Dry Tortugas National Park

Dry Tortugas National Park
A western extension of the Florida Keys, the Dry Tortugas lie about 70 miles west of Key West. Seven of these islets, along with numerous reefs and shoals, comprise the 100-square-mile Dry Tortugas National Park, although most of the park is open water. Because of its remoteness, access to the park is only by boat or seaplane.


In 1513 the islands were discovered by Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon. He named them the Dry Tortugas because there were no freshwater springs on them and because of the turtles he found there (tortugas being the Spanish word for turtles).

The first permanent structures on the island group were a 65-foot brick lighthouse and a small cottage for a lighthouse keeper built on Garden Key by the U.S. government. By the middle of the 19th-century, the military recognized the importance of having defenses in the area to protect American shipping along the Gulf Coast. Work on Fort Jefferson began in December, 1846, but was never completed.

At the beginning of the War Between the States, an artillery regiment was transferred to Fort Jefferson to keep it from being taken by the Confederate states. The fort remained in Union hands for the duration of the war and served as a prison. Its most famous prisoner was Dr. Samuel Mudd, the physician who treated the broken leg of John Wilkes Booth after he assassinated President Lincoln.

On January 4, 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt designated Fort Jefferson National Monument under the Antiquities Act. In 1983, Congress expanded the national monument as Dry Tortugas National Park. It protects the island and marine ecosystems of the Dry Tortugas and preserves Fort Jefferson and underwater cultural artifacts such as shipwrecks. (Note: National Monuments can be declared by executive order, but it takes an act of Congress to designate a national park. A national monument protects one resource, while a national park protects multiple resources.)

Visiting Dry Tortugas National Park:

Travel to the Dry Tortugas can be undertaken in a private or chartered boat or seaplane. There is also a ferry, Yankee Freedom III, that makes a daily run from Key West to Garden Key and back. This trip includes: round-trip transportation on a high-speed catamaran, breakfast and lunch buffets, guided tour of Ft. Jefferson, and snorkel gear. The complete day tour lasts 9.5 hours. Reservations can be made by phoning 800-634-0939. Arrangements for transporting camping gear and kayaks can be made with the ferry company.

There is a primitive campground on Garden Key. Sites can accommodate up to 6 people. No reservations are required. Each site is equipped with a picnic table and grill, but campers must bring all supplies, including a tent, fresh water, fuel, ice, and food. A group campsite for 10-20 people can be reserved. Call (305)242-7700 for a reservation application.

You Should Also Read:
Garden Key and Dry Tortugas Lighthouses

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