Day Trip - Dry Tortugas, Key West
This was the fort where Dr. Mudd was imprisoned after he set John Wilkes Booth's leg which he broke leaping to the stage of Ford's Theatre after he shot Lincoln. Dr. Mudd was suspected of being in the conspiracy. That's where the expression "his name is mud" comes from.
The Dry Tortugas are a group of islands or keys about 70 miles SW of Key West. They can be accessed on a day trip by seaplane or by fast catamaran, or you can rent a sailboat from Oceanside Marina on Stock Island and sail down.
The are is called the DRY Tortugas because there is no natural fresh water. You can camp on the island if you bring everything with you that you need including water. You can also snorkel and swim off of the beach.
***military discount available***
We rode the Yankee Freedom II out to Fort Jefferson on the island Dry Tortugas. It was worth the $100. You get a comfortable boat ride out there and back (it's 70 milies away) that includes breakfeast, a tour of the fort, lunch, and snorkling.
Fort Jefferson was used during the Civil War to house conspirators. Dr. Mudd, who helped John Wilks Booth, was kept here.
The water around Tortugas is THE BEST. The water was a beautiful blue-green color and everywhere you looked were awesome shells, coral, and fish.
Besides the Yankee Freedom there is another company, the Fast Cat, that goes to Dry Tortugas. You can also go by sea plane. We went with Yankee Freedom because they were a few dollars cheaper.
I highly recommend this day trip.
Consisting of seven islands formed from coral reef, the Dry Tortugas are lined with beautiful sandy beaches and surrounded by warm, tropical waters.
The Dry Tortugas National Park is famous for its bird and marine life whilst legends speak of pirates and sunken gold.
On the largest of the islands you will find Fort Jefferson which is the largest of America's historical coastal forts and was built in the 19th centure.
The Dry Tortugas were discovered by Ponce De Leon in 1513 and were originally named 'Las Tortugas (meaning 'the turtles' in Spanish) because of the abundance of sea turtles that supplied his ships with fresh meat. Unfortunately, there was no fresh water to be found and 'Las Tortugas' became the 'Dry Tortugas' - meaning without fresh water.
The Dry Tortugas are accessible by taking the ferry or by sea plane. It is possible to camp on the main island but there are very limited facilities. Day visitors are restricted to toilets on their appropriate ferries.
Almost 70 miles west of Key West, nestled among spectacular coral reefs, fascinating shipwrecks, and sandy beaches, lie seven undeveloped coral and sand islands called the Dry Tortugas (The Turtles), named by Ponce de Leon in 1513.
The tour departs from Dry Tortugas Ferry landing (located between William St. and Margaret St., intersected by Caroline St.); it boards at 7:30 a.m. and returns at 5:30 p.m. The price is $129 for adults, $89 for kids (16 and under), $119 for military and seniors (62 and over). Also, they collect $5 National Park Service charge (existing cards are honored).
Cost includes breakfast and lunch of fresh foods and juices, professional tour guides, and complimentary snorkeling equipment.
When Ponce de Leon discovered the islands, he called them Tortugas because there were a lot of Turtles. Somebody else added "Dry" to say there is no fresh water there.
Between the War against Mexico and the Civil War, USA decided to set up a Fort to protect the entry of Mexico Gulf. During the Civil War the fort was occupied by Union troops and used to harbor the boats dedicated to the hunt against the blocus breakers (like Red Butler of "Gone With the Wind").
The fort served as a prison too. The most famous guest was Doctor Mudd, imprisoned to have cure the broken leg of Booth, the actor who murdered the President Lincoln.
More in the travelogue
70 Miles away from Key West at the entrance of the Gulf of Mexico are the Dry Tortugas, a chain of small keys. Fort Williams was built on one of them in the 1860s and offers stunning views of the turquoise waters surrounding the fort.
There is a small beach and some decent snorkelling around the fort.
You can visit on a day trip from Key West, or camp overnight in which case you would have to bring everything: food, fresh water, tent, and spleeping bag.
Travel to the Cry Tortugas for some of the best snorkeling off the Keys. You see everything from St Majors, Damsel Fish, Trumpet Fish, Fire Coral, Urchins, and even pelicans! Absolutely beautiful. The best part too is getting there. We took a ferry over (Yankee Freedom II) and on the way back saw the best treat of our lives; Sea Turtles in the wild. We must have seen 10 or more. They were so wonderful. Also saw a nurse shark.
There are many companies that offer day trips out to the dry tortugas. Most offer a 2 hour boat ride, then you get to tour the fort for a bit, eat a buffet lunch that they provide, and then do a bit of snorkeling if you dare to swim before the requisite 30 minute post-eating rest.
However, the smart traveler will opt for the slightly more pricey, but infinately more enjoyable sea plane ride out to the fort. You leave at the same time as the boats, but it only takes you 40 minutes to get there. So a handful of you get to tour an almost deserted fort and then snorkel in deserted waters before the rest of the crowd gets there. No lunch provided, but water and sodas are.
Took the Yankee Freedom to the Dry Tortugas. The sea was rough that day, and people were barfing left and right. No one told me this, but you should definitely take Dramamine for both legs of the ferry ride (they sell it on the boat). I have never experienced motion sickness before, but I sure did this time. Also, wear sunscreen on every exposed part of your body, continuously esp. if you're going out during the summer, because you WILL burn if you sit out on the deck of the boat or snorkel for hours, including on your lower legs and feet.
I don't mean to be excessively negative about this trip, because we saw some beautiful fish and coral, and visited a unique national park that was spectacular. Just wanted to offer some tips to make a potentially fantastic trip more fun and lessen the risk of a bad experience.
This 90 mile boat trip takes off in the morning from Mallory Square, where an excentric old tour guide perpetually dressed in hawaiian shirts introduces you to the boat and the area, where you may, if you're lucky, see dolphins or sea turtles on the trip. Drinks are available on the lower dock, and there are plenty of places to sit and observe as you cruise along to the Dry Tortugas. Once you get there, the trip commences with a tour of the fort, which comes right up against the ocean on one side and is flanked by a moat on the beach side. The tour is interesting if military history is your thing, although pretty standard as tours go. The real fun begins with the snorkeling, where you can explore various tropical fish and the ocean floor a safe distance from the beach. Lunch takes place on the boat during the return trip, which can be a little nauseating if the seas are as choppy as they were for me, but is normally pleasent.
About 70 miles west of Key West is part of the largest living reef area of the Atlantic Ocean. The Dry Tortuga islands are not really inhabited or developed but on Garden Key history is waiting to be explored.
Built in the mid 1800's Fort Jefferson was originally used as a Union Prison. It was never actually completed and has decayed over the years but as a National Park it has been somewhat restored today.
The Yankee Freedom National Park Ferry takes visitors to the park in about 2.5 hours. Visitors can spend a couple hours exploring the ruins of the old fort and swimming or snorkeling in the emerald waters before the trip back.
Fishing is allowed in a number of locations from the island. Swimming areas are marked with buoys on the north, south and west sides of the island. With northern winds, the south side is usually the better area to explore.
When we came down to Garden Key on our boat I got several photos of the Lighthouse at Fort Jefferson (Tortugas Harbor Light). But I wanted to get a photo of the lighthouse at Loggerhead Key. So when I took the seaplane trip down there, I was disappointed that Loggerhead Key was on the other side of the plane and I could not see it on the way down. I thought I could see it on the way back, but the plane developed a fault and I had to come back by boat. So I had to be satisfied with a long lens photo of Loggerhead Key
The lighthouse was built in 1858 possibly by George G. Meade who built other lighthouses in the area and was a General in the Civil War. It is at active lighthouse with a 157 foot tall early classic brick tower, solar-powered VRB-25 aerobeacon. Lower half of tower painted white, upper half and lantern black. 1-story brick keeper's house (1922), original kitchen, and other outbuildings preserved and the house is used as housing for park service personnel.
The Garden Key lighthouse was built later (1876) and has been inactive since 1921 (a decorative light is displayed). It is a hexagonal cast iron tower mounted on the walls of Fort Jefferson. The keeper's house (and part of the fort) was destroyed by fire in 1912. This lighthouse replaced an 1825 lighthouse damaged by a hurricane in 1873; the foundation of the older lighthouse survives inside Fort Jefferson
There are two catamarans to the Tortugas, the Yankee Freedom and the Fast Cat ( Sunny Days Charters).The trip to Garden Key, Dry Tortugas takes about 2 hours. There you will get an optional tour of Fort Jefferson, lunch and a few hours free time to enjoy the beaches snorkel or whatever. We had a good time, but rough seas on the way home made for a long day. Next time I will try the seaplane. Of the two boats, the Yankee Freedom is a bit more expensive, but a bit roomier. Both will be crowded in any case. The Yankee Freedom is located at the Key West Bight Marina. Sunny Days has their main offices along the seaport boardwalk as well as a kiosk at the south end.
The Dry Tortugas are so named because there was no fresh water to drink
and they looked like Turtles backs in the water.
Take a look at my travelogue on
the Dry Tortugas.