Camping at Fort Jefferson in Dry Tortugas National Park is the stuff dreams are made of. Sun, sky, sand, shallow seas and a Civil War era fortress, to boot!
To call camping at Fort Jefferson in Dry Tortugas National Park an adventure would be an understatement. Unless we get lucky again, it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and looking back, it ranks among the most rare and memorable of our travel destinations. Our overnight camping trip at Fort Jefferson was part of a loop road trip from our home in Central Florida to Key West by way of three other South Florida National Parks: Everglades, Big Cypress, and Biscayne. Yes, that’s four National Parks in South Florida alone! Although we did not get to spend as much time in each of them as we would have liked, we enjoyed the time we had. If you have never visited the southernmost reaches of the Sunshine State, I highly recommend it.
Table of Contents
- 1 Fort Jefferson & Dry Tortugas National Park
Fort Jefferson & Dry Tortugas National Park
Boarding dock of the Yankee Freedom.
Dry Tortugas National Park encompasses a chain of seven small islands called keys, located 70 miles west of Key West. Fort Jefferson is situated on Garden Key, the second largest of the seven keys. Getting there takes a bit of planning because the only way to reach the Dry Tortugas is by air or sea. We chose to take the Yankee Freedom catamaran, the authorized concessioner of the the National Park Service. This ferry shuttles visitors to and from the fort in one round trip every day. Day visitors get to spend four hours exploring the fort and then return to Key West the same day. Campers can extend their visit up to three nights.
Our first glimpse of Fort Jefferson on the horizon.
Docking at Garden Key.
The Yankee Freedom II.
Ready to explore the fort, National Park passports in hand.
The bridge across the moat and entrance to the fort.
The moat bridge from inside the fort.
A Bit of History
Construction of Fort Jefferson began in 1846 as a defense of America’s Gulf Coast and to combat piracy in the shipping lanes of the Caribbean, but the fortress was still incomplete when the Civil War broke out in 1860. Although the fortress was never finished, it remains the largest masonry structure in the Western Hemisphere. An even greater irony is that this 11-acre structure rests on a 16-acre coral key, leaving very little surplus land. During the Civil War, Fort Jefferson served as a prison to both military and civilian convicts. It’s most famous civilian prisoner was Dr. Samuel Mudd who set John Wilkes Booth’s broken leg early in the morning following President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. Dr. Mudd, along with three other convicted conspirators, were sent to Fort Jefferson in July of 1865. All were ultimately pardoned by President Andrew Johnson and released in 1869, except for one who had died during the fort’s yellow fever epidemic.
Photo Credit: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory
Dr. Samuel Mudd
Entrance to Dr. Mudd’s cell. The cell was too dark for an inside shot.
A dire warning.
Due to changes in military usefulness and unjustified maintenance costs, the unfinished fort never served its intended purpose. In 1935, President Roosevelt gave the fort a National Monument designation, and in 1992 Fort Jefferson and the Dry Tortugas officially became a National Park.
A Photo Tour of Fort Jefferson
Ground level archways.
View of the moat from ground level shows evidence of restoration.
The moat bridge from a ground level casement.
Inside the fort at ground level.
The harbor light.
The moat at ground level.
Spot any crocodiles?
While we were touring the fort, someone mentioned that they had heard there was a saltwater crocodile living in the fort moat. When we asked a park ranger about it, he was hesitant to volunteer any information. We searched the waters all around the fort, but didn’t find anything. While writing this article, I researched the hearsay and discovered that the rumor was true. So, the old fairy tales about the crocodiles in castle moats, it seems, are not so far-fetched after all. You can read more about the Fort Jefferson American crocodile(s) on the official Dry Tortugas National Park Service site here.
A powder magazine inside the fort.
Unrepaired exterior fort damage.
Fort damage, strangely beautiful somehow.
Fort Jefferson has suffered damage from both hurricanes and the ravages of time. Much of the crumbling brick is due to oxidation and expansion of the the iron Totten shutters. Fortunately, preservation and stabilization efforts are ongoing at Fort Jefferson, and you can read more about them here.
The fort walls are filled with deposits of coral and sand.
So proud to be here!
View of the parade grounds from the middle level.
Middle level archways.
The moat from a middle level corner casement.
How many shades of blue and green can you find?
The moat from the upper level.
Bush Key, depending on tides and seasons, is often connected to Garden Key.
Bush Key is the spring and summer nesting ground for 80,000 sooty terns, making the small island off limits to visitors. You may not be able to see sooty terns up close on your visit, but you will definitely hear their calls 24-hours a day. In fact, on site decibel meter readings exceed OSHA noise standards. Sooty terns do not require much sleep, and their light, aerodynamic bodies expend little energy when airborne. For this reason, young sooty terns will remain aloft four to five years off the coast of West Africa before they land to breed and nest for the first time.
The moat bridge from the upper level.
Great view of the parade grounds and middle level casements from the upper level.
Walkers on the moat illustrate the immensity of the edifice that is Fort Jefferson.
Camping at Fort Jefferson is primitive camping, meaning no electricity and no plumbing. Whatever camping supplies you need, you have to take, including water. These “dry” islands have no source of fresh running water, and there are no food or camping concessions at the fort. Several pit toilets are available, however. If you have ever visited remote National Parks, you will already be familiar with their inimitable fragrance. We advise taking along a small candle. The kind that comes in a glass jar with a lid works best for travel. It will help with the whole pit toilet experience.
Jerry and the fragrant pit toilets.
Packing for our road trip to Key West and camping trip at Fort Jefferson required more detailed planning than usual, but it was so worth it! I forget how many gallons of water we carried along with our coolers, tent, and camping supplies, but I do recall we had leftover water to share with new campers the following day. We even had enough water for the makeshift shower we made by punching holes in the lid of a gallon jug. If you plan on SCUBA diving or snorkeling, you will definitely want to rinse off the salt water residue later on. The Yankee Freedom has a great camping checklist so you will not forget anything you might need, and the National Park Service has a camping brochure to help you plan your stay.
NPS Map of Fort Jefferson and Garden Key
Credit: National Park Service
Insider Secret: There are eight first come-first served campsites with picnic tables and charcoal grills. A sandy overflow area is available should there be additional campers or large groups. I wanted to be sure we got the best site, so I was chomping at the bit to scout the area and claim our site while the park ranger was conducting the campers orientation. I left Jerry with the camping stuff and ran off like a headless rooster as soon as we were released. My enthusiasm paid off! The best camp site has a huge tree with large branches that reach to the ground and encompass the area to create a private little cove. With shade at a premium on the island, we felt like we hit the jackpot. This is also the camp site located closest to the fort. When I arrived at the site, campers from the previous night were packing up, and they allowed us to drop off our supplies and claim the site for the night. We repaid the favor to incoming campers the following morning.
Oh yeah, the camp site is number . . . (drumroll) . . . 6!
A National Park Pilgrimage
For us, the journey to Fort Jefferson was not all history and recreation. It was also the pursuit of a holy grail—a rare, if you will, National Parks Passport stamp. Although the passport cancellation is free, it is the “getting there” that makes the stamp a coveted prize for NP Passporters like me. I know it’s a sickness, but if I am completely honest, and I am, “the stamp” for me was a strong motivation behind this trip getting on our travel calendar. Other than perhaps National Parks in Puerto Rico, Guam, and Hawaii, the value of a cancellation from Fort Jefferson increases simply because you cannot get there by car.
Our Holy Grail.
We acquired three passport stamps at Dry Tortugas National Park. The first was the standard dated stamp. The second stamp was the National Park 25th Anniversary stamp, which we were lucky to get because it was supposed to be retired after 2011. The third cancellation was the dated Underground Railroad Freedom Network stamp, one of a series of special stamps that can be acquired at National Parks across the nation that have historical connections to the Underground Railroad. You can read about a slave escape from Fort Jefferson that links it to the network here.
If you have a National Parks Passport, there is no need for further explanation. If you love visiting our National Parks and do not have one, you should get one. In spite of its inherently addictive quality, the National Parks Passport is the best way to document your visits to these uniquely American treasures.
Beach Morning Glory
Fort Jefferson & Dry Tortugas NP Video Gallery
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