Dry Tortugas National Park, situated almost 70 miles (113 kilometers) due west of Key West, Florida, encompasses seven small islands and 100-square miles of open water. Fort Jefferson, the nation’s largest 19th Century all-masonry fort, sits on Garden Key and is the focal point for tourists, such as ourselves, who weren’t bent on visiting the park’s underwater features. Garden Key is accessible only by daily concession ferry, private boats, charter boats, or seaplane; we opted to visit via the ferry (Yankee Freedom III). It’s a four hour round-trip ride to the park but that still left us plenty of time to explore the fort (there’s also time to snorkel in the waters around the fort if you’re so inclined).
We had to get up at Oh-dark-thirty to be onboard the ferry in time for its early departure – fortunately coffee and breakfast (and lunch) are included in the ferry fare. While it had been sunny the day before, our trip out was under cloudy, suspiciously gloomy for Florida, skies.
The gloom perhaps captured how soldiers (and prisoners) assigned to the fort must have felt when they saw the speck in the ocean where they’d be spending an indeterminate amount of time.
The fort is a hexagonal parade ground (the Army does love its parade grounds) surrounded by a three-story (two tiers and a barbette), massive brick structure. The structure is, in turn, surrounded by a moat (that also serves as a breakwater). Despite some 16+ million bricks and thirty years (1846-1875) of effort, the fort, originally intended to protect one of the most strategic deepwater anchorages in North America, was never finished nor fully armed. By the time the Army gave up on it in 1874, naval guns had advanced to the point where its thick walls were no longer much protection.
Once on the island, we were free to wander around most of the fort at will. We started on the first tier and were awed by both the artistry of the 19th bricklayers and the staggering amount of work that must have gone into positioning those millions and millions of bricks!
We then worked our way up to the second tier,
and then up to the barbette (roof) level. There are no fresh water sources on Garden Key, so the roof of the fort was designed to capture rainwater and filter it into huge cisterns below the first tier.
From the barbette, we descended to the parade ground,
and crossed it under an ever-present cloud of hovering frigate birds.
Then, working our way past a guard pelican,
we had lunch on the ferry and then did a circuit around the outside of the fort along the top of the moat wall (you used to be able to completely circle the fort along the moat wall until 2017’s Hurricane Irma punched a 40-foot wide gap in it).
The waters around the fort are very shallow, and the white coral sand bottom accentuated the water’s intense aquamarine and turquoise colors.
By now it was almost time to depart, so we went back to the ferry. From its upper deck, we could look out to Bush Key, which was currently hosting sooty terns (up to 80,000) and brown noddies (some 4,500), who nest and raise their young on the island. These are the only significant breeding colonies of these two bird species in the United States. Because of this, Bush Key is closed to human visitors between September and February.
We arrived on Garden Key at 1030 and departed at 1500, which was more than enough time to see the fort and do some snorkling. On the way back, the bar on the ferry opened and we were able to enjoy restorative brews on the aft deck. By now the clouds had evaporated and the fort looked a lot less gloomy than it had when we arrived!