As Charles Dickens said, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
But we’ll get to that in a little while.
I don’t remember how I got the idea to visit Dry Tortugas National Park to ring in the new decade. I think I was perusing travel blogs for our Utah trip from last year, and came across a blog post about a family that had spent New Year’s Eve there several years ago. I thought it sounded like an amazing idea and brought it up to Justin, and even he thought it was an amazing idea, and from there the trip planning started.
Dry Tortugas National Parks is one of the least-visited national parks in the United States. The main reason being that it is so remote. The park is about 70 miles from Key West, Florida, and the only way to get there is to take the Yankee Freedom, take a seaplane, or charter a private boat. The park only had 56,810 visitors in 2018… To put that in perspective, the most visited national park is the Great Smoky Mountains, and that had 11,421,200 visitors in 2018.
But we didn’t want to just visit Dry Tortugas National Park. If we were going to drive 1358 miles from Texas to get to Key West, we might as well spend a few nights camping there. The only way to camp on the island is to contact the Yankee Freedom, which is the official transportation service of the national park. They can only take up to 10 campers a day, sometimes less because the park itself only has a primitive campground with 10 sites. The campsites fill up pretty far in advance. To put it in perspective, I booked our camping reservations in December 2018, and the website recommends booking your camping dates one year to 6 months in advance, depending on what time of year you want to go. The more popular season to camp is obviously winter because it’s Florida… and Florida gets really humid in the spring/summer months, and of course, hurricane season lasts from July to October.
Also, you really need to plan well to camp. There is no potable water on the island, so you need enough water to drink, cook with, and wash with for the time you’ll be staying on the island. The boat and seaplanes DO NOT allow any sort of gas cooking devices [think a jet boiler or camping stove], so you are limited to Sterno and/or Charcoal. Your luggage is limited to 60 lbs [though that doesn’t include food or water, I believe] and rides on the boat and can get wet, so be prepared for that. It rained on our trip to the island, but we bought a waterproof bag from Bass Pro and all our stuff stayed perfectly dry. The island has a rat problem, and they will bite into food containers, so you need a rat-proof container for all of your food. We actually bought some airtight/watertight plastic bins from Container Store and they worked great, but our neighbors weren’t so lucky. They had rats bite into their gallon water jugs! The campsite does have some extra containers that they keep for campers under the pit toilets that you can borrow, and also when campers leave the island, they will try to give away their extra stuff- we got offered coffee, creamer, and water during our time there. The weather is unpredictable, we were lucky and we had beautiful weather during our time there, but the people who took over our campsite the day we left said a huge storm was coming and the boat wasn’t sure if they’d be able to transport them back to Key West on the day they were meant to leave. The weather can vary from kind of chilly [I was cold the first day and had to borrow some of Justin’s hoodies for layering] to extremely hot, even in December/January. But the extra planning was so worth it, I think this was a trip that Justin and I will remember for the rest of our lives. There are also no showers or toilets. There were some of the cleanest pit toilets I have ever seen in my life [big shoutout to Sara, who worked at the National Park, and kept everything clean!] but that’s it. There are no sinks or showers, at all.
Before I get into the trip, here’s a tiny bit of history of Dry Tortugas National Park. Dry Tortugas National Park was discovered by Ponce De Leon on June 21st, 1513. He caught 150 sea turtles there and subsequently referred to the islands as the “Tortugas” because that means turtles. They are called the “Dry” Tortugas due to the fact that there is no fresh water on the island. The Dry Tortugas was a significant American Naval Base from colonial times to the early 20th century. They provided a sheltered anchorage and coaling station throughout the Spanish-American War. Florida was acquired from Spain by the United States in 1822. The Dry Tortugas were seen as a strategic point for the control of the Straits of Florida and the Gulf of Mexico. Work was started on a lighthouse on Garden Key in 1825, and almost immediately planning for a fortification began in 1847. In 1865, work on a newer and more powerful lighthouse set to be on Loggerhead Key began. The work for that was half-completed in 1860, construction continued into the American Civil War, but was eventually stopped, and Fort Jefferson was used as a military prison. The most famous prisoner was probably Samuel Mudd, who was charged with conspiracy in the assassination of President Lincoln. The fort was used as a prison until 1874, and then with the introduction of coal-fueled ships, the Dry Tortugas became a coaling station for US Navy ships.
The park originated as the Fort Jefferson monument and comprised of 47, 125 acres and was designated by Frankin D. Roosevelt under the Antiquities Act on January 4th, 1935. The monument was expanded in 1983 and redesignated as Dry Tortugas National Park on October 26th, 1992 by an act of Congress. The park was established to protect the island and marine ecosystems of the Dry Tortugas, preserve Fort Jefferson as well as its submerged cultural resources such as shipwrecks, and to allow public access in a well-regulated manner. The park is also a landing location for immigrants fleeing from Cuba in homebuilt boats called “chugs.” This is a problem for the national park because of its limited resources and housing since it is several hours away from the nearest Coast Guard or Border Patrol units. The only communication from the Dry Tortugas is via a satellite-based-voice-system which is prone to garbling and delays, and a radio relay system using an abandoned Air Force tower between Key West and the Dry Tortugas.
The Dry Tortugas archipelago is classified as a borderline subtropical-tropical ecosystem, which hosts species that do not normally breed in it and are not commonly found anywhere else, within the continental United States or the islands and waters surrounding it. There are 299 bird species within the park and eight of those species frequently nest within the park. The majority of the national park is also underwater and consists of coral reefs and very abundant sea life.
Justin and I left for our trip on December 28th, which gave us three days to get to Key West to catch the ferry since campers have to check in around 6:30 am. The first day, we drove into the panhandle of Florida.
When I say it was the worst of times… I’m referring to the drive. On the day we left for our trip, Justin got sick. Luckily, it was a short-lived illness, probably just a 24 hr virus since he felt mostly okay by the time we got to Key West. Not only that, he lost a crown the day after and had to deal with that for the rest of the trip. And it’s just a really long car-ride. We were literally in a car driving for three days straight just to get to Key West, and I personally was going insane in between being stuck in a car for that long for several hours at a time, and lack of sleep due to anxiety.
There were a few highlights on the drive to Key West. Our second night, we wound up in Tampa, and one of my long-time blogging friends, Jennifer lives in Tampa. I’ve known her since I was a senior in high school. We’ve been following each other lives since I was 17. I’ve pretty much known her about half my life. We finally got to meet in Tampa. We were both extremely exhausted. I hadn’t slept in two days, the first night, which was before we left, due to trip-induced anxiety, and the second night due to Justin’s horrible snoring and me being a light sleeper and also insomnia, and she had also had a busy day. But we still managed to meet for about an hour at the Hard Rock Casino, which wasn’t that far from our hotel, and that was awesome. There was also Wawa in Florida, and I was able to eat Wawa sandwiches and buy a Wawa cup to match my Sheetz one that I had gotten in Maryland over the summer. So that was pretty cool.
On the third day of the trip, we made a pit stop at Everglades National Park, mainly for a sign pic and to get out passports stamped.
We didn’t really explore Everglades National Park, and to be honest, I’m sure it’s a beautiful national park, but I have no desire to visit it. It felt like a swamp and it felt like Houston. I live in a swamp, and really don’t need to explore a swamp. However, if the weather was ever about twenty degrees colder, I’m sure exploring it would be delightful.
We ended up spending the night in Homestead, Florida. Our plan sucked. We planned to go to bed as soon as it got dark, and wake up around 1:00 am and drive to Key West to avoid staying on Key West because prices for even a basic hotel were atrocious. I’m sure that’s because it was New Year’s Eve and Key West is a good party destination to bring in the New Year, but we were too cheap to spend 400+ for a hotel we were barely going to have time to stay in because we had to catch a ferry. I really was not a fan of this plan because I need my sleep, but it ended out working pretty well. I did fall asleep around six or so, and I was able to get up. We hit some construction driving Highway 1 to Key West and since it was dark, we literally saw nothing of the surrounding area, but we made it into Key West by 4:30 am and were checking into the Yankee Freedom by 5 am.
As aforementioned, the only ways to get to Dry Tortugas are to take the Yankee Freedom, which admittedly is pretty pricey per person, it’s $180 for just a daily round trip, and to camp, it’s $200 per person. But the Yankee Freedom is the only official way to camp on the island. Even the day trip fills up quickly. Reservations need to be made almost as soon as you decide you want to go. You can also take a seaplane, but that is even more expensive, as almost $300 for a half-day trip, or you can charter a private boat to the island, but those need to be authorized by the National Park Service, and I’m sure they’re even more expensive. The Yankee Freedom was great though. Everyone who works on the boat was super-nice and you could tell how much they loved their job. The boat provides two meals, a breakfast that consisted of cereal, bagels, hard-boiled eggs, and fruit. There is also a lunch that’s basically a make your own sandwich bar. Most campers choose to have their lunch the day they leave because you need to have all your stuff packed and on the dock, on the day you go back to Key West by 10:30 am. The day trip leaves at 2:45 pm every day from the island. The boat also provides snorkeling equipment.
We had some interesting weather on the day we left for the island.
We experienced some rain and sun. I thought the seas were a little bit rough, and even I got a tiny bit seasick, and I don’t normally get seasick, at all. We sat with a really nice family going to the island, and talked about different national parks, snorkeling, and camping with them. The trip is about 2.5 hrs each way. We got to the island around 10:45 or so. There were 7 campers on our trip to the island, including us. When the passengers get off the boat, the campers stay on, and the park ranger came on to go over the rules of the island with us. After that, we gathered our stuff [the national park provides wheelbarrows, so you can wheel your stuff to and from the dock] and chose our campsite, and set up our tent.
I absolutely loved our campsite. We were out of the sun, had a nice breeze, so our campsite never got too hot, were surrounded by tons of adorable hermit crabs, including the biggest one I have ever seen in my life, which I nickednamed Krabboss, after a pokemon I once got wonder-traded, and were extremely close to the toilets. Camping costs 15 dollars per night.
After setting up our tent, we got our usual sign pictures and decided to explore the island a bit.
We weren’t really in a hurry to do anything. We were waiting for the day visitors to leave so that we could have the island to ourselves.
Around 2:00 or so, we decided to take a hike down Bush Key.
Bush Key was originally named Hog Island because of the hogs that were raised there to provide fresh meat for the prisoners at Fort Jefferson. During certain times of the year, such as when we were visiting it, Bush Key is connected to Garden Key [where the fort is] by a sandbar, and you can cross it and explore the island. Other times of the year, Bush Key is only accessible via kayak or canoe. Bush Key is only open from late fall to early winter due to the breeding season of various birds. From February to September, up to 80,000 sooty terns and 4500 brown noddies make nests and raise their young on the island. Bush Key is the third-largest island of the Dry Tortugas at 150 by 900 meters.
I honestly don’t think I need to say much about Bush Key itself, I think the pictures tell the better story.
One of my favorite things about Bush Key was Conch Tree. I don’t know if that’s what it’s really called, but that’s what Justin and I coined it as.
It was a tree decorated by Conch Shells, and every time Justin and I walked to Conch Tree, and we walked there a few times. We walked there on the first day, walked there again on the second day, and watched the sunrise from there on our final morning, we would add a shell to the tree.
Another cool thing we saw on Bush Key was what we called a “Gathering of the Hermit Crabs.”
We had no idea what they were doing. They could’ve been fighting, they could’ve been exchanging shells, or they could’ve been mating, but we watched this group of Hermit Crabs for at least fifteen minutes.
When we finished exploring Bush Key, the Yankee Freedom had started heading back to Key West, so we decided to explore Fort Jefferson.
[The following is paraphrased from wikipedia]
Fort Jefferson is an unfinished coastal fortress. It is the largest brick masonry structure in the Americas and is composed of over 16 million bricks. The building itself covers 16 acres. In 1825, a man named David Porter from the US Navy was trying to find the perfect place to build a fortress to help suppress piracy in the Caribbean. He wasn’t that impressed with the Dry Tortugas because they consisted of smaller sandy islands, lacked freshwater, and didn’t think the land was solid enough to bear any sort of fortification. However, in 1829, the survey ship Florida stopped at the Dry Tortugas to evaluate the anchorage and Josiah Tatnall was delighted with the location. He saw there was an outer and inner harbor. The former afforded a safe anchorage during all seasons and was large enough to let a number of ships ride at anchor, and the inner harbor combined a sufficient depth of water for ships-of-the-line, with a narrow entrance of not more than 120 yards. Tattnall noted that if a hostile power would ever occupy the Dry Tortugas, United States shipping in the Gulf would be in deep shit basically, therefore it was vital for the US to have the Dry Tortugas become a national military reservation.
The design called for a two-tiered casemate in a six-sided outline with two curtain walls that measured 325 feet, and the others all measured 477 feet. There were corner bastions, which are large projections that are designed to allow defensive fire along with the faces of the walls they joined and contained gunrooms, gunpowder magazines, and a granite spiral staircase. Each tier of casemates contained 150 guns and another 150 were placed on top of the fort itself. Heavy guns were mounted inside the walls in a string of open casements or gunrooms that faced outwards towards the sea through large openings called embrasures. There were also additional powder magazines, headquarters, a hospital, officer quarters, and three large barracks.
The army employed civilian carpenters, masons, general laborers, and slaves to construct the fort. The bricks were provided by a Pensacola firm. In order to support such a large population and the lack of freshwater, a system of cisterns was built into the walls of the fort. Sand-filled columns were placed at regular intervals in the inner walls from the roof to the foundation that were intended to filter rainwater from the rooftop into a series of underground chambers for long-term storage. But the rainwater dissolved the salts in the sand which made the water unfit for drinking but useful for washing and cooking. Only the rainwater that had been stored underground was fresh for drinking, two steam condensers distilled 7000 gallons of seawater per day during the Civil War.
During the Civil War, 62 men from the Second US Artillery Regiment were moved to the fort to prevent it from falling into the hands of rebel forces. By September 1861, the first prisoners appeared at the Fort, they were soldiers being condemned for acts such as mutinous conduct. The fort was also used a substitute for executing soldiers who were found guilty of desertion. The prisoners helped meet the demands of the fort of unskilled laborers. By December 1865, there were 470 soldiers and 273 prisoners at Fort Jefferson. There was a yellow fever epidemic in 1867 that killed many people. The seawall was finally completed in 1872.
However frequent Hurricanes and yellow-fever epidemics convinced the War Department to remove the garrison leaving a small caretaker force for the ammunition and armaments in 1874. In 1889, the army turned the fort over to the Marine Hospital Service to become a quarantine station. Neglected and stripped by vandals, swept by repeated tropical storms and hurricanes that crushed brick and concrete and bent girders, the fort deteriorated rapidly. It remained unoccupied until war with Spain broke out again in 1898 when the American fleet was stationed there. In 1902, the property was transferred to the Navy Department, and coal rigs and water distilling plants were built. Those were destroyed in a 1906 hurricane and the fort was once again abandoned. Two years later, the group of islands was set aside as a Federal bird reservation. Util 1934, Garden Key and the fort ruins were merely a rendezvous for fishermen and tourists. During World War One, the lighthouse on the island was decommissioned, but a wireless station and naval seaplane facility were operational.
Then finally on January 4th, 1935, FDR designated the area as a national monument, and in 1992, it was established as the national park we know it as today.
END OF HISTORY LESSON
Justin and I were the only two people in or around the Fort after the boat had left. Again, I really don’t think I need many words. I think the pictures tell a great story.
By the time we finished exploring the Fort, it was almost time for sunset. We planned to watch the sunset on top of the fort, but the area we had planned to watch it in was closed off. By the time we got there and realized that we didn’t have enough time to get to another area of the fort to watch it, so we decided to just watch it from atop of the seawall. It was a beautiful sunset and the perfect close to Day 1 on the island.
We got back to our campsite and started boiling water for dinner. We had brought Sterno with us. The Sterno lit and it worked, but it took a long time for the water to boil. I think it took about thirty minutes or so to get it to a boil and the sky was pitch black by the time our dinner was ready. We had brought camping meals. I had chicken and rice and Justin had spaghetti with meat sauce. Later in the trip, Justin told me when he had been cooking that first night, he had shone his headlamp into the trees, and saw about seven rats in the trees watching us. I’m glad he didn’t share that information with me, at the time.
We went to bed almost immediately after dinner. I was exhausted from waking up at 1 am to go to Key West, and I almost slept through the entire night, even on my camping mat, in a tent.
The next morning, we woke up pretty early and took some pictures of the Fort before the day’s visitors arrived on the Yankee Freedom. We also went to the Visitor’s Center and got my junior ranger booklet, so I could earn my badge. There were a few areas we missed on our tour of Fort Jefferson yesterday, so we checked those out before anyone arrived.
We didn’t really do much that day. We were again waiting for the visitors to leave so we could have the island to ourselves. We befriended some adorable baby Hermit Crabs, took another walk to Bush Key to add more shells to Conch Tree, and played some Switch at our campsite.
When the boat finally left, we decided to go snorkeling. The weather was absolutely beautiful. It was much hotter than the day before and the water felt wonderful, we did not need a wet suit of any sort. I’m sure that’s not the case for the entire winter season, but I wore a long-sleeved rashguard and felt fine. We snorkeled along South Beach. We swam about halfway around the moat that surrounds Fort Jefferson. We saw so much. We saw tons of coral, even some Fire Coral. There were TONS of fish and an amazing seafloor filled with driftwood. It was some of the best snorkeling I’ve done in a long time. The only downside is that the rental equipment didn’t fit us the best. My mask was too big for me and even when I adjusted it to be the tightest it could, it still let seawater in my goggles, which is very painful, especially if you wear contacts. My flippers/fins were also a bit too small. Justin and I have already decided we’re coming back in five years, and we’ll bring our own equipment then I really wish I hadn’t left my underwater camera at home.
We decided to watch that night’s sunset on top of the Fort. Our neighbors, whose names I have already forgotten joined us. All the people camping on the island with us were super-nice. We got to the top of Fort Jefferson as soon as the sunset started.
We ate dinner with our neighbors that night. They made pasta and attempted to make mashed potatoes. We also made smores. It was a really fun night. I helped their daughter with her junior ranger book so she could earn their badge, and there was a lot of really good conversation. We also saw a few rats, but luckily they didn’t fuck with us, at all.
After dinner, Justin and I attempted my neverending quest to teach myself astrophotography. As per my usual, most of my pictures were absolute failures. This was the best attempt, and it’s pretty pathetic. I couldn’t find my tripod before we left, so Justin and I were attempting to use poles as makeshift tripods.
We went to bed shortly afterward because we decided we should see the sunrise on our last day on the island. Since the sunrise was in the east, we basically had to hike to Bush Key to watch the sunrise, and while that’s not a far hike, per se, we still wanted to give ourselves plenty of time to get there. I heard the squeak squeak of a rat in the middle of the night and it freaked me out so much that I struggled to get back to sleep. Before we knew it, it was around six am and time to catch a sunrise.
Our neighbor came with us, and we hiked to Conch Tree to watch the sunrise. It was super early in the morning and we were exhausted, but it was the perfect ending to a magical time at Dry Tortugas National Park.
After watching the sunset, we headed back to our campsite and started taking down our tent. It was bittersweet. We were sad to be leaving, but a shower sounded really good after three days of no showers. We spent most of our last day sitting on the air-conditioned boat playing our Switches. By then we had basically seen every aspect of the island, and even better, we had seen it without people. We did buy some postcards and souvenirs, but for the most part, we just relaxed.
Honestly, two nights and three days was the PERFECT amount of time to spend at Dry Tortugas, and camping was much more magical than just visiting it.
We got back to Key West around 5 pm, and the next two days were spent trying not to kill each other as we were in the car for 12+ hours each day to make it back to Houston by Friday Night/Saturday morning in anticipation of getting ready for school. Podcasts and Dresden File audiobooks helped.
All in all, though, it was probably one of the most amazing national park trips we’ve been on and one of the most magical national parks we’ve ever visited. I can’t wait to return one day in the not-so-distant future.
If you want to see the original sized images, not the ones I resized for this blog post, go here: https://www.flickr.com/gp/186297877@N05/7F88N3