Our whole point in coming to the Keys was to take a day trip to Dry Tortugas National Park. Several years ago I’d read Flashback by Nevada Barr and it wall all about Dry Tortugas (Nevada Barr has written a series of books about a park ranger, Anna Pigeon, and each one is set in a different park. I’ve found that she mostly writes about the obscure parks that aren’t heavily visited!). I wanted to go and when I told Mom about it, she wanted to go too. Finding a time when we could go that wasn’t in the summer proved to be a challenge (no one in their right mind comes to the Keys in July), but then Christmas fell on a Wednesday and we were blessed with a 2 week winter break! We’d bought the tickets and made the camping reservation back in May and today was the day!
The Dry Tortugas is a small chain of islands about 70 south/west of Key West. Fort Jefferson was built on Garden Key just before the Civil War and the fort was used during the Civil War. Many of the Lincoln conspirators, including Dr. Mudd who treated John Wilkes Booth when he was fleeing Washington after assassinating Lincoln. One big downfall of Ft. Jefferson was that there was no fresh water on the island (this is why it’s call Dry Tortugas – no fresh water), they collected rainwater in cisterns, but that system had a lot of downfalls too!
In order to get to the Ferry Dock in time we had to leave our campground on Sugarloaf Key at 6:30 am! We arrived with plenty of time to find parking & get checked in for the boat, soon we were on the boat settling in for the 2 1/2 hour ride out to the islands!
It was cloudy and windy on the way over. We sat on the sun deck and it was nicer out there than in the cabin with the AC on! They served breakfast on the trip out and our tour guide gave us information about the islands and some of the islands we could see from the boat. About 1/2 way there it started to rain, but the shower didn’t last long and soon is was back to being cloudy.
Early in the trip I pulled out my book I’d brought to read – Carl Hiaasen’s latest, Bad Monkey. Several people around us commented on what a perfect choice that was for our trip and how they themselves love Carl Hiaasen’s books and like me, have read every one! The Carl Hiaasen discussion turned to Nevada Barr and soon we were discussing National Parks we’ve visited! Turns out on of the folks we were sitting by is a teacher. Ahhh..nerdy teachers on vacation, making new friends over books and national parks!
First view of the fort
We only had 4 hours at Ft. Jefferson and it seemed like there was a lot to do. We started with snorkeling. The boat provided all of our snorkel gear so we grabbed masks, fins, and snorkels and headed to the beach. Both Dad and I dressed for this by wearing our “quick dry” clothes so we could just get in the water, then get out and dry fast without having to change! The water was a bit chilly at first, but once you got used to it I thought it was very nice. I swam the wrong way and went around the fort (this is what I get for not listening when the told us on the boat where to go!) and got separated from Dad. When I finally doubled back and found him he was on his way back in from the reef and was cold & tired so was heading back to the beach. He pointed me in the right direction to see it for myself and I kept swimming! When I found the coral I was getting tired and there wasn’t a whole lot to see – some corals, some fish – the water was murky (it has been clear everywhere else) and ocean was rougher out there and I kept getting water in my snorkel so I decided it was time to go in.
After snorkeling/swimming we went back to the boat to get lunch – they set up a buffet with sandwiches, veggies, chips, fruit and cookies. We were able to fix a plate and take it to a picnic table on the dock. It was a good quick lunch so we could continue exploring the island.
We were lucky in that we were allowed to visit Bush Key. Bush Key is right next to Garden Key (where the fort is) and is connected by land bridge, only the land bridge just appeared last year! Prior to the land bridge showing up you would have had to kayak or swim the channel. Also, the island is closed to visitors most of the year because of nest turtles and birds. There was a 1 mile nature trail along the shore of the key and it was a nice walk, even if I was fighting the sand/shell fragments in my shoes. We could see another Key – I can’t remember the name of it, but it was closed because of nesting frigate birds.
I got back to the fort before Mom and Dad did so I walked around the fort a bit on the moat wall. You could go all the way around the fort on the moat wall, but that wasn’t going to be that interesting. When Mom and Dad came back we went into the Fort – back to the gift shop and then Dad and I explored the Fort. The fort was pretty cool! We walked around the top and checked out the rooms inside and walked over to Dr. Mudd’s cell.
By this time it was time to get back on the boat to go back to Key West. I went to change out of my soggy clothes – I had mostly dried but was still clammy, probably because of the humidity. My feet were not happy though – spending the day walking around with sand & shell fragments in my wet Tevas lead to some hotspots, no blisters, but not very comfortable. Mom had secured us seats on the sun deck facing the sunset for the ride back, and the sun actually came out! I slipped off my shoes to let them dry (the sun had come out for real!) and propped my bare feet up on my backpack and settled in to get lost in Carl Hiaasen’s crazy world of corruption, eco-terrorism and crazy hijinxs (Bad Monkey really is perfect for this trip – it’s set in the Keys! I didn’t realize that at first, I just decided to read it now because it was set in Florida and I hadn’t read it yet).
The first part of the trip back was rough – they’d told us it would only be rough going out, but they were wrong. It was kinda like riding a roller coaster – the boat would go up and then come crashing down (it was a catamaran so that might have impacted how it was going over the waves). I tried to get everyone around me to hold their hands up like on a roller coaster but no one was really interested. It made the trip back more fun!
We arrived back in Key West just in time to totally miss the only nice sunset of our visit!
Folks crammed into Mallory Square and surrounding piers to watch the sunset:
Sunset from our boat as we turned into the harbor (and away from the sun!)
Oh well, we had dinner on our mind! We’d decided we were going to eat at Blue Heaven, a restaurant that Mom had found and that our blog “friends” the Gadius’ had visited when they were here. It was 16 blocks (I think) from where we’d parking but parking is a challenge in Key West and we’d already paid for the day so we hoofed it. The restaurant was neat – they had a lovely outdoor patio with big lush trees, flowers, neat lighting and live entertainment. Unfortunately that area had a 30-45 minute wait. But they had immediate seating inside. We opted for inside. The atmosphere wasn’t quite the same, but the food was quite good! We even got a little live entertainment:
This guy was ride his tricked out bike up and down the street blaring music! We’d seen him a few blocks before the restaurant and he was playing "“Respect” by Aretha Franklin, by the time he made it back to Blue Heaven it was “Brick House”.
After dinner we walked back to the car via Duval Street, definitely an interesting way to spend the evening! We saw Darth Vader playing the light-up banjo! I wanted a picture but I didn’t have cash for a tip handy! I saw a sticker on a bike that said “Key West: Where the weird go pro.” Very accurate! Mom had forgotten to take a pill at the restaurant so needed some water. Dad and I again had to “take one for the team” and purchase dessert so we could get a cup of water! This time it was a slice of Key Line Pie! It was quite good!
Soon we were back at the KOA and headed to bed after a long, fun day!