Greetings from the Dry Tortugas. Scott Fais explores Garden Key with National Park Service Manager Glenn Simpson.By Scot Fais, Feature ReporterDRY TORTUGAS, THE FLORIDA KEYS, MONROE COUNTY — Costs and travel planning information appears below the following story.Mornings start early along the waterfront in Key West. The predawn boarding call aboard the Yankee Freedom ferry is met with breakfast as we set our sights west to a cluster of Florida islands even farther west than Key West. “Welcome aboard,” snaps the public address system, as folks hunker down for the two-hour ride across turquoise blue waters. About 70 miles west of Key West awaits Garden Key in the Dry Tortugas, home to Fort Jefferson.
“It rivals Yosemite, Yellowstone and the big parks,” Park Manager Glenn Simpson said.
Accessible only by boat or seaplane, this cluster of islands predates the Civil War. Visitors arrive in this coral reef eco-system to explore a brick fortress, rough it at the campground and snorkel at this national park.
“My mom said, ‘Let’s go to the Fort. It’s so cool! Blue Water!'” said Shannon Straub, who was visiting from Michigan. “So, we’re here.”
Construction began in 1845 in an attempt to protect cargo vessels sailing through the Straits of Florida. “It’s very protected for large ships,” Simpson said, speaking about the cluster of islands. By the Civil War, Fort Jefferson was a union prison. It was where Dr. Samuel Mudd, the man who conspired to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln, was imprisoned. “It was a location that was isolated,” Simpson said. “Pretty hard to get away from.”
Recent restoration projects — and more to come — will shore up Fort Jefferson’s future as a place to get a history lesson and peek under the surface.
“Under the water, filled with fish, coral, all types of sea life,” snorkeler Andrea Sierra said. A look under the surface shows a tropical reef system with corral and fish. Stray bricks from the fort also line the sandy bottom.
Yet all too soon, it’s back aboard the Yankee Freedom for the long ride back to Key West. In all, visitors will get almost five hours on the island and lunch served back on board.
About this Destination
Where: Dry Tortugas, The Florida Keys, Monroe County
Open: Monday through Sunday
Fort Jefferson hours: sunrise to sunset
Adults 16+: $5
Children 15 and younger: Free
It doesn’t have a physical address!
Dry Tortugas National Park
P.O. Box 6208
Key West, FL 33041
Yankee Freedom II
Key West Seaplane Adventures
Accessibility note: Several areas of Fort Jefferson are flat and accessible to those in wheelchairs and ECV scooters. While the beaches are sandy, the interior of the fort and island landscaping is a compacted shell base (like cement) and mixture of wild grass.
Production note: Although the lighthouse located on the third level of the tower was used in the filming of Florida on a Tankful Summer Road Trip with Scott Fais, it is not open to the public.
GPS Longitude & Latitude:
Latitude: 29° 53′ 45.636″
Longitude: -81° 18′ 40.1394″
From Orlando to Key West: 6 hours, 45 minutes
From Tampa to Key West: 7 hours, 15 minutes