When most people think of the Florida Keys, they think of Key West, Islamorada and the laid-back, “beach bum,” Jimmy Buffett-inspired lifestyle. But there is much more to this chain of more than 1,700 islands than the beach bars, Hemingway tributes and candy-colored cabanas. In fact, just about 70 miles west of where you’ll find the Key West resorts in Florida is one of the most unspoiled natural areas in the U.S.
Dry Tortugas National Park, comprised of seven islands surrounded by the Gulf of Mexico, offers a unique combination of natural beauty and historic significance. Accessible only by seaplane or boat, these uninhabited islands represent perhaps the last undisturbed tropical ecosystem in America and are an ideal place to explore coral reefs and shipwrecks, as more than 99 percent of the park is actually underwater. However, the 140 acres of land within the park are also ripe for exploration, with white sand beaches, bird habitats, a deserted fort and several lighthouses.
While it takes a bit of effort to get to Dry Tortugas, one could argue that you haven’t truly been to the Florida Keys until you’ve explored this one-of-a-kind treasure.
While few people outside of the Florida Keys are even aware of the existence of the Dry Tortugas, the islands have played an important role in U.S. history. Because of their location right on the edge of the main shipping channel between the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, they were ideally suited to serve as a point of protection for U.S. shipping interests. While early Spanish explorers used the islands as a landmark in their travels — and legendary pirates are believed to have made stops during their own voyages to plunder — it wasn’t until the mid-1800s that the U.S. military recognized the islands’ value to military strategy.
In 1846, the U.S. Navy began construction on Fort Jefferson, a sprawling installation that to this day remains the largest masonry building in the U.S.; more than 16 million bricks were used in the construction of the fort, which was never actually finished. The U.S. Civil War put a halt to the construction, but the completed portion of the fort was used as a military prison until 1874, after which the buildings were abandoned.
Because the waters surrounding the Dry Tortugas are among the most treacherous in the world for ships, thanks to the abundance of reefs, shoals, shallows and strong currents, there are literally hundreds of shipwrecks surrounding the islands. Several islands boast lighthouses, including Garden Key, Loggerhead Key and Fort Jefferson.
The vast majority of visitors to the Dry Tortugas arrive via seaplane or ferry, as it’s difficult for private vessels to get to the islands due to the distance from Key West, the dangerous waters and the limited docking areas within the park. Only boats with permission from the National Park Service may moor in designated areas around the park, but several companies offer daily excursions to the Tortugas each day, making it easy for visitors to experience this unique place.
While it is possible to camp at Dry Tortugas in the self-service campgrounds, there are no services on the island. That means that you must bring everything you’ll need for your visit with you, including food, snorkeling or diving equipment and camping gear, if necessary. Many first-time visitors opt to explore the park with an experienced tour guide or charter company. For example, several tour companies offer fishing or wildlife viewing expeditions that include transportation to the park as well as all of the gear you’ll need.
If you do opt to explore the park on your own, it’s important to plan ahead and learn which areas are open to the public and which are off-limits. Several of the islands, including Hospital Key and Long Key are closed to visitors, while Middle and East Keys are only open during the winter months to protect nesting seabirds. Weather is also a factor here; during the winter months, rough seas can make navigating the islands difficult, while hurricanes and severe storms during the summer are always a concern. Visitors should always check the weather before heading out to ensure they can safely explore the park.
Exploring Dry Tortugas National Park is a memorable experience for any visitor, and the perfect antidote to Margaritaville-overload. When you’re planning your next trip to the Florida Keys, plan to spend some time in this unique and scenic park, and experience what true deserted islands feel like.
Underwater imagery from Flickr’s Creative Commons by NOAA’s National Ocean Service