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Dry Tortugas National Park
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Fort Jefferson
© Mike Leco / USATourist.com

Fort Jefferson is an unfinished naval fortress dating back to the early 1900s. It became a national park in 1935 and is explored by many visitors each year.

Dry Tortugas National Park

The Dry Tortugas National Park is the most inaccessible park in the USA. It is located nearly 70 miles (112 km) west of Key West, Florida, and encompasses a series of small islands, reefs and sandbars. To get there, you must first go to Key West. That normally requires a 100-mile (165 km) drive south of the Florida mainland, across the numerous bridges and causeways of the overseas highway. From Key West, you must take a seaplane or boat 70 miles further into the Gulf of Mexico.

No Fresh water

These tiny islands were named "The Tortugas" because large populations of sea turtles inhabit them and their surrounding waters. They were further called "The Dry Tortugas" because there is no source of fresh water on any of the islands.

In 1846, the US Army began to construct a massive fortification on the tiny island known as Garden Key. Sixteen million bricks were transported via ships to create a massive six-sided, three-tiered fort with 420 gun emplacements named Fort Jefferson. It was the biggest coastal fortification in North America and the largest masonry structure in the Western Hemisphere.

Fort Jefferson provided little strategic value during the Civil War and was soon converted into a military prison. By the end of the nineteenth century, it was largely abandoned and allowed to fall into disrepair. In 1935, Fort Jefferson was designated a National Monument: and in 1992, all of the Dry Tortugas including Fort Jefferson were made a National Park.

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The largest coastal fortification in North America

Today, the massive brick structure of Fort Jefferson still stands on its tiny isolated island in the Gulf of Mexico. The only permanent inhabitants are a few park rangers. You can visit the islands, tour Fort Jefferson, swim in the crystal clear waters of its tiny beach, observe its birds and marine animals or go snorkeling along the coral-encrusted sea walls of the fort. The admission fee is $5.

To get to the Dry Tortugas, you must go via seaplane or by boat. If you do not own a boat, there are two commercial excursions operating out of Key West and one seaplane charter at the Key West Airport. The National Park Service strictly limits the number of tourists permitted to visit the island each day, so advance reservations of the tours are recommended.

Dry Tortugas boat dock © Mike Leco / USATourist.com
Boat tours from Key West embark for this dock at Dry Tortugas Park.

Charter boats or seaplanes take you there

The Yankee Freedom Charter Boat and The Sunny Days Catamaran both depart from Key WestHarbor early every morning. The trip to The Dry Tortugas and the return trip each take about two hours. Both excursions provide breakfast on board and lunch at the island with approximately four hours to tour Fort Jefferson, to swim and to snorkel. The fare for either is approximately $120.

They also offer overnight camping excursions, but you must take all of your own provisions including food and water. The small camping area outside of Fort Jefferson offers only chemical toilets and picnic tables. No other amenities are available.

Seaplane © Mike Leco / USATourist.com
A seaplane ride from Key West to Dry Tortugas takes 40 minutes and offers uniques view along the way.

A seaplane adventure

We took off from Key West Airport at 8AM in a small four-passenger seaplane. We flew at no more than 500 feet above the crystal blue waters for the entire 70 miles. The ocean was very shallow. We could see the vegetation and coral growing on the bottom and saw sharks and turtles swimming below us. We spotted a few tiny islands and two sunken ships.

We arrived at The Dry Tortugas before any excursion boats and explored the deserted fort undisturbed by tourists. The sky was brilliant blue as we peered down from the battlements into waters so clear that we could easily watch fish swimming beneath the surface. We had the tiny beach to ourselves, as we swam amidst schools of colorful fish. We snorkeled along the seawall of the fort and admired its encrusted coral. By the time the tourists arrived, we were packing our gear aboard the seaplane for our return flight.

Written by: Mike Leco
Top Photo Credit: © Mike Leco / USATourist.com
Photo Description: Dry Tortugas National Park consists of 11 small islands, including Garden Key, where many visitors explore Fort Jefferson each year.