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Get Away to an Ocean-Island National Park in Florida
By Janice McSherry
If you have already visited Florida theme parks and other standard attractions, you might want to consider an outdoor adventure to a location that is not usually reached by hordes of tourists.
One such location is the Dry Tortugas National Park, located 70 miles west of Key West. It is a cluster of seven islands, coral reefs, shoals and sandy beaches. It is home to a wide variety of birds and marine creatures, and is an ideal place for outdoor activities including camping, snorkeling, scuba diving, swimming, salt-water fishing, picnicking, bird and wildlife watching.
The area was named after the sea turtles (tortugas) that were abundant in this area and served as a source of meat for the ships of Ponce DeLeon, who discovered this site, and other Spanish explorers.
In the mid 19th Century the United States built Fort Jefferson on one of the islands in order to protect the then-strategic area. As military technology changed the fort, which was never fully completed, became obsolete. However, the pristine location with rich sea-life, birds and reefs was valued as a recreation area and was set aside as a national monument in 1935 and later designated a national park in 1992.
This area is now seen as an important ecological site. The park’s coral and sea grass communities are particularly important and some birds such as the Sooty Tern find their only regular nesting site in the United States on Bush Key, adjacent to Fort Jefferson. The large sea turtles, after which the park is named, still lumber onto the park’s beaches to lay and bury their eggs each summer.
Let’s take a look at how you can enjoy this park.
If you would like to do some camping there is a 10-site, primitive campground on Garden Key, the same island as Fort Jefferson. The campground is a short walk from the public dock. There are eight individual sites, each accommodating up to 3 2-person tents (total of 6 people), and are available on a first-come, first-served basis. The camping fee is $3.00 a night per person.
Participating in a guided tour is another way to see the park. The ferry and sea-plane concessions that provide access to the park include a daily walking tour of Fort Jefferson in their package. There are other designated tour operators who provide trips for fishing, diving, snorkeling, and wildlife viewing. You can get a list of these tour operators at the National Park Service website.
The park is open year round with the following provisos given by the National Park Service: Ft. Jefferson on Garden Key is open year-round during daylight hours, Loggerhead is open year-round during daylight hours, Bush Key is currently closed year-round, Hospital Key, and Long Key are closed year round and visitors should remain 100 feet offshore of all closed islands. Middle and East Keys are closed April 1 - October 15 for turtle nesting.
There are no services on Garden Key where Fort Jefferson is located so visitors must plan to bring everything they need for the trip with them and when they leave take it all back to the mainland.
The entrance fee for the park is $5.00 for visitors 17 and older. This fee covers entrance to the park for 7 days.
Because of its island location the park is accessible only by boat and seaplane. Most visitors come via commercial ferry and sea-plane services providing daily departures from Key West. Private boats are welcome but they must be fully self-sufficient.Janice McSherry writes frequently on Orlando tourism. She is the proprietor of Florida Vacation Villas. While visiting Orlando you can get excellent deals on Orlando Vacation Homes and Villa Rentals. This article may be republished on other websites provided that this paragraph is published along with the article