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Florida Guide > State Parks

Dry Tortugas National Park

We had read that a trip to Dry Tortugas National Park was one of the top ten things to do when visiting the Florida Keys. It certainly hadn’t been on our itinerary but as we had a day to spare in Key West it seemed too good an opportunity to miss.

The Dry Tortugas are a small cluster of islands set almost seventy miles out into the Gulf of Mexico from Key West and are known primarily for their bird and marine life although many stories of pirates and sunken treasure abound.

By way of a very brief history the Tortugas were first discovered by the very same Ponce de Leon who stumbled upon St Augustine back in the sixteenth century. Its name Tortugas comes from the Spanish for sea turtles which, apparently were in plentiful supply at the time, and provided a ready source of meat for the sailing ships.

During the nineteenth century the building of Fort Jefferson was commissioned on Garden Key to bolster the United States coastal defences. However, the project was never completed and the buildings were instead used as a Federal prison during the American Civil War.

Today, Fort Jefferson is very much a tourist attraction, which brings me back to our trip.

We boarded the comfortable Yankee Freedom at the dock in Key West and during our two hour voyage across the wide expanses of the Gulf of Mexico we were kept well informed of our immediate surroundings by the on board naturalist who was also quick to point out the abundant marine life that included dolphins and sea turtles.

Upon arrival at Garden Key the imposing Fort Jefferson fills the landscape and many passengers choose to immediately embark on the guided tour, but with a five hour stopover there really is no need to rush.

History tells us that the reefs and strong currents around the islands have proved a constant threat to shipping over hundreds of years and many shipwrecks are littered along the shallow coastal waters. Snorkelling trips allow visitors to discover some of these old relics whist also enjoying the living coral and abundance of tropical fish.

If relaxation is the order of the day, as it was for us, then the gently swaying palm trees provide the perfect backdrop to the sugary white beaches of Garden Key. Whether it’s swimming in the crystal blue waters or just a spot of sunbathing this really is close to an island paradise.

A day trip to Dry Tortugas National Park is not as straightforward as some and can take some planning ahead, but if you are close to Key West and have some time on your hands then it is well worth it.

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Page added on: 16 October 2010
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