Fort Jefferson & Dry Tortugas National Park

Toby’s fishing trip was delayed, and with perfect weather and no other plans, it was high time to visit the Dry Tortugas, a group of islands 70 miles west of Key West, home of Fort Jefferson National Park.mapIt’s one of the most remote national parks, only reached by boat or seaplane. A ferry heads there from Key West each day, but I stumbled upon Landmark Aviation’s seaplane trips. It’s only a 40-minute flight, versus 2 1/2 hours on the ferry. Although the flight costs more, you spend more time at the park and less time getting there, plus you get some time there without the crowds from the ferry. We headed to the Key West airport the next morning. 1keywestairportLittle did I know, we’d find out a lot more about that ferry ride by the end of the day.1copilotSince it was Toby’s birthday, he got the copilot seat. I was behind him, under the wing. keywestAnd we’re off! Looking out at a beautiful day in Key West.
seaplaneThe seaplane flies low, only about 500 feet above the water, and check out that view. Every shade of turquoise and blue.water sea planeThese are the legendary fishing grounds of the Marquesas Keys. We could see dozens of sea turtles poking their heads above the water and a couple sharks cruising around. We wore headsets and the pilot gave us some history along the way.
seaplaneSpanish explorers first sailed through here to find the new world. It proved to be one of the most treacherous waterways on earth. Known as the Quicksands, the combination of coral reefs, shallow waters, and violent hurricanes have wrecked ships here for centuries.  
shipwreckWe could see a couple of them. Treasure hunter Mel Fisher found the Atocha, a Spanish galleon that went down in a hurricane in 1622, in the deeper waters of the Quicksands. He recovered over $450 million in gold and silver artifacts from it, more than any other shipwreck found. You can see some of the loot at his museum in Key West.fort jeffersonBefore long the Dry Tortugas were on the horizon. Ponce de Leon discovered the islands in 1513 and named them Las Tortugas after all the sea turtles he found there, which were an important source of food for explorers. The word “dry” was added to the name on nautical charts in the 1700s to warn sailors of the lack of fresh water. 
fort jeffersonThe US wanted to take advantage of this strategic location to protect coastal waters from invasion. They began construction of a military fort in 1846 that would become the largest brick building in the western hemisphere to this day.1fortjeffersonbridgeAfter decades of work, the fort was never fully completed due to the grueling conditions and remote location. Advances in artillery eventually made this type of military fort obsolete, and it was repurposed as a prison. Its most famous prisoner was Samuel Mudd, the physician who set the broken leg of John Wilkes Booth1fortlighthousefortjeffersonThe fortress is a hexagon of 16 million bricks.fort jeffersonWe walked along the shady, damp corridors under 2,000 arches.Some are dripping and bulging with stalactites and stalagmites from years of rainwater seeping through the ceiling.1fortjeffersonmoatWe also walked along the top of the fort on a sandy path, where native plants have taken root. The sun is intense up there, and it beat down on our heads and reflected in our faces from the surrounding water.shutterbugWe had a perfect view of the lighthouse on nearby Loggerhead Key.loggerheadkey1fortjeffersonhighwalkEven a massive brick military fort is no match for the sea. Despite constant repairs and reconstruction, Fort Jefferson is slowly crumbling.fort jeffersonThe moat surrounding it, built to slow down enemy attacks, also serves as a breakwater, protecting it from rough seas. It’s the main reason the fort survived this long. 1fortjeffersonmoatsnorkelWe walked around the building on the moat wall, too. It’s like a sidewalk in the sea, right next to fish and snorkelers and big purple sea fans sprouting from its sides.1fortjeffersonwallparrotfishAfter rounding the fort several times, I couldn’t wait to dive in that gin-clear water. All the crumbled piles of bricks in the water create perfect habitats for a rainbow of sea life.snorkelingBecause it’s a national park, people are forbidden to take so much as a shell from the sea floor. I saw so many natural treasures like giant sea biscuits and conchs typically swiped as souvenirs by other divers. I could have spent hours out there.  1barracudaI don’t think that guy ever saw the barracuda swimming with him, right there ↑.
fort jeffersonIf you don’t mind rustic camping (no sinks, no showers, no fresh water), you can stay overnight. I’m not a happy camper when it’s 95 degrees in the shade. At the end of the day, I was ready for a short plane ride and dinner in Key West.seaplaneSunset at Mallory Square and Louie’s Backyard were on my mind when the pilot walked by us on the beach with a screwdriver in his hand. I thought, that does not look good. Sure enough, he said, “I hate to tell you this, but I can’t get the plane started.”seaplane on the beachNooooo! I was not prepared to stay the night. I drank up most of my water. I packed only one towel for the two of us. Who will feed my cat? fort jeffersonWell, lucky for me, the ferry hadn’t left, so we weren’t marooned after all. We climbed aboard the Yankee Freedom and sailed 2 1/2 hours back to Key West. A long ride, but pleasant enough since they serve beer and piña coladas. Landmark Aviation refunded half the cost of our trip. They covered our way on the ferry and had a taxi waiting for us at the dock. We skipped the evening in Key West and headed back to Big Pine Key to feed the cat. Priorities.moatI can’t wait to go back. I’d still prefer to fly there despite the iffy seaplane. I might even consider camping in cooler months. No matter how you get there, the Dry Tortugas should be at the top of your list for ultimate Florida destinations. 

6 Comments Fort Jefferson & Dry Tortugas National Park

  1. Robin Draper May 14, 2016 at 4:56 pm

    Love your post and we are doing the exact same thing in another week!

    1. suwanneerose May 14, 2016 at 7:40 pm

      You’ll have so much fun, Robin! It’s incredible. Next time I’ll spend more time snorkeling and less time hiking around the fort. It’s a lot to see in one trip.

  2. Jennifer LEAF May 15, 2016 at 11:35 am

    Thank you for refreshing my memories of one of my favorite places. Dropping an anchor off the fort and spending a couple days is really doing it in style. I miss it so much.

    1. suwanneerose May 15, 2016 at 12:29 pm

      That is definitely the way to go! We always wanted to go on Beautiful Dreamer, but the weather never cooperated, and once we got to Key West we were too happy to leave. It’s a loooong sail, but certainly worth it.

  3. Nicole May 16, 2016 at 9:09 am

    How fun! Now I want to go. . .

    1. suwanneerose May 16, 2016 at 3:00 pm

      You definitely should, Nicole! I know you’d love it.

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