A national park on an island in the Gulf of Mexico? If this sounds intriguing, then this Gem is for you.
Dry Tortugas National Park may be one of the National Park Service's best-kept secrets. The park is located on an island 68 statute miles west of Key West in the Gulf of Mexico. The park is the site of Fort Jefferson, which is well-preserved and fun to explore. Access to the park is via a ferry operated by the National Park Service out of Key West, as well as via private boats and floatplanes. There are very limited services on the island, but the ferry service includes lunch, water, and access to bathrooms on the ferry itself. There is a sand beach area on the island and some areas where visitors can snorkel in the waters off the beach.
There is a lot here for the history buff to enjoy. Fort Jefferson was originally built to control access to the Florida Straits and the Gulf of Mexico, but it was never fully completed. The fort was used as a military prison, and its most famous prisoner was Dr. Samuel Mudd, who was convicted of aiding John Wilkes Booth after he killed President Abraham Lincoln. Visitors to the fort can learn about the history of the fort, its residents, and prisoners through tours given by the park service staff there as well as through interpretive signage.
It's possible to circumnavigate the island on foot, walking on the moat wall and sandy paths. It's also possible to walk on the top of the fort's walls, although some parts are not accessible to visitors because they are restricted to National Park staff. Similarly, it is possible to walk inside the fort walls and on the inner grounds, although some areas are restricted.
Because of its geography, Cuban immigrants in boats called "chugs" will occasionally land on the Dry Tortugas. At the time that I visited, this had happened recently and the chug was still on the grounds. Visitors could imagine 20 or 30 people crammed into this small boat.
Short Walk: It's an island. The nearest parking is 68 statute miles away in Key West. Access to the island is by boat and seaplane.
Gem Type: Historic Site