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Dry Tortugas/Florida road trip


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For those of you who may be curious about the Dry Tortugas, I am going to post about my recent road trip through Florida. The major highlight was the Dry Tortugas, but we got a little time in at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, and a week in Sanibel also. 

The plan originally was to camp the entire trip, but my husband (not a big warm weather fan) decided that we should book a condo in Sanibel, since there were a few economically friendly options. In planning the trip, I researched a number of county campgrounds for stopping over on the way down. We had intended to stay at the Donald McDonald campground in Sebastian, FL, but a big storm was going through when we got there, so we decided on a hotel. Someday I would like to go back, though, since the campground seemed very pleasant in surroundings, and is right on a river not too far from the beach.

We had 3 days at the JPCRSP, where I determined that I did not put enough due diligence into ascertaining the extent of snorkelling from shore (none that offers coral), but my husband (the novice) got in some good practice snorkelling the mock shipwreck. We also kayaked through the Mangrove inlets throughout the park and took the glass bottom boat tour out to Molasses Reef. The campground is more appropriate to RVs, as it appears that all the sites are built up of years of compacted gravel/stones. We had a terrible time trying to get our stakes into the ground. The facilities were otherwise decent, and as was expected, it was rather warm and humid in June. I never did break out the camera there, ...so no pictures. We did enjoy the Luna Moths at night as they circled our tent. 

On the drive to Key West from Key Largo, we stopped at Long Key State Park. If I were returning to The Keys with the intention of camping, I would opt to stay there, since the campsites are right on the water. I looked like a beautiful secluded area to camp. Since we had to be at the dock (ferry service to the Dry Tortugas) at 6ish in the morning, we stayed the night before at Leo's Campground. I would not recommend this in a tent. It is on Stock Island right off Rt. 1 going into Key West, and we heard horns and sirens fairly late into the night. In addition, it is a cheap option for staying in the Key West area with bus service to Duval St., which attracts a certain number of individuals who want to save their funds for bar hopping. Said individuals are not quiet when they come back at 3am. 

We made it onto the ferry (which you can find here: https://www.drytortugas.com/) and appreciated the fact that the trip includes breakfast. There was a good selection of fresh fruit, cheese, pastries, hard boiled eggs, cereal, etc. In order not to fall asleep, we stood at the rail, and got to see a number of sea turtles, some dolphins, and flying fish. Upon arriving, they hold the campers for an orientation while the day trip passengers disembark. A park ranger gives a [lecture] about do's and don't's while staying at the park. By the time that is over, the crew has off-loaded the campers gear, and it is first come first serve to the vacant campsites. We were able to get a site with some shade, not the best available but pretty decent. The main island (that you are on) is Garden Key, and at 47 acres, you are not far from anything.

While the ferry is in dock, everyone on the island (whether by personal watercraft, sea plane or the ferry itself) uses the facilities on the ship. As a ferry passenger (day trip or extended camping) you have breakfast and lunch included. You can also pay to purchase additional lunches for $7, and this is what we decided to do. We had heard that the lunches were generous buffet style sandwich/salad and munchies, and this was definitely true. Our major meal each day was the lunch on the ferry, and we only brought nonperishables for breakfast and dinner. (The cooking methods were restrictive, so we decided not to bother.)

We immediately went on a self-guided tour of the fort, and after the ferry departed (appx. 2:45pm) we went out for some snorkelling. Since the hours without the day trip passengers leave you on the island with appx. 10-20 other campers, you quickly meet and fall into a camaraderie with them. We ended up sharing adult beverages with a group that brought their boat over from Key West and watched the sun go down from the top of the fort. That became the pattern. Watch the sun come up, eat a little breakfast, go snorkel around the moat wall, rest a little at camp when the boat comes in, watch the sun go down again. (Rinse - Repeat) We also spent dark hours out on the moat wall of the ocean side where the lights from the dock house, lighthouse, etc. are minimized. We quickly discovered that some form of bioluminescent plankton or glow worm was coming to the surface and mating, so we also had a light show in the water, as well as the stars. 

We had intended to use our kayak to hit some snorkeling a little off shore, but I forgot the diver down flag, so the ranger wouldn't let us use it. :(  We still had a wonderful time snorkeling the area around Garden Key, watching the Frigate Birds, etc. so it wasn't a big loss. Overall, it was the type of secluded trip that I enjoy, and the weather was great. There really aren't any bugs to speak of (since there is no fresh water for breeding) and we didn't have any rain. (Apparently rain is infrequent, since it requires a significant system to be coming through across the Gulf raining as it goes. There isn't enough land to provide the warming conditions that inspire the typical Florida summer rains.) 

I plan to return to the Dry Tortugas in the future, hopefully for more than 3 days. I just need to find alternate transportation since that is the max provided by the ferry service. Here are a few pictures of the island.

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This is the view from the ferry as you arrive/depart. You can see some tents set up (in the less desirable area) just past the dock house. The mangroves just behind them also offer more campsites, one of them ours. I don't have a pic of the site, since I forgot to get one before the last day, and my husband was already breaking camp when I got back from getting sunrise pics that morning.floridavacationdownload 068.jpg

Some private boats at anchor. Mostly you didn't see these people on shore much. The ones that we got to know (that camped next to us) came in on a smaller craft that didn't allow for sleeping on board. floridavacationdownload 078.jpg

Sunrise from the top of the fort. The strip of land you can see used to be open channel, with the now joined Bush Key in the distance. That 'island' is off limits due to nesting. floridavacationdownload 118.jpg

The fort by day on the 'land side'.floridavacationdownload 046.jpg

Sunset over the moat. This is the area we would walk out and around to look at the stars and the 'glow worms'.001_25a.jpg

It is hard to see, but that thing that looks like a partially submerged log in the corner of the moat is the lonely salt water crocodile that lives at Garden Key.004_22a.jpg

Most of my fish pictures came out blurry/grainy, but you can see a little bit in this one. 002_24a.jpg

And this is the barracuda that scared the sh*t out of me. I was snorkeling along the moat wall snapping pics of the bottom, and he turned out in front of me. I had to backpedal to get all of him into the frame. He appeared to be somewhere between 3.5 - 4 feet long. 

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Edited by myownlittleworld
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Great pics! Having lived in Florida my whole life, I'm surprised I'd never heard of Dry Tortugas! Looks like the perfect place for snorkeling. I'll definitely have to plan a trip now!

I've also been looking into doing a camping trip down at Long Key, did you check out the facilities at all while you were there? 

Bummer that the ranger wouldn't let you snorkel off the kayak! But it sounds like you had a great time, thanks for providing so much detail about the trip!

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  • 2 weeks later...

We didn't check out the bathroom facilities on Long Key, just walked past the building, but it looked rather new. We liked the fact that the campsites were situated right on the water to take advantage of the breezes, as well as the fact that it didn't look like a park that is overrun with visitors. (great opportunity to kayak, walk, and read)

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  • 4 weeks later...

I was rereading this trip report and the kayak part stuck out this time. What did you take for a kayak? I assume inflatable, did you use it much? Would you take it again?

You also mention the crew unloading the camper's stuff. Was there a weight/size limit? Did you take a cooler?

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