Situated in the Gulf of Mexico, approximately 70 miles west of Key West, sits a collection of islands surrounded by water known as the Dry Tortugas. Discovered by Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon in the year 1513, the islands were named to reflect the large number of sea turtles in the area. “Tortugas” means turtles in Spanish, and “Dry” was added to reflect the lack of fresh water on land. The islands that make up Dry Tortugas National Park include Garden Key, where the fort is located, as well as Loggerhead, Bush, Long, Hospital, Middle and East Keys. Together, they are known for their immense beauty, beaches and coral reefs, and wildlife. Of historical significance is Fort Jefferson, built on Garden Key, known as one of the nation’s largest 19th century forts in the United States. The fort is situated on the 100-square mile Dry Tortugas National Park, which in addition to the islands also encompasses some open water and is only accessible by boat or air. The Park is without a doubt a worthy destination for folks who love history and beauty combined.
Garden Key, the 14-acre and second largest island in the Dry Tortugas, houses Fort Jefferson, the park headquarters, a visitor center, campgrounds, and swimming and snorkeling accommodations and more. Visitors may think it odd for the U.S. military to have once utilized such a remote location. However, the fort, built between 1846 and 1875, was designed to protect the most strategic deep-water anchorages in North America and enabled the United States to patrol ships in the Gulf of Mexico and the Straits of Florida. This unique location, amidst one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, was a great military asset. The three-tiered six-sided fort was designed to be impervious to assault and had powerful guns capable of destroying enemy ships, should they dare come within range. The fort’s peak military population grew to over 1,700 and included officers and their families, enlisted personnel, lighthouse keepers, cooks, a doctor and his family and others. Though the fort remained in Federal hands throughout the Civil War, and housed prisoners such as Dr. Samuel Mudd for his involvement in President Lincoln’s assassination, the cost of fort maintenance along the ocean and under the threat of hurricanes was high. Thus, the Army turned the fort over to the Marine Hospital Service for use as a quarantine station. In 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt designated the area as Fort Jefferson National Monument. The monument was expanded in 1983 and re-designated as Dry Tortugas National Park in 1992 by an act of Congress. Among the honorable goals of the park are to protect marine ecosystems and nearby resources, preserve history, and educate people.
There are many ways to explore Dry Tortugas. For day trips, its optimal to catch a ferry from Key West or fly in by sea plane. For those with more time and money, a private charter sailboat that allows one to anchor off the fort at night is a wonderful experience. Camping is another great way to visit the remote location. Campsites are available only at Garden Key and campers must bring all supplies, including a tent, fresh water, fuel, ice, and food. Secluded campgrounds are a short walk from the public dock. Many campers have described their experiences on the island positively, calling it an amazing natural wonderland and a tropical island paradise where visitors can go to sleep underneath a blanket of stars.