Florida's Dry Tortugas National Park and Fort Jefferson: An Unforgettable Seaplane Day Trip

Dry Tortugas National Park | Introduction

Dry Tortugas National Park is located at the western end of Florida, 70 nautical miles west of Key West, encompassing an area that includes seven coral reef islands. In the 16th century, Spanish explorers first discovered these islands during their exploration voyages in the New World. They named it Dry Tortugas National Park due to the abundance of sea turtles (Tortugas) and the lack of fresh water (Dry), initially serving merely as a landmark for navigators. By the mid-19th century, the U.S. government, aiming to strengthen its military presence in the Gulf of Mexico, began constructing Fort Jefferson here. This massive fortress was never fully completed but has become a popular tourist attraction today. Most visitors to the waters of Dry Tortugas National Park come either to tour Fort Jefferson or to enjoy the coral reefs beneath the sea surface.

Dry Tortugas National Park | Getting There

Due to its location at the westernmost end of the Florida Keys, visitors typically travel from Key West to the heart of the park, Garden Key, where Fort Jefferson is located, either by boat or by seaplane. The seaplane is a faster option, with a flight time of about 40 minutes. Although it's more expensive, it offers a unique experience. Another option is to take the ferry, which is more economical and takes about 2.5 hours, potentially longer in bad weather.

We chose to take the sea plane for a half day trip with a 2.5 hour stopover on the island. Reservations must be made online in advance. the official websiteHere it is. Soon after we met, we were taken to the airplane.

The advantage of taking the plane is that it offers an 80-minute round trip aerial view of the Gulf of Mexico. Before landing on Garden Key, you can get a complete view of the hexagonal Fort Jefferson. Fortunately, I got to sit next to the pilot, which provided a great angle for taking pictures.

The plane lands right next to the entrance of Fort Jefferson, adjacent to the ferry port.

Dry Tortugas National Park Day Trip (from Key West)

Dry Tortugas National Park | Attractions

Fort Jefferson

Fort Jefferson is one of the largest 19th-century coastal fortifications in the United States and the centerpiece of Dry Tortugas National Park. Constructed in 1846, it was originally intended to protect the United States' maritime routes. However, Fort Jefferson was never completed due to its immense size and the rapid advancement in military technology before its completion, leading to the decision to halt its construction. Despite this, the unfinished Fort Jefferson remains the largest military fortress in North America. During the Civil War, it also served as a prison, incarcerating prisoners including Dr. Samuel Mudd, one of Lincoln's assassins.

The center of Fort Jefferson is an open space, surrounded by hexagonal fortress brick walls, which actually resemble a sea turtle from an aerial view. The windows we see from the outside were designed for cannon positions. Walking inside the fortress, the atmosphere feels very solemn and imposing.

On our way, we saw a small boat, which turned out to be the type that Cuban immigrants used to stealthily cross over in the past. At that time, the policy was that as long as one's feet touched U.S. soil, they could stay in the United States. However, wearing shoes did not count as feet touching U.S. soil, so Cubans would disembark barefoot, ensuring their feet were covered in soil, and then push the boat away. Crossing over was not easy; the area around Dry Tortugas National Park is full of reefs and subject to strong winds and waves, which is why it was chosen as a defensive location.

Dry Tortugas national park, Turtle National Park 12

From the top of the fortress, the scenery is entirely different. Although the cannon positions are still visible, the military ambiance feels much diminished, complemented by the open sea views. Along the path, you can also see a small lighthouse.

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Garden Key Beach | Coral reefs and sea turtles

After exploring the fortress, consider taking a stroll on the beach of Garden Key. Garden Key is the largest of the seven islands, and it is said that when Dry Tortugas National Park was first discovered, over 160 sea turtles were spotted on the island in one go. However, if you want to see sea turtles, summer is the best time to visit, as July to September is the sea turtle nesting season. We didn't come during the right season, so although we didn't see any sea turtles, we still enjoyed the beautiful beaches and snorkeling. The waters around here are filled with coral reefs and fish, making it a great spot for snorkeling and diving.

Since we were on a scheduled tour with only about half an hour to spare, we chose to snorkel. Typically, the tour provides snorkeling gear, but if you plan to snorkel, you should prepare your own swimsuit. Besides the beach, you can also swim along the fortress to see the parts of the fortress that extend into the water.

If you're organizing the trip yourself, you might also consider visiting the Shipwreck Trail, which allows you to explore seven historic shipwrecks within the park's boundaries underwater.

Bush Key

After visiting Fort Jefferson, you might also walk to the nearby small island of Bush Key, which has more sea turtles and seabirds, making it a great spot for observing wildlife. When the tide is high, Bush Key is separated from Garden Key, turning it into two distinct islands.

Further reading

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