque area has turquoise waters that would typically be seen in the Caribbean or another tropical island area. It is located about 70 miles from Key West, Florida and can be reached by ferry, your own personal boat, or seaplane. The park is 100 square miles with open water and seven small islands. The blue waters draw many to the park, as well as the coral reef to snorkel, the marine life and the vast variety of birds that call the islands and the park home. If you’re in Florida, this park is a must see, and you will not be disappointed.
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Snorkeling and Water Activities
With water surrounding the park, there are some great water activities to partake in this area. Shipwrecks along with their stories are very popular and draw huge crowds to learn about their stories. Snorkeling and diving sites are provided in the park to see the amazing coral and sea life it supports. How would you like to snorkel or dive around a shipwreck? You have the opportunity too at the Pulaski Shoals area, where shallow coral heads in the water destroyed many ships. Here, items are scattered along the ocean floor. Expect to see shipwreck items, sharks, fish, turtles and many other species of marine life. Try the site known as “Little Africa,” where snorkeling is great for beginners and children too. It is located on the north side and is shallow and calm. Tropical fish, coral heads, soft corals, lobsters and much more are usually visible. Coral and shipwreck items are not to be disturbed and are protected by law to help preserve them.
The Garden Key is the second largest island in the park. It is approximately 14 acres and is home to the historic Fort Jefferson. This is the main island that has the fort, visitor center, campgrounds, swimming, snorkeling and the park headquarters. There are ranger-guided programs, night sky viewing programs and guides, fishing, boating and many other activities available on Garden Key.
The main island of Garden Key is not just a scenic island; there is a massive and attractive fort known as Fort Jefferson. It was constructed to protect the valuable harbor in which it guarded. The fort was never fully finished or fully armed but was placed as a deterrent to those who might have wanted to capture this area for themselves and attack the states along the Gulf Coast. The fort was built as a preventative measure to discourage invaders. It served its purpose as it was never attached or seized. It was abandoned by the army in 1874 and was briefly used during both World Wars. It is known as the largest masonry structure in the Western Hemisphere and was constructed using over 16 million bricks. Try a guided tour of the fort, or experience one of the “moat walks.” It is known as “the Guardian of the Gulf,” and its beautiful structure still stands as a reminder to this day.
Camping on an Island
Like most national parks, Tortugas has camping opportunities. Keep in mind these are much smaller and more limited because amenities on an island are harder to get. There is a 10-site, primitive campground for those who wish to say that they camped on an island. There are fantastic snorkeling, star-gazing and sunset opportunities from your campsite. The campground is a short walk away from the public dock, and each site has a picnic table and grill, which is the only type of fire allowed in the park. A ferry will bring all campers, and their gear to the island and sites are available on a first-come, first-served basis. Once campers arrive, each is guaranteed a place to stay, although it may be in an “overflow” area if all the sites have been filled. Campers must bring their supplies and have a tent to be able to camp. Freshwater, food, ice and trash bags are recommended, and all campers must pack all their trash and belongings out when they leave. Try your hand at tent camping on an island in the gulf for a remarkable experience!
The island known as Loggerhead Key is the largest island of the park. It has a lighthouse that can be seen from afar, is the site of more shipwrecks and is named for its large population of Loggerhead sea turtles. It is open for day use only to visitors. It is three miles away from Garden Key and the fort and can be reached by kayak, canoe, or private boat. There is no public transportation, so use caution. This island is home to many types of wildlife including reefs, fish, birds, and turtles. The best activities to do at Loggerhead are wildlife viewing, swimming and snorkeling and paddle sports such as canoeing or kayaking.
Only approximately 16 acres, this island has no buildings or amenities on it but is the nesting habitat of various types of birds not found anywhere in the U.S. Sooty terns and brown noddies make their nests here and raise their young on the island. The island can be reached one of two ways, but it depends on the shifting sand and water levels. There is a land bridge from Garden Key that visitors can take. It the bridge is not accessible; the only other way is to kayak or canoe. Bush Key is only open after these birds have left the island, then visitors are allowed to stroll the 1-mile roundtrip shoreline trail. The nesting birds are usually on the island from February to September, and the island will not allow visitors at this time. Try the trail during sunset or sunrise for a memorable and beautiful experience.
Fort, Wildlife, and Beautiful Waters
Dry Tortugas supports specific kinds of wildlife not found anywhere else in the U.S. Its beautiful fort was made to protect the U.S. and its waters and land and has stood for years. The coloring of the waters varies from deep blue to aqua to turquoise and is abundant in coral reefs, beautiful fish, turtles, sharks and much more. Try camping on the island and don’t forget to snorkel to see the park below the land portion and into its beautiful waters. Walk through the stunning brick archways of the historic Fort Jefferson. Join the 60,000 people that take the ferry to see the remote yet beautiful island and Dry Tortugas National Park.