A massive, abandoned fort. Sand islands. Legends of shipwrecks and treasure. It may sound like an adventure conjured up by Robert Louis Stevenson, but this is a place you can find about 70 miles west of Key West in the Gulf of Mexico.
Accessible only by boat or seaplane, the remote Dry Tortugas National Park features a unique blend of natural wonders and manmade historical artifacts. While the park is 100 square miles, most of that is open, blue water; there are just over 100 acres of land on the seven-island archipelago.
But what Dry Tortugas lacks in size it more than makes up for in history, ecology and rare experiences.
Juan Ponce de León was the first European to lay eyes on the Dry Tortugas, and he gave them their name in reference to both the abundance of turtles and the lack of any fresh water on the islands. The site’s American history began when the United States acquired Florida from Spain in 1822, and the archipelago’s use as a military installation became its most enduring legacy.
Fort Jefferson is the most dominant feature in Dry Tortugas National Park. In fact, with 16 million bricks, the massive, unfinished coastal fortress is the largest masonry structure in the Western Hemisphere. It may have grown even larger, but construction was halted during the Civil War when the fort was converted to a military prison. One of its most famous inmates (from 1865 to 1869) was Dr. Samuel Mudd, who set the leg of John Wilkes Booth – and was therefore convicted of aiding Booth in the assassination of President Lincoln.
Fort Jefferson is also famous for its “Totten Shutters,” an ingenious example of military architecture that was groundbreaking for its time. Invented by General Joseph G. Totten, the hinged, wrought-iron shutters protected cannon openings as they set sturdily between the fort’s mortar core and brick façade. They were painstakingly designed not only to blow open when gases from a cannon muzzle shot out just before the cannonball, but also to rebound into their closed position between shots.
Ironically, though, the fort’s most famous feature also contributed to its ultimate demise, as the saltwater environment caused the iron shutters to rust and expand, which transformed their installation within the walls of the fort from a major advantage to a crippling liability, causing serious structural damage.
More historical artifacts can be found under the park’s crystal-clear waters, as shipwrecks dating to the 1600s litter the seafloor. Many of the wrecks are shallow enough to explore while snorkeling.
But travelers should not limit themselves to only exploring Dry Tortugas’ historical artifacts. The park is also one of the most ecologically interesting places in the U.S. Patch coral reefs are on display just below the surface of the water; the park’s bird list features nearly 300 species; the islands offer idyllic, white-sand beaches; and you may also see some of the sea turtles that gave the islands their name. Given its unique and remote location, the Dry Tortugas host land and marine species that are not common anywhere else in the nation.
Snorkeling, camping, scuba diving, kayaking and fishing are among the activities available in Dry Tortugas National Park.Whatever you choose to do, make advance preparation a priority. Pay attention to the weather and bring everything you’ll need with you from the mainland. There are no services within the park, but that’s exactly the kind of island experience that makes this an uncommon destination.