One of the coolest things we have done in the last few years was to visit the Dry Tortugas National Park and Fort Jefferson off the tip of Key West. Dry Tortugas National Park is a cluster of islands at the far tip of the Florida Keys where turtles swim in the shadow of Fort Jefferson, a massive 19th century coastal fort held together by more than 16 million bricks. It is the largest brick structure in the Americas.
The Dry Tortugas are located 70 miles west of Key West and it takes about 2 ½ hours by boat depending on the weather and waves from Key West. You 100% must book tickets well in advance if you are going by boat, only 1 boat a day sails the return trip to the Dry Tortugas and Fort Jefferson. The Yankee Freedom is the boat you need to catch to get there and they will provide you with light breakfast and lunch included so you do not have to think about bringing food. We would though recommend bringing a supply of your own water and some light snacks. Just remember to bring everything back with you on the boat.
There is seating inside the boat with good air conditioning, there are seats outside in the sun and there are seats outside in the shade. If you get early to the check in, you will be able to board early and get the seats you want. Check in time is 7am at Key West pier at 100 Grinnell street and departure is 8am, departure is 3pm from Fort Jefferson so you have about 5 hours at the fort. The boat is open during the stay at the Key, so if you need some airconditioned goodness, you can sit and cool down on the boat if you wish. If you have money to burn you can of course do it by seaplane. Or you could rent a private boat if the mood suits you.
Any which way you land on Fort Jefferson, you will be one or two of only a small number of guests that day, and that makes this a big adventure. There are also possibilities of camping on the island, check out the links for Dry Tortugas on how to apply for a permit. On the boat you can sign up for guided tours, or you can just do what we did, wander around and look at the awesomeness of human need to tame the elements. Construction of the fortress started in 1846 and was never really finished, mosquitoes, lack of fresh water, hurricanes and inaccessibility made formidable natural enemies. The fortress itself never fired any of its guns in anger, and there were supposed to be a heap of guns, around 300 guns was supposed to be placed in the casemates and on top of the fortress. Some of those guns remain today and make for a spectacular sight. Fort Jefferson has a remarkable history, read more about its significance and history on the website for Fort Jefferson on Wikipedia.
Bring with you all you would need for a day at the beach of course, towels, sunhat, sunscreen and other paraphernalia you might need. There are few facilities at the fort, just a small gift shop and limited possibilities to purchase water and such on the boat. They will supply you with water, but if you forget a bottle there are only small awkward paper cups, so no way of bringing the water with you if you want some at the beach. Please read up on what is allowed and what is not allowed to bring to the island. And of you are prone to seasickness, take precautions, the voyage is rough, even on a good day.
It was incredible to walk around the fort itself, and to have full access to the inside as well. Entering through the main gate at the front, the inside of the fort held all amenities necessary for the fort to function. There are still houses, barracks, gun powder rooms and big trees in the huge courtyard. If you venture into the building itself, you can see the big casemates for the guns and the slits in the walls for the guns to poke out of. The areas are vast, just think that almost 300 guns could be housed here. The cavernous inside of the fort would make for some great movie set some day, imagine living here in the middle of nowhere, in the heat and with few resources to make your life a little comfortable.
Even though the boat holds 250 people at the max, you feel like you have the whole place to yourself. Walking alone and soaking in the history. We made our way to the top of the structure where you get stunning views of the island and there are some remaining big guns placed here so that you can get a feel for just how humungous they were. Walking around the top was awesome. You get a great look at the colony of about 100 000 Sooty Terns on Bush Key that is on the end of the spit of land that protrudes from Fort Jefferson. Bush Key is closed to humans, but the amount of birds is something to behold even at a distance.
The lunch on the Yankee Freedom is simple but good enough with bread, spread and juices. After lunch we of course had to check out the different beaches that surround the fort. Be aware of currents and there is a shark presence, so be aware of those. There are beaches all around the fort so which one you choose is mainly up to the wind, we tried all of them and had a long walk on the spit of land towards Bush Key. The sea was a bit rough to swim in at some places and those who brought snorkelling gear was a bit disappointed we heard; the visibility was not great during our visit.
The Dry Tortugas and Fort Jefferson was a unique experience, it is one of the least visited national parks in the US, due to the few numbers that can visit every day. The feeling of exclusivity and once in a lifetime experience was palpable. The structure itself is iconic, maybe a picture you have seen many times but never quite knew what it was or where it was. We highly recommend you take the time and the trip to the Dry Tortugas of you get the chance. Just remember to book early, we booked 6 months in advance. Enjoy!