Exploring Historic Fort Jefferson In Dry Tortugas National Park
I’ll admit that visiting Fort Jefferson wasn’t *technically* the reason I booked this trip.
I mean, THIS was the reason I booked it…
But I’ll also admit that visiting the fort and exploring Dry Tortugas National Park was one of the coolest parts of the trip!!
(Hanging out with pods of dolphins was the actual coolest, but this was definitely top-three…)
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I wanted to just sail and get away from the daily grind for a few days, so I found Captain John’s sailboat rental on Airbnb. He offers everything from just staying on the boat overnight to day trip charters to longer custom charters. I decided to do a 5-day sail down to Dry Tortugas National Park and back (though I’m not positive he offers that one all the time).
I met up with him in Key West and we set sail aboard the Halia down to Dry Tortugas, about 70 miles west. Seas were rough and winds were unfriendly, but then we finally got a glimpse of the famous Fort Jefferson.
Most people who visit Dry Tortugas do so as a day trip, catching a sea plane or ferry from Key West. Instead, I was visiting on a private charter sailboat, so we just anchored off the fort at night and I was able to explore to my heart’s content once the day-trippers left. This post is more about the fort itself, what to see, great angles of photos you can get…since I visited a little differently, I don’t have as much info on “how to get here”.
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What is Dry Tortugas National Park?
I’ll be honest, I’d never heard of it. It’s one of the most remote United States national parks, located 70 miles west of Key West, and 150 miles south of the U.S. mainland.
Most people who know of the park tend to just think of Fort Jefferson (which sits on Garden Key), but the park actually covers 100 square miles of water and includes seven tiny islands (keys)—little more than dots on the map.
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Fort Jefferson was built between 1846 and 1875 to protect the nation’s gateway to the Gulf of Mexico, along one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. The Civil War-era fort takes up almost the entirety of Garden Key, and is the largest all-masonry fort in the United States.
The fort is also surrounded by a nature preserve (awesome marine life, coral reefs, and a ton of bird life), and boasts some of the best snorkeling you can find. My captain told me that this is the 3rd-biggest barrier reef in the world, though I can’t quite corroborate…it is in the top five in terms of coral reefs though.
(Are barrier and coral reefs the same thing?? I have so many questions)
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While this post is focused on Fort Jefferson, there are several other things to see if you have the means. I did get to visit Loggerhead Key (named after the turtles prevalent nearby). And the Windjammer shipwreck off the coast of Loggerhead is great snorkeling, though the seas were too rough while I was there.
Pro tip: Fort Jefferson is fully off-the-grid…you won’t get any cell signal once you leave Key West.
A brief history & what to see at Fort Jefferson
Why does Fort Jefferson exist? As my little sailboat floated up, that was definitely a question on my mind. Who looked at this itty-bitty island out in the middle of the ocean and was like “YES I want to build a massive, expensive, complicated fort here!”???
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It’s located at what was once a very strategic shipping location, right at the convergence of the main channel between the Gulf of Mexico, western Caribbean, and Atlantic Ocean. So ship traffic central. Even back in the old-timey Spanish explorer times, they used these channels (it’s thought that Ponce de Leon discovered Dry Tortugas in 1513).
Captain John dropped me off in the dinghy at the beach and I walked past the picnic and tiny camping area to the entrance, guarded by a legit moat.
For some reason there wasn’t anyone taking payment at the entrance (I guess too late in the day??) but it’s normally $15 per person for a 7-day pass, or you should be able to use your annual America the Beautiful pass. My first order of business was taking a lap around the courtyard to get my bearings.
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The fort was built starting the mid-1800s, and construction continued over 20+ years. It used an insane amount of brick, stone, cement, iron, and lumber that had to be shipped from around the United States and transported all the way out here.
All-told, the fort used 16 million bricks (WHOA), but it was never completed. For one thing, sections of the fort started to sink, so the engineers tried to limit the fort’s weight by leaving the second tier intentionally incomplete.
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And then there was just time itself…the pace of change in the world caught up.
Fort Jefferson featured 420 guns at one point, some of the largest and most advanced weapons of its age. The fort’s largest guns weighed 25 tons a piece and required a crew of seven men each (firing a 432-pound projectile a distance of three miles).
But by 1862 (while the fort was still under construction), advances in weapons technology—specifically the rifled cannon, which could blow through the fort’s walls—made Fort Jefferson obsolete, so it never actually saw action.
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One thing I absolutely loved was that this isn’t a boring, serviceable fort…it boasts a lot of decorative brickwork and 2,000 arches.
Yeah, you read that right—2,000! I was obsessed with the stacked perspective of the arches and took so many pics. The arches open to individual casemates, or gunrooms, that form the backbone of the fort.
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I thought the little building below with the crosses was so cute, and I found out it’s called a “hot shot furnace”…used to super-heat cannon balls so they’d be more effective and skip along the water. So even cooler than I initially thought.
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My favorite part of the fort was climbing up to the top level and walking around, though. You have views for miles, with no fussy rails getting in the way of your photos. PARENTS, WATCH YOUR KIDS.
At the height of its use in the 1860s, nearly 2,000 people lived within this remote city on the sea, including a number of prisoners. When you look down on the courtyard, it sure feels awful small for that.
After hauling myself up the narrow, winding circular staircase, I did an *almost* full lap on the thin but well-maintained path. There is a portion that is closed to visitors, so then I had to go back around the way I came. In some cases locating the staircases can be oddly difficult (which makes no sense given how the fort is laid out, but nevertheless…).
Then I set myself up for a beautiful sunset both nights I visited. It bears repeating—when would you ever get to have a national park all to yourself???
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Watch the sunset
This is very much a benefit of not doing Dry Tortugas as a day trip…I got to watch two quiet, beautiful sunsets atop Fort Jefferson’s walls.
While the horizon is a huge draw, the fort itself also really shines at sunset. I was in love with the beautiful clear teal water reflecting in the moat.
*SIGH* It’s so pretty!
On a side note, in this first pic you can VERY faintly see the lighthouse and trees of Loggerhead Key right by the setting sun.
Snorkel in some of the best waters there are
One of the other things you have to do at Fort Jefferson is get IN the water. Right at the little beach there’s some lovely snorkeling in the barrier reef. You’d never know just looking at the top of the water, but there’s a whole world of brightly colored fish, crazy coral, and alien-looking plants below.
Fun fact: 98% of Dry Tortugas National Park is underwater
There’s not like an “official” snorkeling area, just pull on your gear and wade in. This place was where I focused, and then Captain John told me that if I’d also gone around the corner of the island (to the right in the pic above) there’s some more amazing snorkeling.
Bonus: Head over to Loggerhead Key
This is one of the major benefits to coming on a private charter, staying over night, having the fort to myself, and getting to explore other areas. After a lovely night with the sailboat gently rocking in the waves, we headed the next morning about 6 miles over to Loggerhead Key.
I basically had the island to myself as well (minus a couple scientists), and the well-known Windjammer shipwreck is nearby if you want to snorkel. It’s supposed to be amazing snorkeling and diving, but the water was definitely too rough when I visited.
Here’s my deeper post on visiting the idyllic, remote Loggerhead Key
Exploring Fort Jefferson was definitely a unique experience, particularly all by myself at sunset. I know I barely scratched the surface, and with more time I would have enjoyed getting a brief tour to learn more about individual parts of the fort and its history.
As I said at the outset, most people visit either by seaplane or ferry as a day trip (more info here), but I would highly recommend doing a charter boat trip to give yourself more time exploring the park without the crowds (here is the Airbnb I rented).
Other national park adventures you’ll love:
- An Amazing Southern Utah Roadtrip: Zion & Bryce Canyon National Parks
- New Zealand Explorations: Nelson & Abel Tasman National Park
- Monkeyin’ Around In Costa Rica’s Manuel Antonio National Park
- Fairytale Waterfalls In Croatia’s Plitvice Lakes National Park
Pin for later!
June 25, 2022 at 4:48 pm
Holy smoke! I have JUST finished a book by Nevada Barr (Flashback) that takes place at Jefferson Fort! I had never heard of Jefferson Fort. Dr. MUDD, alledged accomplice of John Wilkes Booth, was imprisoned at the site. I would have enjoyed the book more if I’d had first hand knowledge of the Fort! Lucky you!
Thank you for a this delightful coincidence!!!
June 25, 2022 at 5:39 pm
That is so cool! Just means you need to plan a trip 🙂 I’m totally the same way, I’m a history nerd and love reading books that bring to life the places I’m going (and going places I’ve read about).