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One of the smallest national parks, and probably the hardest to get to, is Dry Tortugas, 70 miles west of Key West in the Gulf of Mexico, reachable only by boat or plane. Seven islands here make up the park, crowned by the venerable walls of Fort Jefferson which was considered obsolete in 1862, only 30 years after construction began. (Many of the construction workers were enslaved African-Americans.) The fort is the largest masonry structure in the western hemisphere, with over 16 million bricks. The harbor here was used, however, in the buildup to the Spanish-American War 36 years later, and the USS Maine stopped en route to its historic end in Havana Harbor, its destruction the main cause from which the war ensued. (Many victims of the sinking of the Maine are buried in Key West's cemetery.)

The fort became a remote prison after the Civil War, most famously for Dr. Samuel Mudd, who innocently set the broken leg of John Wilkes Booth following the latter's assassination of President Lincoln. He was held here from 1865 to 1869, when he was pardoned. The name of the islands comes from the Spanish word for turtles. Ponce de Leon stopped here in 1513 to get turtle meat for his crew, naming the place simply Las Tortugas. Later, disappointed mariners found there was no fresh water and added "dry." In 1935, President Roosevelt named the area a national monument and in 1992 it became a national park. It covers about 101 square miles, most of it water.

Highlights

The trip itself is exhilarating, especially on a sunny day (most of the time), and a tour of the fort is informative. Then come the activities, below, centering around water sports, camping and watching out for the plants and wildlife. Kids should ask for a Junior Ranger Handbook at the Visitor Center (also downloadable from the official website).

Activities

In addition to guided tours, there are opportunities for guided fishing trips, diving and/or snorkeling trips, guided wildlife viewing trips and sailing charters. Details available on the official website (see below). You can also take a self-guided tour of the fort. Be sure to inquire at the Visitors Center on Garden Key, at the Fort.

Snorkeling is especially fun, as there are many wrecks and patch reefs in relatively shallow water here. The Florida coral reef stretching from here to near Miami is the world's third largest, after the Great Barrier Reef of Australia and reefs in Belize. You may even see a turtle or too, the few descendants of a once huge population of them. Note: no scuba diving allowed here.

2008 News

In 2007, a Research Natural Area (RNA) was established here, adding more protection for the marine resources of the park. It's a 46 square-mile ecological preserve where you cannot anchor or take any fish. Also, parts of the Fort will not be open to the public due to temporary closures for stabilization of the walls this year. Completion of the restoration is targeted for 2010.

Fees and Hours

It will cost you $5 to enter the park, free for children under 17, the pass valid for 7 days. At the moment, Seaplanes of Key West, Sunny Days Catamarans and Yankee Freedom boats are collecting the fee from their passengers. Naturally, passes for the National Parks system, Golden Eagle, Golden Age and Golden Access passports are honored, too. You can camp out for $4 a night

Fort Jefferson on Garden Key is open during daylight hours all year, as are three other small islands. Two are closed all year, but Bush Key is open October through January only. The balance of the year it is closed to protect nesting Sooty and Noddy Terns.

Number of Visitors

There were 64,122 visitors in 2006, the last year for which I could find figures.

Transportation

It takes about 40 minutes for the seaplane to get to Fort Jefferson, and it takes the catamaran two hours, they say. There are two boat companies in Key West that run daily trips to Fort Jefferson, as well as one airplane outfit, Seaplanes of Key West, tel. 800/950-2FLY or 305/294-0709. www.seaplanesofkeywest.com. Plane fares $229 for morning or afternoon trips, $405 for full-day excursions, less for children. The planes carry either 5 or 9 passengers. Daily except December 25.

Two Key West boat companies are licensed to carry passengers to the park. They are: Sunny Days Catamaran, tel. 800/236-7939 or 305/282-6100, www.drytortugas.com and Yankee Freedom II, a large motor yacht, tel. 800/634-0939 or 305/294-7009, www.yankeefreedom.com. Average boat/catamaran costs $120 to $149 adults, $10 less for others (students, military, seniors, etc.), $90-109 children 4 to 16, Monroe, FL County residents (Yankee Freedom) $99. A $10 oil surcharge has been in effect since April 2008 on Yankee Freedom.

You have to bring everything you need, as there are no stores or restaurants at the fort or elsewhere in the park, though there is a small gift shop. If you use your own boat, you can anchor about one mile offshore at the Fort.

Contacts

The official website of Dry Tortugas National Park is www.nps.gov/drto, the telephone 305/242-7700.

A good commercial site is www.dry.tortugas.national-park.com.

Another good commercial site is www.fortjefferson.com.

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