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Dry Tortugas National Park is a national park in the USA about 110 kilometres west of Key West in the Gulf of Mexico. The park preserves Fort Jefferson and the seven Dry Tortugas islands, the westernmost and most isolated of the Florida Keys. The archipelago's coral reefs are the least disturbed of the Florida Keys reefs.
The Dry Tortugas are a small archipelago of coral islands representing the westernmost extent of the Florida Keys, though several reefs and submarine banks continue westward outside the park, beyond the Tortugas. The park area is more than 99% water. The seven major islands, all within the park, are, roughly from west to east, Loggerhead Key, Garden Key, Bush Key, Long Key, Hospital Key, Middle Key and East Key. The park is bordered on the east, south and west by the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, and on the northwest by the Tortugas Ecological Reserve. Total land area within the park is 104 acres (42 ha). The northern and western portions of the park, including the central island group, were designated a 120 km2 "research natural area" on January 19, 2007, in which no marine life may be taken, nor may vessels anchor. Vessels wishing to moor in the research natural area must use designated mooring buoys or docks. About 54% of the park remains open for fishing.
The park is in a tropical maritime climate, with rainy seasons coinciding with hurricane season from May to October, and a drier season from November through April. The area is heavily influenced by frequent hurricanes and tropical storms. Even with exposure to tropical systems the Tortugas are among the driest places in Florida, with an annual precipitation of about 1200 mm. There is little temperature variation, with high temperatures in summer around 32 °C and low temperatures in winter around 19 °C.
Dry Tortugas National Park has an official bird list of 299 species. Of these, only seven species frequently nest within the park: sooty tern, brown noddy, brown pelican, magnificent frigatebird, masked booby, roseate tern, and mourning dove. The park features the only nesting populations of sooty and noddy terns in the United States and the only nesting population of magnificent frigatebirds in the continental United States. Birdwatching activity peaks each spring (usually April) when dozens of migratory bird species can pass through the park in a single day. Many birds land inside the parade grounds of Fort Jefferson where they are often observed at close range. Several species of falcon as well as cattle egrets are often seen hunting songbirds. A small freshwater fountain beneath buttonwood trees represents the only freshwater source for many miles, and is a popular spot to watch migrant birds. Each year several bird guides offer tours of Dry Tortugas National Park during April and early May.
Fort Jefferson is a massive but unfinished coastal fortress. It is the largest masonry structure in the Americas, and is composed of over 16 million bricks. The construction of Fort Jefferson (named after the third President, Thomas Jefferson) was begun on Garden Key in 1846. It's definately one of the highlights of a visit to the islands. You can do a tour (included in daytrip) or just walk around yourself, or even better: both!
Garden Key is open year round 24 hours a day. Fort Jefferson, on Garden Key, is open year-round from sunrise to sunset.
Loggerhead Key is open to day visitors year round from sunrise to sunset. All other facilities on the island, including Loggerhead Lighthouse are closed to the public. Bush Key is open to visitors October 15th to January 15th from sunrise to sunset.
Hospital Key, and Long Key are closed year round and visitors should remain 100 feet offshore of all closed islands.
Middle and East Keys are open to visitors October 16 to March 31 from sunrise to sunset.
The entrance fee for the park is $5.00 for visitors 16 and older. This fee covers entrance to the park for 7 days. This fee is usually included in the price of your tour by boat or seaplane. The campground is a self-service fee area with a nightly fee of $3 per person. A 50% discount applies to holders of the Golden Age or Golden Access Pass. No other discounts apply. Camping fees are collected only at the park and are not included in your package.
Visiting the park by private boat is difficult because of its distance, so most visitors come by boat or seaplane from Key West, Florida. Official ferry and transportation services to the Dry Tortugas includes the Yankee Freedom III catamaran and seaplane services.
The boat tour costs US$165 for adults ($10 discount for students, active militaries and seniors) and US$120 for chidren (4-16 years old). If you go camping you can just go with this tour and go back the next day.
Key West Seaplan Charters offers half day and daytrips at (much) higher prices. If you have the money, don't want to spend too much time on a boat or like the seaplane experience, this might be something for you.
There is no food available for sale, but daytours include breakfast and lunch. If you want some snacks, you have to bring them yourself.
Water and soft drinks/juices are usually included in a tour. Bring some extra water at hot days, as there is nothing available for sale on the islands.
The only way to spend the night on the islands is camping at Fort Jefferson. You have to reserve your spot beforehand.
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