If you were to go west of Key West, Florida, for about 70 miles, your destination would be in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico, but it would be dry. As in, Dry Tortugas National Park. The 100-square-mile park comprises seven coral- and sand-based islands surrounded by crystal-clear water and some of the best snorkeling opportunities to be found in the US. Think colorful coral reefs and hundreds of species of marine animals, including sharks, sea turtles, lobsters, squid and octopuses.
If you’re keen to stay on land, the park offers terrific opportunities for bird watching. Spring and fall migration are ideal times to visit, as Dry Tortugas is a favorite stopover for birds migrating to and from South America and North America. Bush Key, one of the park’s islands, is the only significant breeding colony of sooty terns and brown noddies in the US, according to the National Park Service.
As for your own stopover, start on Garden Key, the second largest of the islands. Here, you will find the park headquarters, visitor center and campgrounds as well as popular swimming and snorkeling areas. Garden Key is also the site of Fort Jefferson, famous for guarding the country’s shipping lanes in the 19th century. The fort also served as a prison during the American Civil War, housing, among many others, Dr. Samuel Mudd, the physician who set the broken leg of John Wilkes Booth.
The only way to visit Garden Key and all other areas of Dry Tortugas National Park is by boat or seaplane. Ferry and seaplane passengers travel directly from Key West to Garden Key. Entrance fees are included in the ticket price. Those passengers traveling here by personal vessel must stop by Garden Key to pay the entrance fee and file a free boat permit.
—info from the NPS
All images courtesy of National Park Service