Garden Key and the Dry Tortugas

Before we got off the ferry in Garden Key, I intended to combine Key West and the Dry Tortugas into one post. After spending 26 hours there, including our first time camping together, this particular national park deserves its own post. We reserved our campsite in early March, and after talking to other campers we got really lucky: everyone we spoke with said they’d reserved eight months to a year in advance. Next time we’ll do the same, and stay the full three nights allowed by the ferry operators.

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The park describes this as primitive camping, with no electricity, running water, or power sources. NPS

Dry Tortugas National Park is 68 miles west of Key West, accessible by boat and plane only. The seaplanes don’t take camping gear, so we had to take two-and-a-half hour ferry ride. You can imagine how that went over with my motion sickness.

On arrival, I knew it would be totally worth it. The main attraction is Fort Jefferson, built in the mid-1800s to protect shipping routes through the Gulf of Mexico and used as a Union outpost during the Civil War. A moat surrounds the entire fort; I’d guess it’s about ten feet across.

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Apparently the original people stationed at the fort used the tides to flush the sewage system, so the most water is quite septic (we maturely took to calling it “poop moat”).

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We spent our time there exploring the fort and the rest of the key, taking many pictures of all sorts of birds and ubiquitous hermit crabs.

So many birds! Dan’s looking at a swarm of Magnificent Frigatebirds.
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The park service closed Bush Key, connected via isthmus to Garden Key, to protect nesting and mating sooty terns

We walked the moat wall several times, hoping to see the crocodile.

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No dice. We didn’t spot the crocodile.

And sometimes we didn’t walk the whole circumference of the moat wall:

According to fellow campers, this was a disappointing sunset.
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Totally disappointing. /s That’s Loggerhead Key and its lighthouse in the background.

A cold front blew through the day we arrived, so we slept fairly comfortably in the tent because the air wasn’t as humid as previous days.

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We were up with the sunrise on our second day. We hoped to get some snorkeling in – we had passed the first day because neither of us were really feeling it – but the wind combined with the current and tides made the water far too choppy, and stirred up the sand so visibility was poor. I guess we’ll just have to come back.

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More sooty terns
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The lighthouse, still in use
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Just post-runrise

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Once the clouds burnt off, we had perfectly beautiful clear blue skies.

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On the trip back I staked out my spot in the middle of the stern deck: the most stable spot of the whole boat. The wind and swells had increased since our trip out to the Tortugas and we knew the ride back would be quite bumpy.

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I don’t think my words and pictures adequately capture our experience on Dry Tortugas. After the day-use folks left, we essentially had an island to ourselves; the other fifteen or so campers were so spread out that we rarely saw them. The island was never quiet, but the noise was of such a different sort than I’ve become accustomed to during my dozen years in New York: crashing waves, cacophonous birds, the distinct lack of crocodile. We’re absolutely going back, with kayaks and a fishing permit.

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