DRY TORTUGAS NATIONAL PARK — About 30 minutes before The Yankee Freedom docked at the Dry Tortugas National Park, the captain of the vessel announced that Fort Jefferson was visible on the horizon.
The structure, begun in 1845, dominates Garden Key, located about 70 miles due west of Key West. The fort was built to protect the southern and Gulf coasts of the United States.
“We like to say it is he most ambitious masonry fortification project ever undertaken by the United States, primarily because of the remoteness,” said Glenn Simpson, manager of Dry Tortugas National Park. “It is remote, often considered one of the most remote national parks, (thought) Alaska parks are considered remote as well. In terms of where we are, it’s remote. We are far from any developed area. For the main park visitation area to be accessible only by boat and seaplane is quite unusual.”
Few people stumble onto the Dry Tortugas by accident. It is a 2.5-hour ferry ride from Key West. Fort Jefferson was abandoned by the U.S. Army in 1875. It was named a national monument in 1935 and gained full national park status in 1992.
As a result of its location, it is also uncrowded. Daily visitation is limited to roughly 330 people. Annual visitation hovers about 75,000.
But, those willing to make the effort find the trip worthwhile.
“I think it is the unique combination of the pretty imposing Fort Jefferson and the recreational opportunities to see that and to interact with our coral reef subtropical environment,” Simpson said. “Our other big draw is to access the park waters for sailing, fishing and scuba diving. We get a lot of visitors this time of year for bird watching. We get a lot of migratory birds that come in during the spring and fall.”
The fort’s history is fascinating: Dr. Samuel Mudd, the physician accused of conspiring with John Wilkes Booth, and two other conspirators were imprisoned there. But the natural beauty is the primary attraction.
Garden Key is surrounded by crystal clear blue waters, making it a popular location for snorkeling and fishing. And, despite its remote location, wildlife is abundant.
About 10-15 minutes prior to arriving at Garden Key, sooty terns were spotted darting just above the surface of the water. And, upon arrival at Garden Key, the sky above neighboring Bush and Long keys were literally full of sooty terns and brown noddys.
Bush Key is closed from February through October each year to protect the tern’s nesting habitat. Simpson said 20-100,000 terns will call Bush Key home each year. In the meantime, Long Key is closed year-round because of the colony of 200-400 nesting magnificent frigatebirds.
The frigatebirds, with their eight-foot wingspan, dominate the sky.
For the more adventurous, about 68 campers are allowed on the island each night. They have to provision themselves well since there are no facilities on the island.
“You have to have water, food and whatever personal items you need,” Simpson said. “Visitor facilities we offer are dock space for two hours at a time. We have the campground and the vaulted toilets adjacent to the campground.”
But, those campers have the island, and unfettered views of the Gulf and the night-time sky to themselves. They can watch the magnificent frigatebirds soar overhead, watch the noddys and terns darting about.
“I think when people come out to this park, really they are in awe that it even exists,” Simpson said. “Its remoteness provides something of a surreal experience.”
For more information on the park, call 305-242-7700.