Dry Tortugas offer unique beach campsites

DRY TORTUGAS, Fla.— Despite the temporary closure of the campgrounds at the Dry Tortugas National Park, renovations are under way for their planned re-opening date on Sept. 15, 2003.

After its closure on June 2002 due to sewage and drainage problems, the campgrounds will soon have composting toilets available for its daily numerous visitors.

Featuring 13 campsites allowing up to six campers and three tents on each site, the grounds located right outside the eight-foot thick walls surrounding Fort Jefferson allow for a nice, relaxing experience next to the clear waters and exotic birds.

“It’s so quiet and beautiful at night,” said Tammy Campbell, 42, a resident of the island for two years along with her husband. “There are no city lights. It’s just stars.”

If there are more visitors that can’t be accommodated on the available sites, an extra area is available for an overflow.

Sites are available on first come, first serve basis, even though reservations are being considered for its re-opening date.

i Shaded campsites in the Dry Tortugas have picnic tables and grills (Photo by Bruce Garrison).

Located almost 70 miles from Key West, Garden Key, as the island home of the fort is called, is the scene of a truly remote camping experience. Each site has a barbeque grill and a wooden picnic table available, requiring its visitors to bring the remaining necessities.

Visitors must keep in mind to bring enough food for their entire stay. There is a two-week limit.

The beach is just a few steps from the campground on Garden Key (Photo by Bruce Garrison).

In addition, they should bring plenty of water for drinking and all other miscellaneous use, as well as medications and other essentials.

Visitors should also bring trash bags to take refuse back to Key West since dumps are not available on the grounds.

“It’s a pack in, pack out camp,” said Campbell, who admits that having visitors makes her nervous. “Some people are just not educated and they abuse the resources,” she said, referring to the lack of care and respect to the animals from some visitors.

All campers should also be prepared to share the campgrounds with other campers, in addition to becoming aware of the various rules of the park. These rules include storing all food items securely due to a heavy population of cat-size rats as well as respecting quiet hours throughout the night.

Trees provide shaded campsites (Photo by Bruce Garrison).

Camping at Garden Key is not only the place to get away from the concurrence and noise of the city, but it is the place to enjoy the many activities available to its visitors.

As some of the most popular activities, visitors enjoy swimming, snorkeling, fishing and kayaking.

In addition, people enjoy birdwatching and tours of the fort as well as a recently integrated candlelight tour at sunset.

“All kinds of people come along,” said Niki Ryan, 31, who has been living at the fort for almost three years. “We have people coming internationally, from Key West, families, kids, and sometimes just spring breakers.”

“I love it. People are always happy to be here and they are ready to camp,” added Ryan.

All campers and daily visitors must either ride the ferry, sea plane, or private boats to get to the island. The two-and-a-half hour ferry ride will take you to the national park for a round trip of $119, and the seaplane will take a small number of visitors at one time for $179.

Shaded picnic tables offer respite from the sun (Photo by Bruce Garrison).

Campers are charged $3 camping fee per person that includes admission to the park.

The most popular time for visitors to come is during the spring for birdwatching season as well as December.

Mike Todd, 56, has been working for the Yankee Freedom for three years now. The Yankee Freedom is one of the ferry companies that transport visitors from Key West into the Dry Tortugas.

“For some reason, a lot of people like to spend New Year’s on the island,” said Todd.

Chandra Robinson, 28, who was visiting the island for the first time with her newlywed husband was very thrilled with her experience at the fort and is definitely considering coming back when the campgrounds become available in the fall.

Swimmers in the clear water near the Garden Key campground (Photos by Bruce Garrison).

“It was really fun and I had a really good time snorkeling,” said Robinson on her way back to Key West. “The photo opts inside the fort and all the history is also truly amazing.”

The campsite is located a few steps away from the beach.

But whether you are there to enjoy the wildlife, the beach, or the history, the Dry Tortugas National Park is a promising experience for those who wish to escape the daily life routine on the mainland.



How to get there? Seaplane, $179; ferry/catamaran, $119, or private boat.

Admission to Park? One day, $5; camping, $3 per day.

What to bring? Water, ice, coolers, food, shelter, medications, clothing, garbage bags, and other essentials.

Note: Showers are currently not available.


Campsite Rules

Do not attach ropes, hammocks, tents, laundry lines or any other materials to campground trees.

Gas camping stoves or charcoal briquettes placed in campsite BBQ units are the only fires allowed.

Use hard-sided containers to store all food items due to heavy population of cat-sized rats.

Clear your campsite by 10 a.m. on the day of your departure.

Quiet hours are from 10 p.m. through 6 a.m.


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