Incredible Fort Jefferson Florida! Gorgeous Man-Made Paradise!
Fort Jefferson is a massive 16 million brick man-made structure. It is an incredible wonder of man-made and natural beauty. It’s really stunning to see as you approach it. It is truly amazing how they build such a structure in such a remote place.
Over the next several minutes we will be going over everything you need to know about Fort Jefferson to make the most out of your trip. Get ready this is going to be an awesome trip!
Fort Jefferson is open from sunrise to sunset. It cost $10 bucks to enter the park. If you take the Yankee Freedom III ferry the price to enter the park will be included in your transportation cost.
Dry Tortugas National Park is made up of several islands. Garden Key, Loggerhead Key, Bush Key, and Long Key are the main islands. Fort Jefferson sets on Garden Key.
There are several smaller islands such as Hospital Key and Middle Key that are off-limits to the public because they are wildlife sanctuaries. Roughly 99% of the park is water. So it is a snorkeler’s paradise.
Fort Jefferson was named after President Thomas Jefferson. Construction began in 1846 but it was never fully completed. It was constructed to protect US trade routes in the area. In 1875 the Army abandoned the project, then in the early 1900s, the area was designated a wildlife refuge. In 1935 it was named Fort Jefferson Monument. Then it became a national park in 1992.
Today it is considered one of the paradises on Earth, however, back in its heyday, it was an extremely rough environment. Yellow fever killed many and it was certainly no paradise back then.
Walking around the Moat
One of the greatest things about Fort Jefferson is the moat. It is probably the most amazing moat in the world. The moat is considered to be six-tenths of a mile basically a little over a half mile long. As you walk it you will be really impressed and amazed how they built it. You might get a little wet because the waves constantly bombard the moat walls.
You will also notice how the sea salt is slowing eroding away the walls. You will be able to see the deterioration of the brick and see a section of the moat wall collapsed in.
Check out the Google Map and notice you can go completely around the moat. The Google Map was taken back in 2013. As of January 2018, there is a section of the moat wall collapsed in. You can see how over time nature will take this area back. Check out the video below of the moat in live action.
Another great thing about the moat is swimming around it. If you chose to stay and camp out at Garden Key you’ll be allowed to swim around the moat in the dark with a flashlight. It brings a totally different perspective of the park.
The water is shallow at around 6-8 feet deep at the most. Make sure you bring snorkeling gear. You don’t want to miss out on all the underwater scenery. If you take the Yankee Freedom III ferry they will provide complimentary snorkeling gear if you don’t have any.
Hiking the Top Tier – Unimaginable View!
The top section of Fort Jefferson is where you’ll find Garden Key Lighthouse also known as the Harbor Lighthouse. The top section of Fort Jefferson has the most incredible views of the park. There are mounds that you can walk on top of so you can get the best views.
You’ll be able to see Loggerhead Lighthouse off in the distance. Loggerhead Key is 3.1 miles away from Fort Jefferson. It is open to the public all year around although activities are from dusk to dawn. It is very remote and not many people visit it.
You can take a self-guided tour or you can take a tour given by the tour guide. The tour guide will remind you how far away from help you are. The path on the top tier is wide enough to walk and not dangers at all. You’ll have no problem walking around it. Just be careful because there are no rails or anything to stop you from falling off.
As you walk the top section of Fort Jefferson you’ll see signs telling you about what you are seeing. The signs give a little history and background. Take a look at the video below. You will be able to see the top tier in live action. Notice you can see Bush Key and Long Key from the top section.
There are several spiral stairwells that lead up to the top section. They have a dungeon sort of feel. You can definitely get a feeling of the time when you walk in them.
One thing that you’ll notice is how well defended the area was. The fort has six sides each with cannons. Not to mention the natural reef around the area. It would have been impossible for evaders to get their ships through the natural reef past the cannon fire and mount an attack on the fort. The Dry Tortugas served as a major staging area during the Spanish-American War in 1898.
Hiking the Middle Tier (Where Dr. Mudd was housed)
The middle section is where the prisoners were housed. It is also where you’ll find the chapel and the bakery. It ruins now but you can imagine how it was back when Fort Jefferson was a bustling town.
Dr. Mudd is the most famous prisoner ever at Fort Jefferson. He was the guy that helped set the leg of John Wilkes Booth after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
Dr. Mudd was considered a conspirator of the assassination and sentenced to life imprisonment at Fort Jefferson. Dr. Mudd tried to escape in 1865 although he was unsuccessful. Dr. Mudd served 4 years at Fort Jefferson and was pardoned in 1869 by President Johnson for his bravery and courageous help during the yellow fever epidemic at Fort Jefferson.
As you walk around the middle section and see where the cannons used to be you will get a feeling of how it was back then. You can definitely feel that the living arrangements were very tough.
The prison cells were shared between three prisoners. The cells were open-air cells called casemates. Once you walk around for a little bit you’ll definitely be glad you only get to spend a couple hours there and not a lifetime.
The living conditions for prisoners were tough at best. If you decide to go on the guided tour the tour guide will tell you all kinds of things. One thing I remember that they mentioned was that the prisoners carved out channels on the floor to direct the rainwater away from where they had to sleep. You’ll still be able to see the carved out channels today.
Hiking the First Tier (Visitor Center, Park Headquarters)
The bottom section is where the visitor center, headquarters, and the courtyard is. There you’ll be able to find ruins of the officer’s quarters, the soldier’s barracks, powder magazines, and you also get to see the shot furnace.
The shot furnace that you see today is actually a remake of the original. Basically, they would put cannonballs in it and heat them up. They would then use the red-hot cannonballs to fire at wooden ships. You could imagine the fear of a red-hot projectile being shot at your ship. It was practically the 1800s ballistic missile.
The majority of the courtyard is open space with ruins. In a way, it is sad to see all the ruins knowing that hundreds of men lived and died making this place. They were forced to work in the hot sun and tough living conditions only to have their hard work become ruins in later generations. So, if you end up going to Fort Jefferson just reflect a moment on the people who built it.
Inside the visitor center, you’ll be able to watch a video, look at artifacts, buy souvenirs, and talk to a tour guide if you want to. Right next to the visitor center is the park headquarters. There is where you would get your boat permit if you arrived by private boat.
At one time this area was a bustling little town. Now, much of it lay in ruin. As you walk around the courtyard in the middle you’ll see a tombstone for the prison doctor. Dr. Joseph Sim Smith and his son Henry Price-Smith at only 3 years old tragically died of yellow fever during the pandemic.
Dr. Mudd stepped forward to be the prison doctor after Dr. Smith had died. The outbreak happened in the fall of 1867. Out of approximately 400 people, 275 were infected and 38 had died. Once you visit Fort Jefferson and get an idea of how big Garden Key is you can get a picture just how terrible it must have been to see that many people hurt.
How to get to Fort Jefferson?
There are five ways to get to Fort Jefferson. You could take the Yankee Freedom III which I already mentioned, you could take a seaplane provided by Seaplane Adventures Key West, you can take a private boat, you can take a private plane, or you can take a charter boat. Those are the only ways to get to the park.
The most common way to get to the park is the Yankee Freedom III ferry. It is also the cheapest. There aren’t any other ferries that go to Dry Tortugas. So, you don’t have many opinions to choose from.
You can get your ticket online or at the ticket booth in Key West. Check out the blog Dry Tortugas National Park Ferry. In it are details on everything you need to know about the Yankee Freedom III ferry. It is how I went to the park and it is how the majority of people visit as well.
Fort Jefferson is an astonishing monument and a testament to man’s ability to work. You can only imagine what it would be like to be out in the hot sun laying brick after brick creating the largest man-made brick masonry structure in the Western Hemisphere.
You can imagine what working 16 hours a day laying several hundred bricks only to know that there are literally millions more to go. It’s really inspiring to think how these brave men continue to carry on even though they knew they were doomed. Escape would be my only thought. What about you?
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