Dry Tortugas: Florida’s Toughest Tourist Attraction

For many families, a vacation in Florida means some simple things. Great golf courses, theme parks for the kids (and adults), long walks on the beach, and sunny days all year round. But for the more adventurous traveler, there are a variety of attractions in the Sunshine state to suite your fancy. Florida’s proximity to the Caribbean means that it is home to some truly wonderful and strange places – many of these natural are designated landmarks or state parks. Some are easy to see; others, like the Dry Tortugas, pose a significant and worthy challenge.

The Dry Tortugas are a few small, irregular islets that lie about 67 miles away from Key West. While officially an unincorporated area of Monroe County, these seven small sand bars cover only about 143 acres combined. The number of islands has fluctuated over the past few centuries, and even the size of the area is never consistent. The keys jut out sharply from fairly deep water, and are constantly re-shaped by wind and floods; several islets have disappeared and reappeared over the past 200 years.

The Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon who discovered Florida also discovered these islands. He named them Las Tortugas after the sea turtles he discovered on their shores, and added the word ‘dry’ to indicate the lack of availability of fresh water anywhere on the islands. This drought has held true to this day, and has been a major impediment to any type of permanent settlement.

The Dry Tortugas are comprised of seven islands. The site of the key’s lighthouse is at Loggerhead Key and at its highest elevation it is only 10 feet above sea level. Bush Key is currently the home of a rookery for tern birds; from Spring through to Fall the birds build their nests there. Garden Key is sometimes connected to Bush Key by a sand bar, and contains the inactive (and incomplete) Fort Jefferson–a gigantic military base that was built before the Civil War. Hospital Key is so named because it used to host a hospital for the inmates of the Fort; and Long Key, East Key, and Middle Key are all quite small and will sometimes disappear beneath the waves for several weeks as the seasons change.

The Dry Tortugas were designated as a National Park in 1992, though Fort Jefferson was declared a National Monument in 1935 by President Franklin Roosevelt. The park is famous for the wealth of observable sea life, shipwrecks, and coral reefs–never mind the enormous Fort Jefferson, which is made out of 16 million bricks. It’s also a popular place for birdwatchers, listing an impressive 299 species of official birds that can be seen in the area. Despite the fact that the Dry Tortugas are only reachable by ferry or seaplane, they’re still visited by 80,000 people each year. They can saltwater fish, scuba dive, snorkel and camp. For those looking for an adventurous alternative to Seaworld and the Magic Kingdom, these scraps of sand and rock are the perfect destination.

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