Dry Tortugas is a group of ten islands west of Key West. When the US decided there was a need to control the traffic through the Gulf of New Mexico, they decided to construct a fort on the ten acre Garden Key of the Dry Tortugas, so named because there was no fresh water available. The result was Fort Jefferson, a unique six sided fort using over sixteen million bricks to construct a perimeter fifty feet high and eight feet thick, and the largest brick building in the western hemisphere. This fort at Dry Tortugas was a behemoth in its day.
The fort at Dry Tortugas was used as a prison for Union deserters during the Civil War, as well as housing prisoners such as Dr. Samuel Mudd, who was arrested as a co-conspirator in Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. It’s later history included a quarantine station for infectious diseases.
1935 saw Fort Jefferson at Dry Tortugas declared as a national monument by President Roosevelt, and it became a national park in 1992.
Today, Fort Jefferson at Dry Tortugas National Park is open to the public for tourists, and over 70,000 people make the trip each year. However, it can take some planning to get there.
There are a couple of options to get to the Dry Tortugas, either by boat or by seaplane. There are both public ferries and sea planes in daily operation. You can also charter or take your own boat.
The Yankee Fleet operates the Yankee Freedom daily to the Dry Tortugas, departing from the Historic Key West Seaport at the northend of Margaret Street and arriving at Garden Key. Departures are at 8am (you must check in by 7:30am) and returns at 5:30. The ride to the Dry Tortugas is 2 hrs 15min each way, and the trip includes breakfast and lunch. Snorkeling equipment and a 45 minute tour of Fort Jefferson are also included. Reservations are recommended www.yankeefleet.com
Seaplanes of Key West offers a quicker trip for up to ten passengers to the Dry Tortugas, with a 40 minute flight each way. Passengers can choose either a four hour trip or an eight hour trip, and snorkeling equipment is also available so you can explore more of the Dry Tortugas. Reservations of at least a week in advance are recommended. www.seaplanesofkeywest.com
Both Yankee Fleet and Seaplanes of Key West offers a unique camping experience for the self-sufficient camper who wants to stay longer at the Dry Tortugas. Campers must bring all their own food, water and supplies, and can stay for a maximum of fourteen nights. There is also a $3 fee per night, payable to the National Park Service. There are eleven first-come first-served camps sites available at Fort Jefferson, each with a picnic table and grill (using self starting charcoal only) for camper’s use. There are restrooms available, but no sinks or showers. You must also remove all garbage with you when you leave the Dry Tortugas.