Fort Jefferson and the Dry Tortugas

State: Florida

While I was planning my trip across America, I knew I needed a good starting point. My original pick was Mars Hill Maine and I’ll tell you why in a future article. However, as I worked to pay off my student loans, it became apparent that I would either have to wait 6 more months to start my journey or pick a new starting point. The reason was because I wasn’t going to leave until I had my student loans paid off and it was getting to be the latter part of the year. My trip is based on being north during summer and south during winter. So I wasn’t going to start midwinter up in Maine and I wasn’t going to wait another 6 months. So I decided to pick a new starting point.

When I learned about the Dry Tortugas, I knew it was meant to be. I mean it’s a castle on a freaking island! And the abundant wildlife that’s rarely found anywhere else in the US was the cherry on top.

This article will tell you all about the Dry Tortugas and Fort Jefferson and why you should go and check it out for yourself.

THE YANKEE FREEDOM FERRY

I arrived at the ferry at 6:30 in the morning per the instructions of the website:

www.drytortugas.com

I stopped at the office and got my paperwork and ticket sorted out, then I went on the Ferry. My enormous backpack was loaded into the waterproof metal bins at the back of the boat and then I met Captain Rick, who informed me of all the rules and regulations of camping overnight at the Dry Tortugas. He also told me to have my belongings at the dock no later than 10:30am the next day to have it loaded onto the boat. When he was done explaining, he said I should go get a cup of coffee at this coffee shop down the road, since it was going to be awhile before departure.

I took his advice and went to this little place called Harpoon Harry’s. It was a nice coffee shop with a friendly atmosphere. I got a cup of cuban coffee and after thoroughly blistering my tongue, decided to let it cool while I headed back to the ferry’s office.

Waiting at the ferry’s office on the second floor reminded me of an airport departure gate because of all the rows of empty seats. However, a short while later the people going on the day trip began pouring in and filling them. I couldn’t believe how many people there were. When the boarding area was packed, the ferry guide went over the itinerary and told everyone that there was an option for a guided tour or a virtual guided tour so you could wander around and get the facts. The virtual guided tour was an app you scanned into your smart phone, which I wanted no part of.

“You are going to a castle on an island and you want to stare at your phone?” I thought as I watched countless people getting in line to scan it, so they could get the app.

We then boarded and got some breakfast while the crew got everything underway. The ride over to the Dry Tortugas was 70 miles and took about 2 1/2 hours to get there. During that time, I was having a lot of fun reading and enjoying the ride, while about 2/3rds of the people on board were seasick. Most had taken Dramamine (motion sickness pills they sell it on the ship) and nearly all had a barf bag that the crew were handing out all over the boat. I thought this was quite funny because I don’t get seasick and the swells were barely anything.

They showed informational videos about Fort Jefferson along the ride and then opened up the bow of the ship when it came into view.

Getting to see that castle of brick rise from the ocean’s horizon was a remarkable sight. We circled around the island which allowed for some great pictures of the fort and at last docked. The people who were camping were told to wait on board to meet with one of the park rangers. I was anxious to explore the Island and became even more so when everyone else got to disembark. We met with Ranger Mike who told us where we were to camp and some more rules and regulations while we stayed the night.

We also learned that the fee per campsite had been raised from $3 to $15, which still wasn’t bad for a campsite on an island with a freaking castle!

When this came up, I spoke with one of the guys I previously met who I found out was camping too:

“Hey, do you guys just wanna share a campsite and split the cost?” I asked.

“Yeah man. I mean we’re all going to be hanging out anyway right?” he said.

“Definitely,” I said.

At last we disembarked and headed to the campground. The best campsites are under the cover of the trees, which is where we picked ours.

After I organized my things, I grabbed my camera and headed out to film this island of history. However, before I got started filming Ranger Mike told me I needed a permit to film. We went to the rangers office and spoke with the other rangers. With most state and national parks you need a permit to film when commercial filming. I was flattered that the rangers thought I was a professional filmmaker, but I told them what I was doing and that I don’t monetize any of my film and just put it on my YouTube channel.

They told me to just check ahead next time and gave me permission to film.

I stayed and spoke with the rangers for a while, who all turned out to be amazing people. Most were veterans with a background in a biological science. One ranger told me that he is going on a similar trip to mine except on a motorcycle. He is going to ride from Alaska down to the tip of South America. Ranger Mike is actually writing a book on the history of Fort Jefferson and is going through the records of the civil war prisoners that stayed there. All of the rangers are very passionate about what they do.

So I would like to thank all of the rangers for their dedication to the preservation of our history and the fragile ecosystem of the Dry Tortugas.

FORT JEFFERSON

After speaking with the rangers, I began exploring Fort Jefferson and filmed everything. At one o’clock Ranger Mike, gave a tour of Fort Jefferson. I didn’t film this because it would take something away and perhaps deter people from coming to visit this wonderful place. Instead, I filmed myself and what I learned, which was a lot because of how well the tour was done.

Some Cool Facts I Learned:

  1. Construction of Fort Jefferson began in 1846 and continued for 30 years, but it was never finished due to construction failings and the invention of the rifled cannon which could penetrate the thick walls.
  1. During the Civil War, Fort Jefferson was used as a military prison for captured deserters. However, it also included four men convicted of conspiracy from the Lincoln assassination. Most famous was Dr. Samuel Mudd, who after his heroics during the yellow fever epidemic resulted in a presidential pardon from Andrew Johnson.
  1. The Fort was constructed to control navigation to the Gulf of Mexico and to protect Atlantic bound Mississippi River trade boats.

I checked out Dr. Mudd’s cell, the medieval stairways, and the many many MANCANNONS in the fort’s arsenal.

Then at 3 o’clock something magical happened. The crowd of people there for the day trip boarded up and left on the Yankee Freedom Ferry. I can’t tell you the exact feeling of being left on an island with a castle and only a few other people, but I can tell you that you need to experience it. The closest I can come to explaining it is that it’s like a feeling of pure peace.

BUSH KEY AND LONG KEY

After filming more of the fort, I headed out to Bush Key (the island that connects to Garden Key, which is the one that Fort Jefferson is on).

Bush Key is only open to people October 15th to January 15th. I got lucky that I was there on January 3rd. The reason is because of the many protected bird species that nest on the island. The Sooty Tern being chief among them. This species spends most of its life out to sea and flying. It only comes to land when it is breeding and nesting. Bush Key is one of the few places it comes to nest, which is why you are not allowed on the center of the island.

You can only walk along the beach on Bush key and only during the dates I listed above. The reason is because the birds will go back to the exact same bush or plant which they were born and build a nest themselves. So it’s a very special and very protected place and if you are lucky enough to get to visit Bush Key, stay on the beach and don’t go on the center of the island. Help protect our wildlife!

After I filmed Bush key, some pelicans, and a Great Blue Heron, I headed out to the tip of Bush Key to film Long Key from a distance. Long Key is a nesting ground for the Magnificent Frigate birds. You aren’t allowed on the island at anytime during the year because it’s a protected habitat and species.

When I finished filming my nature documentary, I ran back to my campsite because a storm front was rolling in. I was disappointed that it was overcast because one of the things I was looking forward too was seeing the stars. However, around midnight we got a break in the storm. I woke up my camp mates and we got to witness the heavens in all their glory. It was one of the best experiences of my life so far.

The following day I did more filming in Fort Jefferson and had just enough time to fully explore it before I had to leave on the Yankee Freedom Ferry. So if you are going to go and check out this national treasure, make sure you camp because there’s so much to see.

Tips to help plan your trip

  1. Book ahead – I booked a month in advance and got lucky. I managed to get the very last seat available. So you should book your trip a couple of months in advance.
  2. Cost – It cost $175 per adult and $125 per child for the day trip or $195 per adult and $145 per child for camping plus the $15 for the campsite. I highly suggest camping so you can see everything and get the full experience of the Dry Tortugas and Fort Jefferson because one day is not enough to see everything.
  3. Go on the guided tour – Both the Yankee Freedom and the Park Rangers are excellent guides and offer a variety of tours (Historical and Wildlife). The tours take place at 11:00am and 1:00pm. I’ve also heard that sometimes the rangers give night tours (this is likely only if there is a small amount of people camping and if they feel like it because they live on the island and need time off as much as you do after work).
  4. Pack smart – It’s primitive camping on the Dry Tortugas. So you have to pack all your food and water. The Yankee Freedom Ferry does provide one free breakfast and lunch and while it’s at the island you can purchase more food or drinks as well. But keep in mind the ferry is only there till 3:00pm, so you’ll still want pack food and water for your stay and make sure anything you pack in you pack out!
  5. For more information about planning a trip to the Dry Tortugas check out: www.drytortugas.com
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