Dry Tortugas is a chain of small islands about 113 kilometers (70 miles) west of Key West, Florida, in the Gulf of Mexico. To get there, national parks traveler Mikah Meyer took a sea plane from the southernmost city in the continental United States.
Dry Tortugas National Park
Part of the National Park Service, the 259 square-kilometer (100 square-mile) park is mostly open water with seven small islands, home to beautiful coral reefs, a vast assortment of bird and marine life, and a magnificent 19th-century fort.
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Mikah, who’s on a mission to visit all of the more than 400 NPS sites, says the journey to the remote islands was as much fun as his destination.
“It was really cool as we took off from Key West, first to be able to see the city of Key West … then to see all these really interesting different shades of blue.”
Flying over the shallow waters, Mikah also had an opportunity to spot a variety of wildlife.
“Our pilot told us in a lot of places it’s just 4 to 6 feet (1 to 2 meters), and so this makes it really great as you’re flying over because I saw sea turtles, I saw the shadow of a giant shark, and sometimes you can see dolphins.”
Dry Tortugas derives its name from the Spanish word for turtles, which the park is famous for. Hundreds of the endangered reptiles annually nest in the area. Its underwater treasures also include beautiful coral reefs and an abundance of marine life.
Another popular feature of the islands is Fort Jefferson, a massive but unfinished coastal fortress built in 1847. Made with millions of bricks, it’s one of the most ambitious and extensive fortifications constructed in the United States. “It’s massive in size,” Mikah said. “Way bigger than most of the others I’d been to.”
The fort was never completed because during the 30 years it was under construction, advancements in rifled artillery developed and used during the Civil War meant that the unreinforced masonry walls wouldn’t stand up to a prolonged bombardment.
But even though it was never attacked, Fort Jefferson fulfilled its intended role: to protect the peace and prosperity of a young nation, through deterrence.
It was used as a military prison during the Civil War, mainly for Union deserters. And the conspirators who were involved in President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination were also held there.
Its most famous prisoner was Dr. Samuel Mudd, the physician who set the broken leg of John Wilkes Booth, Lincoln’s assassin. Mikah relived a little history by walking into a space that was once the physician’s jail cell.
Mikah says the tour guide told him Mudd tried to escape once. “They made the prisoners do manual labor and he tried to sneak out on a boat.” But the prison environment was similar to the former Alcatraz prison off San Francisco, California, he explained, which is also surrounded by water. “Can you imagine being a prisoner and you’re 70 miles away across shark-infested waters from the closest town?”
Mikah said he felt lucky to be able to visit a remote area of the U.S. rich with history, and man-made as well as natural treasures.
“It’s another example of how the park service has multiple island locations that skirt the continent that you can really experience a wide array of sights when you go to the national parks.”
Mikah invites you to follow him on his website, Facebook and Instagram.
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