A Jewel in the Gulf

 
 
Above:  From Bahia Honda, I drove into Key West and hopped on the passenger ferry for the Dry Tortugas.  Two hours and 70 miles later, we arrived at Garden Key.

My alarm clock buzzed at 4 a.m. at Bahia Honda State Park and 10 minutes later I climbed out of my truck and into the total darkness.  A warm breeze was blowing through the palm trees and even though I was wearing just shorts and a t-shirt, I was comfortably warm.  Not bad for a November morning in America, I figured. 

My destination that day was the Dry Tortugas, a group of small islands lying 70 miles west of Key West accessible only by boat or seaplane.  “Tortugas” is Spanish for "turtles" referring to the sea turtles that once flourished here, while “Dry” was a notation by early explorers telling others there was no drinking water on these islands (and there still isn't).

I’d wanted to visit the Dry Tortugas ever since I first read about these remote islands in the early 1990s.  I took a six-month road trip around America in 1995 and was planning to visit the Florida Keys, so I’d made a reservation on the passenger ferry that runs out to the Tortugas each day.  I visited the Keys during that trip, sure enough, but had to cancel my Tortugas reservation due to a last-minute change in my schedule.  That was a big disappointment, so I’ve been wanting to visit the Tortugas ever since.  And 21 years later, I was going to.

Unless you own a big yacht (gee, I don’t happen to), the only ways to get to the Tortugas are by seaplane or the daily passenger ferry.  Taking the seaplane is pretty expensive (over $350) while the passenger ferry is a lot cheaper ($180).  Yep, option #2 was the winner.  The ferry, called the “Yankee Freedom” leaves Key West every morning at 8:00 a.m., usually packed full with over 100 passengers, and reaches the Tortugas two hours later, then folks have several hours to swim and explore the main island, called Garden Key, before they climb back onboard the ferry for the afternoon trip back to Key West.  The Dry Tortugas is a National Park so if you’re more adventurous, you can camp here overnight. I am, and I did.

Garden Key is only a few acres in size and its main attraction is Fort Jefferson, a large brick fort built in the 1840s, which covers most of the island.  In fact, with over 16 million bricks it’s the largest brick building in America.  The fort was converted to a prison after the Civil War and its most famous resident was Dr. Samuel Mudd, a conspirator in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865 and the person who set the broken leg of John Wilkes Booth shortly after he shot President Lincoln.  Mudd was imprisoned here at Fort Jefferson, then a few years later in 1867 he helped care for the other 600 prisoners during a yellow fever outbreak at the fort, and he was pardoned for his humanitarian efforts.  Contrary to popular belief, Dr. Sam was not the source of the phrase, “Your name is mud” but he is related to former CBS newsman, Roger Mudd.  “And that’s the way it is” – no wait, that’s Walter Cronkite.

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Above:  Garden Key is the main island in Dry Tortugas National Park.  The main feature here is Fort Jefferson, built in the 1840s and the largest brick building in America.  That's Bush Key in the background.  The beach on the right, next to the campground, was a great place to eat dinner – and yes, the water really is that color (clickable version below).

The National Park Service has a small campground with about 10 sites next to Fort Jefferson, but reservations are required.  I’ve camped in a lot of interesting places but never a place like this, on a remote island next to a brick fort in the middle of a tropical sea, so weeks earlier I’d made a camping reservation. 

Be advised that camping on the Tortugas is pretty primitive – definitely not “glamping” – and you have to pack everything in, even your drinking water.  So during my last afternoon at Bahia Honda State Park, I’d loaded up my trusty, blue JanSport backpack once again, ready for an overnight trip.  From all the pictures I’d seen of the Dry Tortugas and Fort Jefferson, and considering how much I liked historical sites and deserted tropical islands – and especially historical sites on deserted tropical islands – I figured this was going to be an unforgettable trip.

The trickiest part, however, was finding a place to park my truck overnight while I was on the Tortugas.  There’s no overnight street parking for visitors in uber-congested Key West, but while I was researching my trip online a few days earlier, I found a parking garage near the Key West ferry terminal.  That was the good news.  The bad news was that the vertical clearance in the garage was only 7 feet while my truck, with its Thule cargo box on top, was over 8 feet high.  So… I decided to unload the Thule box, unbolt it from the top of my truck and slide it into the back of my Toyota truck – it would fit with two inches to spare – and then lock my canopy with the Thule inside.  But of course, I sleep in the back of my truck, so I couldn’t complete this complex maneuver until after I’d gotten up at Bahia Honda.  And that’s why I rose at 4 a.m.

Heading to the Tortugas

After getting up in the darkness at the Bahia Honda campground, I took a quick shower, then by the light of my candle lantern I slid my Thule box into the back of my truck and stuffed everything else in, while trying not to wake the folks in the next campsite.  I left Bahia Honda around 5:30 a.m. and reached Key West an hour later, parked in the garage, hoisted the JanSport on my back and grabbed my two-gallon water jug, and reached the ferry terminal shortly before the passengers started loading.  The terminal was packed with folks decked out in shorts, sunglasses and Tevas, most of who were going out to the Tortugas just for the day, but there were a few of us intrepid folks who planned to camp there overnight.

We all boarded the Yankee Freedom at 7:30 a.m. and left the Key West harbor a half-hour later, cruising out into the sunny and warm Gulf of Mexico, then bounced along the waves for the next two hours while heading west.  I stayed on the top deck enjoying the sunshine while taking pictures of the boat, which was packed.  After a few hours of getting pleasantly covered in salt spray, I spotted an island off in the distance, the boat slowed, and 20 minutes later we pulled up to the dock at Garden Key in the Dry Tortugas where everyone scampered down the ramp, except for the overnight campers.  A park ranger gave us a 10-minute briefing onboard, then I walked to the stern of the boat and watched the deck crew unload the camping gear and move it ashore.  I cringed and then nearly panicked when I saw part of my backpack come undone while it hovered over the sea, then some of it splash into the water next to the dock.  But fortunately it was my rolled-up Thermarest sleeping pad so it floated, and a crewman fished it out of the water.  Whew!

I walked down the ramp to the dock, collected my dripping gear, then trotted off to the small, sandy campground, where I picked a nice campsite under the trees and just a few yards from the beach, then set up my tent and other gear.  About six groups were camping that night and everyone seemed pretty mellow.  Although the campground is small and reservations are required, the Park Service never turns anyone away from camping here because the island is so remote – the only National Park campground in the country which does that.  They just make room, which is nice.

Most of the day-tripping passengers had headed off to the beach, just a few yards from the campground, but I joined a small group that was gathering by the fort’s entrance for a historic tour of Fort Jefferson.  Our tour leader, an energetic lad who called himself "Hollywood" and looked like a young David Spade with long blond hair and wearing reflective sunglasses, spent the next 45 minutes giving us a terrific, animated tour of the fort.  Kudos, Mr. Hollywood! (or whatever your name really is).  The fort was very impressive, even more impressive than in the photos I'd seen of it.  It was incredible to imagine how they could've built this massive structure in the 1840s and that 20 years later over 600 prisoners were housed here, way out in the middle of nowhere.  I was in total awe.

After several hours on Garden Key, folks started leaving the beach and making their way back to the Yankee Freedom, and the raucous boat left the dock at 3 p.m., heading back to Key West.  I stood on the ramparts of Fort Jefferson as I watched the boat disappear on the horizon and it was quiet for the first time since I'd left Bahia Honda early in the morning.  The only sounds were the Gulf breezes and the crying seagulls overhead.  What a difference a boat makes, I thought to myself, and a pleasant difference at that.

With the crowds gone, I felt like I had the entire place to myself so I walked through the fort again, but this time I stopped at the small Visitor Center whose only occupant was a pleasant 40ish woman park ranger who was folding souvenir t-shirts in the gift shop.  We spent 20 minutes talking and had a nice conversation.  She’d been at the fort for a few years and told me some interesting stories about working in such a remote and unusual place.  About a dozen National Park folks, including construction and maintenance staff, lived at the fort full-time, she told me, and most of them headed back to the mainland every few weeks to get groceries and/or to see family.  Given the tranquil solitude and remoteness here, plus the challenge of being self-sufficient, I can’t imagine a place that I’d enjoying living or working more.  Any job openings?

It was getting late so I told her goodbye and left the Visitor Center, then walked completely around the fort on the brick moat that surrounds it and protects the fort from the waves.  I stopped at the dock again, then headed back to the campground, where I opened my backpack and hunted around looking for my dinner – a can of Campbell’s Chunky Soup ("Chicken Pot Pie") and a package of Ritz crackers.  Carrying my simple meal, I walked down to the sandy beach which was now deserted except for 10,000 footprints, and found a secluded spot where I unrolled my beach towel and sat down, then I watched the sun setting over the Gulf – over by Galveston, I figured.  

There were a couple dozen folks spending the night on the island, including the dozen or so Park Service employees, but I was surprised that no one else came down to the beach to watch the sunset.  This wasn't at all like the hoopla at Mallory Square over in Key West, where  thousands of tourists descend every evening and then, as the sun dips below the horizon, break into hearty applause as they sip their overpriced margaritas and listen to piped-in music.  I much preferred this.

 

The Dry Tortugas:  Day #1

 

 

 
 
 
 

 

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