Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Civil War-era fort hike awaits at Dry Tortugas

Lighthouse of Fort Jefferson on Garden Key.
Photo courtesy of Dry Tortugas NPS.
Map of Dry Tortugas, courtesy of  Dry Tortugas NPS.

No formal trail
runs through
island ruins

Day hikers can explore a 19th century fort in the Gulf of Mexico at Dry Tortugas National Park.

Located about 70 miles from Key West in the Gulf of Mexico, the fort can be reached only via seaplane or boat. Despite that, 60,000 visitors a year make their way to the tropical island that also offers snorkeling, great beaches, and fantastic sunsets.

No formal hiking path exists in the national park. Still, a general walking route allows visitors to best see each of the Dry Tortugas’ highlights.

All boats dock and seaplanes land on Garden Key’s southeast side. From there, follow the pier into Fort Jefferson and the visitor center.

Inside the fort
Built with more than 16 million bricks, Fort Jefferson is the Western Hemisphere’s largest masonry structure. Six walls and towers with a moat make up the fort’s outer area.

The American Colonies used Garden Key as a naval base during the 1700s. In 1847, work on Fort Jefferson began but was only half completed when the Civil War broke out in 1861. During the war, it became a military prison. In 1874, with the introduction of coal-fueled ships, the fort was turned into a U.S. Navy coaling station and played an important role in the Spanish-American War.

From the visitor center, go left/southwest. This heads past the magazine, where munitions for the fort’s guns were kept, and the cistern, or water storage tank.

Turning right/north along the wall brings visitors to the ruins of the officers’ quarters. Continuing around is another magazine and then the ruins of the soldiers’ barracks. Next is the harbor light. That brings visitors full circle to the visitor center.

Heading back onto the pier, go down to the beach. On the left/southern side of the key is a picnic area, the south coaling dock ruins, and a swimming beach with a designated snorkeling area.

Going northeast and then north from the pier is more beach leading to the north coaling dock ruins. Along the way, Bush Key is visible to the east.

The moat walls make an excellent place to watch the gold sunset over the turquoise sea. You’ll also be able to revel in the stories of snorkelers who earlier in the day visited reefs or even nearby shipwrecks.

Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León partially named the collection of keys and islands that make up the Dry Tortugas. During his first visit in 1513, his crew caught 160 sea turtles there. “Tortugas” is Spanish for turtles. The appellation of “Dry” later was added because there is no surface fresh water on the keys or islands.

Learn more about national park day hiking trails in my Best Sights to See at America’s National Parks guidebook.