Hi there, and thanks for stopping by on our visit to Fort Jefferson, Dry Tortugas, National Park, Florida Keys.
One of our homes away from home is the Florida Keys. My parents have lived there for over ten years and we spend as much time as we can there (when we are not overseas because of my husband’s basketball contracts.) One of our favorite day trips is to Dry Tortugas National Park.
Fort Jefferson, in the Dry Tortugas is one of the most remote parks in the national park system. It is 70 miles west of Key West and is only accessible by boat or seaplane. The park itself is about 100 square miles, most of it is open water, with seven small islands.
Getting to Fort Jefferson
Since the only way to get there is by boat or seaplane, you need to take a boat via tour; we went with a catamaran out to the island. You can go by boat or include a tour of the island as well. I would suggest taking the guided tour of the island and the fort, as well there is so much to see. The boats leave daily from the marina in Key West, near the tourist information center.
The guides are great and informative. We learned so much from our trip! Compare Prices to the Dry Tortugas here.
The ride out to the Fort Jefferson is about two hours and fifteen minutes, so sit back, relax, and enjoy the trip! The boats have clean bathrooms, a great crew, an open sun deck, and an enclosed seating area for the ride.
How the Dry Tortugas Got it’s Name
Dry Tortugas was named by Ponce De Leon who founded the island around 1513. “Tortuga” is Spanish for “turtle”, and the island was full of them. So, he called the island “the turtles” or “las tortugas.”
Rumor has it that Ponce caught over 100 turtles while he was there. Today, no catching the turtles, please! The islands are also home to three different kids of turtles – loggerhead, hawksbill, and green turtles. They return and lay their eggs on the islands. If you see a nest, don’t touch it.
The island was named “dry” because it lacked fresh water, so “dry” was later added to the name to warn sailors that there was no fresh water on the island!
When you get to the island, you will see this massive structure with a moat all the way around it. This is Fort Jefferson. In the beginning of 1825, five years after Spain sold Florida to the USA, the U.S. Navy sent someone to investigate the Islands of the Dry Tortugas. The U.S. Navy was looking to build a base to help control the pirate ships coming from the Caribbean.
Fun Fact: The fort took over 30 years to build and 16 million bricks!
Fun Fact: Look around as you are walking through the park. J.N.O Nolan was a bricklayer and helped build the fort. He carved his name in many bricks around the fort. See how many you can find! This fun fact was supplied by Yankee Freedom.
History of Fort Jefferson
At Fort Jefferson, they had over 420 heavy guns, and some of the cannons are still there today. You will see them as you walk around. There were barracks, or living quarters, for the soldiers, and a large building to store the gun powder. Download the attached map and see if you can find all the old buildings – dry-tortugas-fort-tour-map.
During the Civil War, the fort was used as a prison. Most of the prisoners were military men who deserted during the war; however, there was one very famous prisoner held there – Dr. Samuel Mudd. Dr. Mudd was the doctor who fixed the broken leg of Mr. John Wilkes Booth, the man charged with assassinating Abraham Lincoln in April of 1865.
In 1867, yellow fever hit Fort Jefferson. Many of the prisoners and soldiers got sick and/or died. Dr. Mudd helped treat and save many lives, even though he was a prisoner and did not have to help the soldiers. For his help against yellow fever, President Johnson signed a pardon for Dr. Mudd and he was released on March 8, 1869.
The Beaches at Fort Jefferson
The island is home to some amazing beaches. Don’t forget your suit and snorkel gear.
The water is so clear that you can see down to the bottom. Please do not touch the reef or disturb anything in the water while you are snorkeling; it destroys it.
Sea Life in the Dry Tortugas
You might see that some sea anemone have tentacles that are triggered by the slightest touch. Once the tentacle is touched, the anemone fires a harpoon-like fiber into their victim. The fiber injects the fish with a paralyzing neurotoxin. Once the fish is helpless, it is put into the mouth of the anemone by the tentacles.
Fun Fact: Did you know that clown fish are the only fish who are not affected by the sting of the sea anemone? They have a coating on their skin that makes them immune to the sting.
The animal life there is amazing, so take some time to walk along the sea wall; you might spot a friendly octopus hanging out. We were lucky enough to catch the Yankee Freedom’s captain taking a walk along the sea wall. He was nice enough to point out many different kinds of fish and showed the boys an octopus that he says hangs out there all the time!
Fun Fact: A female loggerhead sea turtle may travel thousands of miles to return to the beach, where she was hatched as a baby, just to lay her own eggs as an adult.
I hope you had a wonderful day at Fort Jefferson Dry Tortugas with us. Get some sun, see some history, and check out the amazing wildlife.
Fort Jefferson for the Kids
Lastly, for the kids, you can also become a park ranger for the day! You must either download the ranger handbook and take it with you or you can pick one up at the visitor’s center on the island. If you abide by all the rules of the handbook while visiting, you will receive your park ranger badge. My kids both received theirs! You can download the handbook here – junior-ranger-handbook.
Can we help you with anything else in the Florida Keys?
Looking for other things to do in Key West? Check out Viator.com’s Florida Keys page to get the list of the best things to do in the Keys. My personal recommendations are:
Those are our personal favorites! If you are looking for a family-friendly sunset cruise, check out the Key West glass-bottom boat trip.
Do you need a hotel?
Check out the best hotel deals in the Florida Keys with Booking.com or Trip Advisor. My personal recommendation is Ocean Key Resort. It’s gorgeous with an ocean-front pool, pool bar, and a spectacular restaurant, walking distance to all the great sights of historic Key West.
If you need a family hotel, or apartment with a kitchen, my suggestion is – Villas Key West. They have full kitchens, a pool, and plenty of room for a family.
Looking for flights to Key West?
Check out JetRadar to get the best prices and routes to the Keys. You can fly into Key West, or you can also fly into Miami, rent a car, and drive down to the Keys; the view is beautiful. We do this often, as the flights are usually cheaper.
Our go-to travel company for one-stop options for flights, car rental comparisons, and hotel packages, when traveling to the USA, is Expedia.com.
This Post was Updated as of May 21, 2017