West of Key West — Dry Tortugas Park

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Glenda C. Booth

Dry Tortugas National Park features the 19th century Fort Jefferson, once used to protect ship traffic and patrol the Gulf of Mexico. During the Civil War, it housed about 800 Confederate soldiers, including Dr. Samuel Mudd, who set the leg of President Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth.
© Henryk Sadura

Seventy miles west of Key West is the “flip side” of that raucous isle — the slow-paced, undeveloped, near-quiet Dry Tortugas National Park, a seven-island cluster of coral reefs and sand.

This 100-square-mile park gets its name from the sea turtles that greeted Ponce de Leon in 1513, and from the absence of fresh water, hence “dry.” Visitors go for a Civil War prison, coral reefs, birds and shipwrecks.

It may be dry, but there’s life there. The islands have sea grapes and trees like the Portia tree, Geiger tree, buttonwood, date palms, and coconut palms. Floridians joke that the gumbo limbo tree is “the tourist tree” because its red peeling bark reminds them of naive tourists who end up with sunburned, peeling skin.

Birders delight in species rarely seen north of Florida. Between March and September, 100,000 sooty terns nest on the islands, joined by 10,000 brown noddies and others. Magnificent frigate birds with eight-foot wingspans soar like hang gliders.

Fort Jefferson, built between 1845 and 1876 but never finished, stands as an example of 19th century masonry fortification. Located on Garden Key and armed with eight-foot thick walls, the fort helped protect ship traffic and patrol the Gulf of Mexico and the Straits of Florida.

The Union Army held 800 prisoners in the fort in 1864. The most famous was Marylander Dr. Samuel Mudd, who set the leg of President Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth. Imprisoned for being a “conspirator,” Mudd also helped treat yellow fever patients while he was there. President Andrew Johnson pardoned him in 1869.

Visitors can visit Dr. Mudd’s cell, from which he wrote his wife, “After every rain, our quarters leak terribly, and it’s not unusual to dip up from the floor 10 and 12 large buckets of water daily.” Visitors can see the officers’ quarters, barracks, magazines and cannons.

The Dry Tortugas offer adventurous snorkeling because of numerous shipwrecks, including the Norwegian Windjammer wreck, a ship also called Avanti, which sank in 1907. Coral reefs and sea grasses are home to creatures like stingrays, the queen conch, and brain coral.

For travel and other information, visit www.nps.gov/drto and www.drytortugas.com. Day trips from Key West are the most practical option via ferry, the Yankee Freedom. Day trip rates, which include a tour, breakfast and lunch, are $165 for those 62 and older, $175 for other adults. Call 1-800-634-0939.

Beware: There are no restrooms, snack bars, or lodging (except camping) on the islands.