At the end of the Florida Keys, about 70 miles west of Key West sit a small group of islands that were originally discovered by the Ponce de León in 1513. The islands and surrounding waters form the Dry Tortugas National Park, one of the most beautiful and most difficult to access parks in the United States. It can only be visited using official ferry and transportation services or private boat. The Dry Tortugas were named during Ponce de León’s first visit due to the large amount of sea turtles taken on the island; the word “Dry” was later added to indicate the islands’ lack of fresh drinking water. The centerpiece of the park is Fort Jefferson, a large unfinished coastal fortress made up of over 16 million bricks that is the largest masonry structure in the Western Hemisphere.
While it was used as a prison until 1874, Fort Jefferson was home to Samuel Mudd, Edmund Spangler, Samuel Arnold and Michael O’Laughlen the four of whom where convicted of conspiracy in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. In 1935 the area was designated the Fort Jefferson National Monument, then in 1970 it was added to the National Register of Historic Places and finally in 1992 the Dry Tortugas, including Fort Jefferson, were designated as a National Park. Currently Fort Jefferson is in the 2nd phase of a preservation project to stabilize and rebuild the brick that has been subject to years of exposure to salt, heat and destructive weather. It will be closed to the public from November through May to allow mason crews to work. The park hosts over 80,000 visitors per year and offers a wonderful variety of activities like camping, snorkeling, fishing and bird watching. With an official bird list of 299 species, the Dry Tortugas is a bird watchers paradise. The activity usually peaks during the spring when throngs of migratory birds pass through the park in a single day. One of the popular scenes is the Sooty Tern nesting season during which Bush Key is closed and around 80,000 terns nest on the island, visitors can grab some binoculars and get an amazing view from Fort Jefferson. The park is also home to some of the most vibrant coral and sea grass communities in Florida as well as large sea turtles and other amazing sea creatures. For those who want explore the wonders in store, snorkel and diving tours are available from official service providers; there are also guided fishing tours available for charter.
The parks primitive campground, located on the same island as Fort Jefferson, has eight individual sites accommodating up to six people and three tents. It is a self-service area of the park and only costs $3 per night per person. The Dry Tortugas National Park is open all year with the exception of Bush Key from February through September during nesting season and Hospital and Long Keys closed all year long. The park entrance fee is $5 per visitor 17 and older and grants entrance to the park for 7 days. Access to the park is provided by ferry and seaplane departing from Key West. A visit to the Dry Tortugas requires quite a bit of planning so be sure to check the official website here to cover all your bases.
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