Thursday, March 13, 2014

Dry Torgugas/Fort Jefferson

My husband's stepfather Ed has a National Park passport book. If you've never seen one, it's like a passport, but instead of countries, you get a date and time cancellation stamp for visiting National Parks. (And a cool optional color stamp you can purchase separately) Ed takes his passport book very seriously. I've watched him labor over maps, planning trips for he and his patient wife Geneva, that ensured the highest ratio of National Parks to miles driven. He once told me, there were two parks he'd probably never get to. One was a remote spot in Alaska and the other was the Dry Tortugas. The very same Dry Tortugas that are a scant 70 miles, as the crow flies, from Key West. Guess who's coming to visit?

It's windy at the front of the ferry
There are two ways to get to the Dry Tortugas. A Seaplane, will run you $295 per adult for a half day rate and $515 for the full day rate. Their website boasts views of 2 shipwrecks and a wide variety of sea creatures; sharks, dolphins, turtles, and more.  The big plus is that if you take the first plane in the morning or the last plane in the afternoon, you'll have the island pretty much to yourself because it takes the ferry 2 hours each way. It will either be headed to the Tortugas or back to Key West.

The other way to get to the Dry Tortugas is by ferry. Yankee Freedom offers a once a day round trip leaving at 8am and returning at 5. (check-in is at 7am) It's $170 per adult and $125 for children. They offer student and active military rates as well. Tours are limited to 150 passengers, so plan on making a reservation.  The boat is pretty big. There's plenty of padded seating inside the main cabin or out on the decks. If you're adventuresome, head to the front of the boat and practice your, I'm king of the World impersonation as the catamaran speeds along at 30 mph. I spotted a sea turtle on a trip last July, so spent a little time watching the water. Breakfast and lunch are included, so no need to bring food. The menu is basic and family friendly.

Bring sea sickness pills. The day we went, the waters were very rough and it made the 2 hour trip feel like an eternity. If you are in town for several days, and it looks like bad weather on your chosen day, you can always try rescheduling. Mark's brother and his wife came down over the 4th of July weekend and we were able to get next day reservations. In cases of extreme weather, the ferry will cancel that day's trip.

Once the boat arrives at the Dry Tortugas, you pick up your complimentary snorkeling equipment.  If you want to swim with the fishes, head up the path towards the fort, and follow the brick pathway out to the front. (I'm standing on the path in the photo. Please excuse my horrible posture) The waters in front of the fort are packed with thick schools of reef fish along with a few 50 pound Tarpon who wind their way through the fish and snorkelers. I am extremely claustrophobic. The idea of being in the middle of all of those fish made the back of my knees go numb. Instead, I chose to stroll along the brick walkway and chat with Bob and Sophie, who were bravely snorkeling.

You could easily spend the whole afternoon in the water or playing on the white sand beach. Don't! Give yourself some time to explore Fort Jefferson. This is one of the largest coastal forts every built. There are guides and pamphlets for self guided tours.

If you forgot to buy your National Parks Passport Book before you left, don't fret, you can buy one at the visitor's center. Don't forget to time stamp your visit. There's also a special stamp for those who make the trek up inside the lighthouse.

When Ed and Geneva visit, I'm looking forward to hearing the guided tour. There's only so much info you can gleam from a pamphlet. I will also be getting another time stamp. I was in a bit of a hurry last time and I used the lighthouse stamp, not the time stamp. This time, I'll be more careful.

The Dry Tortugas is the first stamp in my National Parks Passport book. I'm not sure I'll ever become as intense about it as Ed, but in case I do, I have one of the hard to reach spots already crossed off the list.  58 parks to go.

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