Dry Tortugas National Park preserves an island outpost. The cluster of islands, reefs, and crystal-clear blue waters is known for its wildlife-watching opportunities, tales of explorers, and military history. Discovered by legendary explorer Ponce de Leon, the islands were named Las Tortugas, which means The Turtles in Spanish. Even though the turtles provided fresh meat, there was a decisive lack of fresh water, and thus the area took on the name of dry, which warned of the water problem.
During the War of 1812, the United States began planning to build a series of forts, recognizing that protection from attacks along the water was vital. Construction of Fort Jefferson commenced in 1846, but it was never completed. Dry Tortugas Fort Jefferson was used a prison during the Civil War, but it fell into disrepair.
However, the military's loss was nature's gain. The wildlife, on land and sea, began to thrive. In fact, Dry Tortugas in the Florida Keys was set aside as a bird sanctuary in 1908 and declared a National Monument in 1935. In 1992, the islands became Dry Tortugas National Park.
Unlike other national parks, Dry Tortugas in the Florida Keys is not accessible by driving. But travelers can make arrangements to arrive by boat or seaplane. Personal watercrafts are welcome, and travelers who want to go fishing and diving can arrange charters either in the Keys or Naples.
In addition, public transportation to Dry Tortugas in the Florida Keys is available in Key West. The Yankee Freedom high-speed ferry carries passengers on the 70-mile journey from Key West to Dry Tortugas National Park. During the comfortable journey, a naturalist will give of a preview of the fascinating historic site. The company also leads snorkeling excursions, bird-watching excursions, and guided tours of Dry Tortugas Fort Jefferson. Sunny Days Catamarans also provides public transportation to the isolated park, in addition to leading dolphin swims, sunset sails, and snorkeling trips. The seaplane excursion also is available in Key West.
However visitors arrive at Dry Tortugas Fort Jefferson, they will find an array of fun things to do once there. Those who want to learn more about the islands' military history can sign up for ranger-led tours or grab a brochure for self-guided tours. The rangers and interpretive signage discuss the fort's namesake, President Thomas Jefferson, and its most famous prisoner, Samuel Mudd, the doctor who set the leg of John Wilkes Booth, President Lincoln's assassin. The visitor center, which is open daily, has several exhibits, a film, and plenty of information about this interesting place.
The list of things to do here also includes a range of recreational activities, such as fishing, bird-watching, beachcombing, photographing the lighthouse, and soaking in the views. Visitors also can search for turtles, a fitting activity in a placed named after the green marine animals.
The national park is also one of the unique places for camping in the keys. The campground is located on the same island where Fort Jefferson stands proud. Campers must bring everything with they need with them, such as fuel, ice, and food, though the Garden Key Campground does provide picnic tables and grills. Reservations should be made well in advance, and a minimal nightly fee is required. A small entrance fee also is collected from everyone who visits Dry Tortugas.
Image: Visit Florida