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Trip 4, Stop 3: Dry Tortugas National Park

The Dry Tortugas National Park lies 70 miles due west of Key West in the Gulf of Mexico; it is not easy to get to, but is a must-see for any national park goer! We took the daily, round-trip Yankee Freedom ferry from Key West to get to the park; other options include taking a seaplane or boating there on your own. Advance planning is a must for this trip, as the tickets for the ferry sell out well in advance. The ferry leaves Key West at 8:00 am and arrive slightly after 10:00 am, with departure back to Key West at 3:00 pm, providing about 4 1/2 hours to tour Fort Jefferson and enjoy the island. If you are an intrepid camper, there are primitive campsites available for an overnight stay and a truly unique experience; you will need to pack in (and out) everything you need for your stay (the only amenities are compostable toilets that are open when the ferry is not docked; otherwise the ferry toilets are used). The park encompasses about 100 square miles, most of it open water, and the ferry docks at Garden Key, which includes the impressive and massive Fort Jefferson (which takes up 85% of the14-acre key!).

While there are seven islands that are part of the park, the Garden Key is the second-largest and, with Fort Jefferson, is the most visited. For a first-time visitor, touring the fort is a must-do. The Yankee Freedom staff provide a 20-minute overview discussion and a one-hour tour of the fort, which explains why the fort was needed at the time, the challenges that were faced in building it, and the impressive capability that was designed into it. It is also possible to do a self-guided tour of Fort Jefferson. Access to the top of the fort is provided by spiral staircases in the bastions, with outstanding views of the surrounding area. We had enough time to participate in a tour, wander around on our own, enjoy a picnic lunch (provided with our ferry ticket), and then use the ferry-provided equipment to snorkel for about an hour. The water was very clear and we saw a wide range of colorful reef fish, including angelfish, blue tang, surgeon, parrotfish, yellow goatfish, sergeants, snappers, and even a squid. We would have enjoyed more time to hike around the moat and the island, but all in all, we felt our time was well spent and enjoyed every minute.

After returning to Key West, we walked to the nearby Waterfront Brewery to enjoy a Lazy Way IPA and a Passionfruit Shandy. On our way back to Marathon Key, we stopped for dinner at No Name Pub on Big Pine Key. The drive there takes you through the Key Deer National Refuge and we did see several of the small deer, which are a sub-species of the Virginia Whitetail deer. No Name Pub has a tasty No Name Amber and their homemade smoked fish dip appetizer (made with fresh yellowfin tuna) was outstanding!

Staying in Marathon in the center of the Florida keys had advantages, as we were able to explore more of the keys. Islamorada, which spans six keys, has two breweries--Florida Keys Brewing Co. and the Islamorada Brewery & Distillery, which also provides free tastings of their rum, vodka, gin, and whiskey. (We thought their barrel-aged rum was particularly good.) The Islamorada Brewery had a surprisingly delicious and refreshing coconut key lime ale called No Wake Zone, which is definitely worth a taste. We walked from one brewery to the other (about a mile) and stopped in between at the Hurricane Monument, which provides tribute to the 400 lives lost in the devastating category 5 hurricane of 1935.

We stopped at Robbie's of Islamorada, which is worth a visit to feed the tarpon off the dock and get a bite to eat. It is a popular attraction, with shopping and water sports available. We also stopped at Anne's Beach, which has a nice boardwalk that extends the length of the beach between the two parking areas and provides small covered picnic areas right on the water.

In Marathon, part of the old seven mile bridge at the west end is available for walking or fishing and is worth a stroll (up to an area where a section of the bridge is out). Work is currently being done to restore the old bridge, which was closed in 2016 for repairs. A nice stop for us at dusk was Sunset Park, which is aptly named as it provided beautiful sunset views. The Bahia Honda State Park is also worth a stop. It includes a short hiking trail up part of the old railroad bridge (which provides nice panoramic views of the area) and has one beach on the Atlantic side and another on the Florida Bay side. There were many other attractions and venues we could have visited in the keys, if we had more time, and it is worth allowing extra time to enjoy the area.

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