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Day 5: Dry Tortugas National Park

In contrast to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most visited national park and one that we wrote on earlier this week, Dry Tortugas National Park is among the least visited. This might have something to do with the fact that the park is a small chain of islands located about 70 miles west of Key West, Florida, so the park is accessible only by boat or seaplane. The best way to get to Dry Tortugas is via the two hour ferry that runs daily to and from the largest island of the seven Dry Tortugas islands, Garden Key. For those wanting a more in-depth experience, the ferry also drops a few campers off on the island for those wishing to spend a night or two.

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Since the ferry takes two hours to get to Dry Tortugas, it leaves early. If you get motion sickness, it’s best to take some dramamine-the ride can be a bit bumpy, although the views are beautiful. If you’re able, make sure to look into the water; we were able to spot a couple sea turtles and myriad birds.

As you approach Garden Key, Fort Jefferson, the largest brick-masonry fort in the country, dominates the horizon. Once the ferry has docked, you’re free to roam about the island and partake in any one of several activities. Day trippers are only able to stay on the island a few hours, so it’s advantageous to spend a night if you wish to get more time on the island. One of the most popular activities in which to partake is snorkeling. The ferry provides snorkel gear to visitors, and there are three good snorkeling areas around Garden Key where there is plenty of coral and a plethora of sea creatures. If snorkeling isn’t your thing, there are good opportunities for seeing coral, fish, and other wildlife by walking around the outer moat of the fort. Coral grows along the outside of the wall, and fish swim close enough to the wall to make viewing easy. In addition to the fish, we were able to spot manta rays and man o’ wars during our walk.

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If you enjoy walking, there are other areas of Dry Tortugas that you can visit. During part of the year, enough beach is exposed to form a link between Garden Key and nearby Bush Key. The walk along the beach between the two keys offers great views of the water, other islands, and Fort Jefferson. Be careful as you near Bush Key, however, as it is a protected area for migratory birds. Be sure to check out the birds from a distance; many of them are found no where else in the United States.

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Another fun walk on Dry Tortugas is a tour of Fort Jefferson. The fort is massive, so you’ll want to spend at least an hour or more exploring it. The fort began to be built in the mid-19th century and was never finished, but was used throughout much of the rest of the 1800s. The fort was used as military prison during the Civil War, and Dr. Samuel Mudd, infamous for being convicted for being involved in Abraham Lincoln’s assassination plot. Walking through the fort gives an idea of what life was like at the fort, but it also offers some scenic views of the interior of the fort and unparalleled vistas from the top of the fort-you can see across the water for miles.

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These are several of the activities that one can enjoy while visiting Dry Tortugas, but it is difficult to describe the experience one has at Dry Tortugas. Especially when the day trippers leave, the island is peaceful, and you are embraced by solitude. Each step around the island offers new and spectacular views, either looking across the brilliant blue ocean or staring at rare birds or taking in the coral just underneath the surface of the water. Dry Tortugas is unlike anywhere we have ever been. The ferry’s website says that a visit is a trip of a lifetime, and we wholeheartedly agree.

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