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Florida's Pristine Parks: Dry Tortugas National Park

Make Dry Tortugas National Park your launching pad for expanded explorations into Florida’s wild spaces.

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A young visitor walks along the moat wall at the 19th-century Fort Jefferson.

Remote Dry Tortugas National Park is a seven-key archipelago in the Gulf of Mexico. Located closer to Cuba than to the mainland United States, the hundred-square-mile bird and marine sanctuary is home to Fort Jefferson, a hexagonal fort built in the 19th century (yet never completed or fully armed). The brick-and-masonry fort occupies one of the few dry spots in this mainly submerged park. Although Dry Tortugas is one of the most isolated sites in the national park system, a high-speed ferry and a seaplane charter service make this a popular day-trip destination from Key West (about 70 nautical miles to the east). Keep in mind that this is a primitive island park. Bring any supplies you’ll need for a beach day (including food, water, and ice), and carry out all trash and garbage. Inside Tip: Plan ahead to camp overnight on Garden Key. A tent is required, and individual sites are on a first-come, first-served basis. Make camper reservations when purchasing ferry tickets (limited to ten campers per ferry per day) to ensure there will be room for you and your gear.

When to Go: The park is open year-round, and the ferry schedule (listing an approximate arrival time of 10:15 a.m. and departure time of 3 p.m.) allows for about a four-and-a-half-hour visit. Plan an April or May trip to witness the spring bird migration (over 200 species may be sighted) or May or June to see the greatest concentration of the park’s namesake tortugas (sea turtles). Winter is warm (temperatures in the 80s), yet it can be windy, with rough seas. The summer months are usually calm and beautiful, with more than a hundred feet of visibility in the water, but there is always a possibility of a tropical storm during hurricane season.

Must Dos: Take the ferry from Key West to Garden Key (about two hours and 15 minutes one-way), and watch for dolphins and pelagic seabirds along the way. Tour Fort Jefferson, and walk along the moat wall. Snorkel (instruction and gear are included with ferry tickets) around the wall to see tropical reef fish, coral heads, and other colorful marine life. Explore areas beyond Garden Key (such as the popular Windjammer wreck site on Loggerhead Reef) by booking a private charter or tour with an authorized commercial operator. Inside Tip: A land bridge intermittently connects Garden Key to neighboring Bush Key. You can walk from one key to the other if Bush Key is open to visitors (closed around February to mid-September to protect nesting sooty terns and brown noddies).

Fun Fact: When Spanish explorer Ponce de León found these low-lying islands in 1513, he christened them Las Tortugas (The Turtles) due to the profusion of sea turtles. Since there was no freshwater source on the islands, it wasn’t long before the “Las” was replaced by “Dry.”

Nearby Nature

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The endangered key deer roams freely at the National Key Deer Refuge on Big Pine Key.

Photograph by Tom Salyer, Alamy

National Key Deer Refuge

The National Key Deer Refuge on Big Pine Key protects the endangered key deer, the smallest subspecies of white-tailed deer. Roughly the size of a golden retriever, this diminutive deer is found only in the Lower Florida Keys, where they roam freely and are commonly seen along Big Pine Key main roads. Stay alert and drive slowly. Before entering the refuge, stop at the National Wildlife Refuges of the Florida Keys Visitor Center for maps, hiking trail tips, and information on special events such as free guided walks and bike rides (open weekdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and weekends from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.). The center also houses the FAVOR (Friends and Volunteers of Refuges: Florida Keys) Key Deer Bookstore. All proceeds support FAVOR efforts to help all four Keys’ wildlife refuges (Key Deer, Crocodile Lake, Key West, and Great White Heron). Inside Tip: Early morning and around sunset are prime times to see wildlife. And while key deer may look like big dogs, they are wild animals. It’s illegal to feed or touch them.

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The beaches at Florida's southernmost state park, on Key West, are at a satisfying distance from urban life.

Photograph by Russel Kord, Corbis

Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park

Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park in Key West is Florida’s southernmost state park and one of the best places in the Keys to snorkel from the shoreline. The combination of clear water and abundant marine life (including parrot fish, lobster, and colorful corals) make it possible for even first-time snorkelers to have an offshore reef experience close to shore. Snorkel in the morning, and take the ranger-guided tour of the park’s namesake fort at noon. At day’s end, stake out a spot at the Point on the west side of the park, where the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico converge. This is one of the best places to witness one of Key West’s signature sunsets. It’s also one of four sites in the park that can be reserved for weddings. Inside Tip: The pebbly beach is a combination of coral rock and sand. Wear water shoes to protect your feet.

Bahia Honda State Park

Bahia Honda State Park, located 12 miles south of Marathon, is another top snorkeling spot for beginners. Rental gear is available, and you could see conch, corals, spiny lobster, and colorful tropical fish near shore in only four to six feet of water. The main attraction here, though, is the offshore reef snorkeling in the Looe Key Sanctuary Preservation Area. Make advance reservations (minimum 15 passengers) for the morning or afternoon snorkeling trip from Bahia Honda to the sanctuary. Varying water depths make it possible for snorkelers of all experience levels to see the pristine reef’s diverse marine life, including nearly 50 species of coral and over 150 species of fish. Inside Tip: The shallow waters surrounding Bahia Honda are well suited for ocean kayaking. Rent a single or double sit-up-on kayak, and look for Atlantic bottlenose dolphins while you paddle.

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