Tag Archives: Fort Jefferson

Amazing hard-to-reach places that are worth it #1: the Dry tortugas

Fort Jefferson occupies two-thirds of Garden Island, one of the archipelago called the Dry Tortugas which lie 68 miles west of Key West in the Gulf of Mexico. You can’t drive or hike here; your only access is by sea or air.

A seaplane lands in the channel and taxies to the dock to disembark a load of day visitors for a tour of Fort Jefferson.

The old fort is a massive structure of 16 million bricks, and was never fired upon or engaged in battle of any kind except for an outbreak of yellow fever. Famous as the prison that held the famous Dr. Mudd who was implicated in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln — the doctor having set the broken leg of John Wilkes Booth — the fort is now operated as a very isolated national park museum.

Visitors may join a guided tour of the fort or are free to wander around on their own and take in the sights.

Its arches and vaults are today echoing the whispers of awed visitors and the marching feet of re-enactors and museum staff.

The campground next to the old fort is very small, so reservations are essential. There are no provisions other than restrooms, so campers must carry with them everything that they will need for their stay.

The island has a fair sized beach right next to the campground and the fort.

After exploring the fort, my favorite activity while at the Dry Tortugas was the snorkeling on the reefs that surround the island, populated by colorful sun fish, angel fish, reef sharks, nurse sharks, spotted rays, barracuda and a fair-size enclave of lobsters.

How to get there: From the southern tip of Florida, drive 175 miles west on the Florida Keys highway – Florida State Road A1A – to Key West. At the harbor board either the fast catamaran shuttle boats — which make the trip out in about 2 hours one way – or book the seaplane flight. Tickets and campsites should all be reserved in advance along with hotels or campground sites in Key West or nearby.

The Dry Tortugas are a national park and are managed by the National Park Service.

The Dry Tortugas and Fort Jefferson

Milepost 11-13   If I were to compile a bucket list for nature lovers and history lovers – and adventurers who like to find the most isolated corners of the country, the Dry Tortugas and Fort Jefferson would be on the list.  The Dry Tortugas are a cluster of islands in the Gulf of Mexico 68 miles west of Key West.  This remote destination is managed by the National Park Service.

  It is a great location for nature lovers because of its diverse aquatic life.  As an avid snorkeler, I was astounded at the wide range of sea creatures I saw there.  Besides the scores of tropical fish, I saw stingrays, spotted eagle rays, nurse sharks, reef sharks, lobsters, tarpon, barracudas and of course, sea turtles (tortugas in Spanish).

The moat seems unnecessary as the fort is surrounded by the ocean on three sides.

  Fort Jefferson is a massive structure built of bricks, 16 million bricks!  In fact, it is said to be the largest brick building in the western hemisphere.  It was  built over a 20-year period beginning in 1846.  The fort was never attacked, and none of its cannons were ever used in battle.  One of those guns was capable of firing a cannonball 3 miles!

Now THAT’S a cannon!

  Probably its foremost claim to fame is that it was used as a military prison and was the place where Dr. Mudd was incarcerated after the assassination of President Lincoln.  He was later pardoned after saving many lives in an outbreak of yellow fever at the fort.

  There is a small campground on the island in the shadow of the fort, and campers pay a few dollars per night.  When I camped there the ocean was almost dead calm and the snorkeling was easy.  My friends and I snorkeled all the way around the island in an hour-and-a-half in about 12 feet of water.  Then after dark some us returned to the water with a dive light for a nighttime skinny snorkel.

The small tent campground offers about a dozen sites.

  There are a couple of reliable shuttle services that zoom to the islands from Key West with powerful double-hulled catamarans – in only a couple of hours at about 35 knots!  If you want to get there even faster, take the sea plane.

The fastest shuttle to Fort Jefferson is the seaplane from Key West.

Even though it seems huge, the fort was once crowded with 400 residents.
Even though it seems huge, the fort was once crowded with 400 residents.

Best lightning photo

A nighttime thunderstorm interrupts the normal summer calm just offshore from Garden Island.  A sheltered cove protects boats.