When I started planning my trip to Dry Tortugas National Park, I was excited that I might be able to bag another national park high point.
Five years ago, as I was traveling around the country with my job as a truck driver, I became interested in visiting high points. On my day off I’d get a rental car, and following all the research I’d done, drive to wherever the highest elevation in that particular state happen to be. Some state highpoints you could drive right up to and with a short walk you were there: Delaware, North Carolina, Florida, and Tennessee come to mind. Others – such as New York, Maine, South Dakota, and Colorado – took quite a bit more hiking in order to reach the summit.
After a couple years, it became more difficult to reach some of the remote state high points. Since I was still traveling and visiting different units of the National Park Service, I started researching the high points of the 59 national parks. Some national park high points were also the high point of that particular state.
Living in Florida, I naturally wanted to visit the high points of our National Parks. Of the National Parks in Florida, Dry Tortugas is the toughest one to get to, as it lies almost 70 miles offshore of Key West. I was thrilled with the opportunity to not only visit another national park, but also to visit historic Fort Jefferson, where construction started on the fort in 1846. It was also thrilling to anticipate the 2-1/2 hour boat ride from Key West out to the island, and the logistics of planning to camp on the island with two friends for two nights. There are a very limited number of primitive campsites available, and the waiting list for them is several months long. So when I called to check on availability and found a site that would be open within two months, my excitement level was ratcheted up another notch.
When the day finally arrived, we were at the dock in Key West with our gear at 6:30 AM. The vast majority of people on board the 110′ Yankee Freedom III were going to visit the island for the day. While it was a very chilly, windy day with five to seven foot swells, I rode most of the 70 miles out on the bow of the boat. I had never been out in the open sea before and thought it was fantastic.
Once we arrived at the park, we docked on Garden Key. After we offloaded our backpacks, my friends and I set about looking for an open campsite. Finding a nice one nestled under some low growing trees, we set up our tents and then all three of us headed in different directions to scout the area. Researching the history was fascinating. Being here, exploring Fort Jefferson and the island itself, made all the planning and logistics worthwhile.
The boat carries 175 people out to the island every day. Folks enjoying walking through the historic fort or around the moat, walking along the sandy beach, snorkeling in the crystal-clear waters, or having a picnic in the shade of a couple of picturesque palm trees. There is plenty to do on a day trip out to Garden Key.
I enjoyed sitting on top of the fort, watching people board the boat at the end of the day. Then the boat would slowly pull away from the dock, disappearing on the horizon. This is the time when the quiet would take over. The only sounds were of the ocean breeze blowing through the palm trees and occasionally a few seagulls doing their thing.
Once the sun started to set to the west and day faded to twilight, the brightest of the stars began to make their appearance. Within a couple hours, the darkness of the night was illuminated with a dazzling array of tens of thousands of stars you could see with your naked eye. Even though I had been up since early that morning, I couldn’t help but stay up past midnight wandering around the island and gazing at the starry sky. At some point I strolled back to my tent, stretched out on my air mattress and sleeping bag, and drifted off to sleep. First light seemed to happen within the blink of an eye so I rose and set about making some coffee so I could sip on it as the sun made its appearance to the east. I repeated this wonderfully relaxing routine for two more days.
As for visiting the high point of Dry Tortugas National Park? As it turns out, the highest elevation for this national park is not located near Fort Jefferson on Garden Key. It’s on Loggerhead Key, three miles to the west, where the lighthouse constructed in 1858 still proudly stands. I’ve been looking into the logistics of how to get across this three mile section of open ocean to snag this high point. A return to Dry Tortugas is definitely in my future.