Monday, April 2, 2012

Isolated National Park beckons Florida visitors

Heading out for Florida on an RV trip? If you're looking to add another stamp to your National Parks Passport book, you'll have to leave the motorhome parked for this part of the journey. Considered one of the most remote parks in the US, the only access is by boat or plane--or maybe if you swim real hard. It's Dry Tortugas National Park, 70 miles west of Key West.

Just 100 miles north of Cuba, Dry Tortugas is at a confluence of ocean currents, maritime history, sea life, and birds. The shallow waters and seven small islands of this 100-square-mile park are a haven and nursery for an abundance of life. Sited at the westernmost reach of the Florida Reef (the third largest reef in the world) the park offers some of the most pristine marine environments in the country.

Start the journey where you can bring the toad car: The downtown visitor Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center, the park's official visitor center. It's a free, interagency facility that will give you all the info you'll need for the trip and scoops on the many activities and creatures you'll see. If you can't physically reach the park, at least a visit here will let help you wet your lips for the "next time."

The park's centerpiece is Fort Jefferson. At 10 acres, the fort is an amazing engineering feat as the third-largest seacoast fortification ever constructed in the US. Its massive brown and red masonry walls rise in stark contrast to the calm turquoise seas and white sand it was built to defend.

Your first decision on arriving at the park? What to do first. Many begin their day with a guided tour of Fort Jefferson. Programs are led by ferry staff or rangers and provide an overview of the area's history and of Fort Jefferson specifically. Another big attraction is snorkeling right off the beach. The shallow waters around Fort Jefferson are home to amazingly vibrant hard and soft coral and many species of reef fish.

Not to be out-performed by their fishy friends, the birds that migrate through the area are astounding in both appearance, but by name. Frigate birds, sooty terns, brown noddies, and masked boobies are just a few of the perennial favorites. Would you like to be known as a masked booby? And don't miss the turtles. Visitors regularly see turtles on their seaplane or boat voyage to the park. The most common species are loggerhead and green, though hawksbill and leatherback turn up here, too.

How do you get to the park? If you're fortunate enough to have your own vessel, you have a fantastic opportunity to come see the park and stay for up to 14 days. If you din't bring your putt-putt behind your motorhome, you'll have to get there like most other folk: There are two approved daily commercial operators, the Yankee Freedom ferry boat or the seaplanes of Key West Seaplane Adventures. Either option offers a thrilling journey to a memorable locale.

Check out more on the official park website.

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