NATIONAL PARKS: Dry Tortugas National Park

Story and photography by Jerry Ginsberg

Sunrise over Bush Key seen from Garden Key in Dry Tortugas National Park, FL.

Bush Key from Garden Key. Both—as well as Loggerhead Key—are part of Dry Tortugas National Park. © Jerry Ginsberg

Like many people, for a long time I thought that the tail end of the Florida Keys was the popular resort and tourist town of Key West.

Wrong! The long, curving archipelago that we call the Florida Keys stretches for another 70 miles or so to the southwest of Key West. Stuck way out in the Gulf of Mexico with no roads, no airport and no harbor, this surely seems like an unlikely place to put a national park. Yet, here are seven tiny islands barely protruding above the sea’s surface that feature both natural and historic treasures.

Dry Tortugas National Park was established in 1992, primarily to protect the habitat and breeding grounds of nearly 300 bird species. At 100 square miles, this is a small park, but just 40 acres—or (much) less than one tenth of one percent—is dry land. The underwater majority includes some of the most pristine coral reefs anywhere. The lack of freshwater makes these small islands “dry” and the many sea turtles found by Spanish explorers in the early sixteenth century translates to “tortugas.”

Aerial view of Ft. Jefferson and Garden Key in Dry Tortugas National Park, FL..Bush Key is on the left.

Aerial of Garden Key. © Jerry Ginsberg

By far the largest of the islands in this little archipelago is Garden Key, your base for any visit. Nineteenth-century Fort Jefferson sits on Garden Key, covering virtually the entire island. Quiet now, its massive cannons long gone, the giant structure stands as a mute witness to a bygone era. Even today, this immense fort remains the largest masonry structure in the entire Western Hemisphere. As you stroll the fort’s parade ground, look up to see the graceful frigate birds with their prominently forked tails floating overhead.

Dr. Samuel Mudd, who set the broken leg of John Wilkes Booth after he assassinated President Abraham Lincoln, was imprisoned here until he was pardoned for risking his life to treat soldiers and other prisoners during an outbreak of yellow fever.

In addition to exploring Fort Jefferson and Garden Key, bring a mask and snorkel and jump right in to see the coral. It’s safe; just don’t get too close to the barracudas.

Besides Garden Key, Bush and Loggerhead are key (ouch!) parts of the Dry Tortugas. Tiny Bush Key is closed to visitors for a few months each spring and summer in order to protect the nesting grounds and rookery of several varieties of terns. Loggerhead Key boasts a tall pre-Civil War lighthouse providing great visibility in the normally calm Gulf.

Ft. Jefferson on Garden Key in Dry Tortugas National Park, FL.

Ft. Jefferson on Garden Key. © Jerry Ginsberg

On to photography. Your best bet after arriving on Garden Key and setting up a minimalistic campsite is to simply walk the island and scout the details of Fort Jefferson inside and out. That way, you will be able to identify your favorite camera positions, allowing you to move very quickly during the first day’s late light and the next morning’s golden hours. Make sure to stroll the ramparts across the top of the fort’s walls.

A big bonus in South Florida in winter is the warm weather. It is the perfect escape from the bone-chilling cold of many northern states.

Getting to Dry Tortugas National Park will require some planning. First, you need to either fly or drive to Key West, Florida. There are just a few flights from Miami and Ft. Lauderdale airports. But the ride via the Overseas Highway from the southern end of Florida’s Turnpike is truly one of America’s great drives. If you can make the time, enjoy the ride.

Once in Key West, a prime tourist destination in itself, you will have three options to get to Dry Tortugas.

  • Certainly the easiest is taking the commercial tour boat. Since most folks use that as a day trip, it will get you there just in time for the worst possible light of the day, but in plenty of time to plan your late-day shooting. Camping under the stars is your best option. Pack your gear and make advance reservations through drytortugasinfo.com. Make sure to let both the reservation folks and those operating the boat know that you will be returning on a later day.
  • Option two is the daily seaplane service. The trip is faster, but you will not gain any useful light, and weight restrictions on your gear will be significantly tighter.
  • Your final choice is making the trip by privately owned boat. If you have a suitable craft or know someone who does, this option might be just the ticket. Although the park service does have a few restrictions on mooring locations, you will have the convenience of sleeping onboard.

Jerry Ginsberg is a widely published freelance photographer whose images have graced the pages of hundreds of books and magazines. He has photographed all 59 U.S. national parks as well as most of South America with medium-format cameras. Jerry has been a national park artist in residence at Petrified Forest National Park. More of his work can be seen at www.JerryGinsberg.com. Email him at jerry@jerryginsberg.com.