We decided to turn our Florida Keys trip into a National Park adventure by booking a day trip to the Dry Tortugas. The islands are about 70 miles from Key West and are part of the National Park Service. We even bought a National Park passport there to keep track of all our future park visits with colorful stamps. The trips are so popular that you have to book months ahead. For around $200 you get a round trip ride from Key West to the Dry Tortugas on a comfortable catamaran ferry, the Yankee Freedom, a bagel breakfast and a sandwich lunch as well as drinks and snacks. The two-and-a-half hours each way go by surprisingly quickly. On the island, guests are free to explore massive Fort Jefferson (dating from 1846) or snorkel the crystal clear waters that surround it. The snorkels, masks and fins are included in the tour price. We noticed that many first-time snorkelers were happy to explore the shallow waters. More experienced snorkelers headed to the remains of old piers where more interesting fish usually gather.
We took advantage of the one-hour tour included in the fee we paid, and we learned a lot from the very knowledgeable park ranger who escorted our group. The fort was used by the Union army during the Civil War and the prison there housed Dr. Samuel Mudd, the physician who treated John Wilkes Booth’s broken leg after the actor assassinated Lincoln. Mudd was found guilty of aiding the assassination plot and sentenced to life at the desolate prison. During a Yellow Fever epidemic, Dr. Mudd courageously treated victims and his sentence was eventually commuted by President Andrew Johnson after four years. Our guide told us that more than 100 Mudd descendants traveled together via ferry to the island to see where their famous ancestor was imprisoned. After touring the fort, we snorkeled for a few hours at several different beaches and around the fort's outer walls and piers. We saw several barracudas and a pretty large stingray along with colorful tropical fish.
Visitors were free to pick up bagged sandwich lunches back onboard the ferry to eat at several shaded picnic areas. The ride back in the late afternoon flew by as we were able to buy frozen drinks, rum punches, beers and microwaved popcorn onboard. The atmosphere was a subdued party mode with passengers relaxing after a day of adventure in the hot Florida sun. The ample shade onboard and the cooling ocean breezes made for a perfect return voyage.