Ever wanted a fort all to yourself? An island? How about both? Camping at Fort Jefferson on Garden Key in Dry Tortugas National Park is about as close as you’re going to get.
On a warm fall weekend, about a dozen campers disembarked from the Yankee Freedom III and laid claim to their choice of the eight regular campsites tucked among some impressively gnarled buttonwoods.
The buttonwoods are all that separate the campsite from the south beach snorkeling spot favored by many of the day-trippers to this island 70 miles from Key West.
Setting up a tent on the sandy soil in the shadow of a massive 19th century brick fortress makes for a primitive camping experience unlike that of any other National Park.
A common day-tripper’s lament is that there’s so much to explore and only four hours in which to do it. For campers, who can stay from one to three nights, those time constraints melt away.
All those times you’ve yearned to just sit on the bench by the fountain and watch the warblers flit from branch to watering hole and back again? This is your chance.
Always dreamed about snorkeling your way around the fort? (Or, more accurately, the two-thirds distance you’re allowed to cover.) Why not? You have all the time in the world.
In the early afternoon, when the large catamaran pulls away with its up to 150 passengers, you’ll still have hours of daylight left to watch the magnificent frigate birds catching thermals above the fort or wheeling above their nesting locale on nearby Long Key, which is off-limits to people.
If you missed the morning tour of the fort’s grounds with the Yankee Freedom’s knowledgeable guide, you can pick up the self-guided tour from the fort’s small gift shop and take another stroll around the interior of the six-sided, two-story fort – one of the nation’s largest.
As the wind rustles through the open casemates and the trees that now pepper the grass-covered parade ground, try to imagine life 150 years ago, when up to 2,000 wool-clad soldiers shared the place. It was not, as one of the fort’s many interpretive signs points out, “a happy place”.
Look for the cell that held the isolated outpost’s most infamous resident, Dr. Samuel A. Mudd, who set the broken leg of Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth. While confined at the fort-turned-prison, Mudd distinguished himself by assisting during a deadly outbreak of yellow fever, and he received a pardon.
By the time the day’s last seaplane takes off, you can be fins up and face down in salt water, marveling at the prolific sea life thriving on and around the ruins of the coaling docks.
Campers arrive and depart via high-speed catamaran Yankee Freedom III. Yankee Freedom’s advertised rate for campers is $190 per adult, which includes a $5 National Park entrance fee. Campers pay an additional $3 per night.
Construction on Fort Jefferson began in 1846 and continued for more than three decades. Work eventually stopped after advances in weaponry made it obsolete as military fortification. Then, as now, it was important as a shallow water anchorage, serving as the gateway to the Gulf of Mexico. At night, mast and cabin lights from sailboats and fishing vessels dot the horizon.
While the fort is closed from sunset to sunrise, campers are free to wander the rest of the grounds after hours. A moonlit walk along the moat wall is a particularly nice way to end the evening. The star-filled night sky above the Dry Tortugas is absolutely breathtaking. And there’s nothing like being lulled to sleep by the sound of lapping waves just yards from your tent.