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This Park Combines Scenery and History on a Desert Island


Fort Jefferson is the largest all-masonry fortification in the Western World. NPS photo.

Coral reefs and desert islands, legends of pirates and sunken gold, an old military fort that housed a famous prisoner, and world-class bird watching—you'll find them all at this park.

One of the most remote parks in the Lower 48 offers a combination of scenery—especially underwater—and history. It's located closer to Cuba than to the U.S. mainland, you can't get there by car, and don't worry about being interrupted by cell phone calls—you won't find any "bars" at all on your phone if you come for a visit.

Dry Tortugas National Park was originally established as Fort Jefferson National Monument on January 4, 1935, and renamed and redesignated on October 26, 1992. Located about 70 miles west of Key West, Florida, the park's 64,700 acres includes a cluster of seven islands, composed of coral reefs and sand, and surrounding shoals and waters.

The islands were first discovered in 1513 by the Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon, who named them for the abundant sea turtles, or "Tortugas." The word “dry” was later added to the name to warn mariners of the lack of fresh water on these small coral islands. Large sea turtles still lumber onto the park’s protected beaches each summer to bury their clutches of eggs.

The Dry Tortugas provide one of the most strategic deepwater anchorages in North America, and the islands' location along one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes made them a critical military asset in the 19th century. Construction on Fort Jefferson began in 1846 and continued for thirty years. The result was the largest all-masonry fortification in the Western world—sixteen million bricks were used in its construction.

Fort Jefferson was never attacked, never fully armed—and never fully completed. Changes in military technology rendered masonry forts obsolete by 1862. After the Civil War the fort was used as a federal prison. Among the prisoners held there were several of the "Lincoln Conspirators," including Dr. Samuel A. Mudd, the physician who set the broken leg of President Abraham Lincoln's assassin, John Wilkes Booth.

Visitors can take a tour of the fort, and the moat wall offers an easy hike of just over half a mile around the fort. Walking the moat wall provides an opportunity to view coral, fish, and other marine life in the adjacent water.

There's plenty more to see and do outside the fort, because the area's coral reefs are among the largest in the world outside of Australia and Belize.

Underwater creatures whirl in a kaleidoscope of bright, gaudy colors. Here creatures like the queen conch, the aptly–named brain coral, and endangered sea turtle coexist, interconnected in their plight to survive. Coral formations shelter dozens of colorful fish just a short swim from Dry Tortugas beaches.

The park's seven tiny islands are a vital layover for migrating birds traveling between South America and the U.S. and Canada, and nearly 300 species have been observed here. Spring is the optimal time for bird-watchers, whose "finds" can range from tiny ruby-throated hummingbirds and tropical species to the frigatebird, which has a seven–foot wingspan. Bush Key, adjacent to Fort Jefferson, is the only regular nesting site in the U.S. for the sooty tern.

The area has a subtropical climate with essentially two seasons: The winter season (December-March), which can be windy with rough seas, and the tropical storm season (June-November) during which Dry Tortugas experiences both hot, humid weather and calm seas or severe weather events.

Best time to visit? According to the park staff, "April and May are often idyllic." The weather can undergo major changes in a surprisingly short time, so no matter when you plan to come, always get a current weather forecast before heading out to the park.

If you want to stay overnight, your choices are the park's small, primitive campground or a night aboard your private or chartered boat. For either option, be sure the check the camping information on the park's website for important details.

A night on the islands can be a memorable experience, but this is not the spot for a visit without proper preparation. A trip down to the local store for something you forgot to pack is not an option here, and campers must bring all supplies, including fresh water, fuel, ice, and food. A park publication notes that

Visiting such an isolated place means that you need to be prepared, not only for rough seas, but for primitive conditions. Cisterns collect rainwater, and waste must be hauled away by boat. There are no public phones, restrooms or snack bars. (Visitors must use restrooms on the commercial ferry boats.) Make sure to bring anything that you may need, such as protective clothing, sunscreen, or medication (especially for motion sickness).

The park website has information about transportation options, and a number of useful brochures for free download.

Dry Tortugas is a fascinating spot for a visit, and about 70,000 people a year make the trip. You can leave your cell phone behind, but don't forget the water!


What makes this a "desert" island? Is there a lack of rain? Do you mean "deserted"?

Precipitation isn't the issue. They're the Dry Tortugas because there aren't any fresh water sources on the islands. You have to capture and store rainwater artificially (in cisterns, traditionally) or ship fresh water in from the mainland.

We went out there for a day trip last year at the end of December. I really wish we'd opted to camp for a few days. It's really an amazing place. We'll be back to camp this year, hopefully. Even though it is so small, we didn't get to spend near enough time there in a day.

Todd -

Bob's reply to your question about my "desert island" comment is correct... at least as I chose to use the term. The Dry Tortugas' location is a classic example of "water, water everywhere..." since fresh water is unavailable on the islands, except for rainwater collected as it falls. Perhaps that's not a bad thing, since it helped limit development - and long-term human populations on these fragile ecosystems.

One of Nevada Barr's novels, Flashback, is set at Dry Tortugas NP. Most NPS employees whom I know who worked at the park always felt there was something strange about the Fort. I visited the park at least 4 times a year when I was stationed at Everglades. Besides being a marvelous combination on natural and cultural resources, it is a spooky place. I was reminded of that when I read Flashback. It is also one of the great diving and snorkeling sites in the System.

Rick Smith

But going back to the original question, a "dry island' is one without a source of fresh water, and a "desert island" would be one without rainfall, I imagine. Thus, the right term would seem to be "deserted island!"

Well, we can have a bit of literary fun with the terms "desert" and "deserted" as they apply to this story.

In the context of the story and the absence of a source of fresh water, "desert" was the intended word.

However, a case could be made for either, since the majority of the islands in the park are uninhabited. According to several sources, when the term "desert" is used as a noun, it often refers to a warm and arid land that usually receives less than 10 inches of sporadic rainfall per year; when used as an adjective, it can refer to "an isolated tropical island with few or no inhabitants," "a desolate or forbidding area," and so on.

As noted by other comments, I'd rate this park as a fascinating spot, but the nature of the terrain does have some "forbidding" aspects.

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