Photo by Rose Marie Cromwell
Photo by Rose Marie Cromwell
Dry Tortugas, a national park located 70 miles off the coast of Key West, is made up of seven small islands.
Rahawa Haile grew up surrounded by the beauty and kitsch of South Florida. Now she returns and wonders what happens when the places we love start to disappear.
This story is part of Travel Tales, a series of life-changing adventures on afar.com. Read more stories of transformative trips on the Travel Tales home page—and be sure to subscribe to the podcast! And, though COVID-19 has stalled many travel plans, we hope our stories can offer inspiration for your future adventures—and a bit of hope.
Hot, humid air, like a weighted blanket, draped itself around me as I exited Miami International Airport. As a native Miamian who now lives on the opposite side of the country, I live for this sensation. It’s something I crave when I’ve been away too long, though my northern friends can’t fathom why. One of the reasons South Florida feels like home to those born here is that nowhere else in the country quite feels like South Florida. It’s the only stretch of the contiguous United States that sits in the tropical climate zone.
When I was a kid growing up here in the early ’90s, I spent my weeks in Miami with my nose buried in one book or another. But weekends were spent far from the city center with my father, paddling through the Everglades or, more frequently, road-tripping through the Florida Keys—the 44 islands connected by 42 bridges, stretching 113 miles from Key Largo to Key West.
I’ve revisited the Keys frequently over the years, first as a teenager with an eye for adventure and later as an adult desperate for a soft place to unplug from the world. Yet two years had passed since I’d been back, and I wanted to come to terms with what Hurricane Irma had wrought when it pummeled the fragile island chain in 2017. I also wanted to camp in the more distant Dry Tortugas, a national park in the Gulf of Mexico made up of seven small islands 70 miles off the coast of Key West. The islands are among the most vulnerable to climate change, and I had never seen them. To put it bluntly: If I ever wanted to visit, now was the time.
For Miamians, a trip to the Keys starts where the Ronald Reagan Turnpike dead-ends into the South Dixie Highway, which itself ceases to exist once it hits the Miami-Dade County line near Manatee Creek. From there on out, you are on the southernmost stretch of U.S. Highway 1, known as the Overseas Highway. With Miami in the rearview, the twin seas of blue sky and ocean ahead throw the islands of the Keys, a mix of limestone and luck, into sharp relief.
Just south of Florida City, my father and I would often opt for the Card Sound Road instead of U.S. 1 as our path for leaving the mainland, driving needless extra miles sandwiched between aisles of mangroves bowed in brackish water, the air thick with the scent of decaying vegetation. All this in order to have a soda and a chat with locals at the divey shack-on-the-water Alabama Jack’s before cruising over one of South Florida’s least traveled bridges, Card Sound Bridge. As we’d cross, I’d lean my head out the window until the sea air stung my eyes, my senses alive with the dizzying brilliance of home. Later, we’d snorkel with angelfish and snapper at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park before heading to Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen, three miles down the road, where we licked the salt from our lips before filling up on fish (dad) and key lime pie (me). Now, as I eased onto Card Sound Road, I felt welcomed home.
You could drive nonstop from Miami to Key West in three to four hours, but it’s better to take your time. Weird things happen on Florida’s fringes, and the Overseas Highway travels through some of the weirdest.
In Key Largo, the first key you encounter on the journey south, you can snorkel past a massive statue of Jesus called Christ of the Abyss. Or stay at an underwater hotel named after Jules Verne. Or ride the African Queen—yes, the cinematic steamboat that carried Hepburn and Bogart. A few keys south, in the village of Islamorada, you can take a snack break while sunburned tourists crouch on their hands and knees on a dock to feed the fish at Robbie’s. Eager, gigantic tarpon leap out of the water toward a blanket of quivering bait dangling from visitors’ hands.
The Keys are where the garish and irreverent come to create something unique, unshackled from propriety.
There’s the random sculpture of a large shark sticking out of the side of a building. The enormous red-and-white fishing bobber towering dozens of feet above a sign that reads wedding reservations. And Betsy, a beloved 40-foot-wide spiny lobster sculpture, as Instagram-ready as anything in Florida ever will be, despite predating the app by decades.
The Keys are where the garish and irreverent come to create something unique, unshackled from propriety. They exist in stark contrast to Florida’s panhandle—home to the buttoned-up state capital of Tallahassee—which could not be physically or figuratively further. The considerable aversion the two ends of the long state have for one another today belies their common history defined by absurd levels of capital amassed in the 19th century. In the Keys, it was attained by “wrecking,” or salvaging cargo from crashed ships. Up north, it was attained by subjugation: In the early 1800s, nearly three-quarters of the population of Leon County was enslaved. Currently, the power to determine the fate of Florida lies in the hands of individuals who sit in the state capital, many of whom refuse to confront the realities of climate change. The fact that South Florida threatened to secede in 2014, due to the state government’s inaction on climate change, only underscores how dire the situation has become.
As the miles ticked by on my drive through paradise, I passed monuments to Keysian resilience and stubbornness. New homes on stilts designed to perch above rising seas and withstand high winds. Updated and reopened resorts. It felt simultaneously inspiring and masochistic. Would efforts to rebuild work, and were they worth it in the long run?
After hours of driving past banyan trees and a stop to sift through the brightly colored offerings of Shell World, the Seven Mile Bridge appeared, the span to Bahia Honda Key. It’s a transformational view with nothing but miles of water on either side. Every time I cross it, I feel as though the sea is consuming me, that I’m a car-size dart zooming across the ocean. The land fades until there’s nothing but gliding pelicans and endless turquoise waters from there to eternity.
Late in the afternoon, I pulled into Bahia Honda State Park. The lush island had been my favorite place growing up, one where my family and I had spent long afternoons swimming and birding. I parked in the far lot near the park’s western end, took a deep breath, and stepped outside to survey the damage.
Hurricane Irma had taken everything.
The old bathhouse where I’d aged out of countless bathing suits was destroyed. The canopies and many of the shade trees were swept away. Sandspur Beach, where I’d napped on beach chairs in shallow waters, was blocked by a chain-link fence. Some of the oceanside beaches—the crown jewels of Bahia Honda Key—were no more. The butterfly garden, too, gone completely, exiled now to memory.
Efforts are under way to rebuild, whatever that means. And I am happy for them, whatever that does.
Efforts are under way to rebuild, whatever that means. And I am happy for them, whatever that does. Apparently a colony of least tern birds has taken up residence on Sandspur for the first time in 30 years. A seawall could help maintain the remaining beaches. But the backdrop to the time capsule of my childhood—flown kites and walks at low tide while tiny crabs scurried around my feet—is gone.
That night, after driving to Key West, I buried my grief in packing. In anticipation of my date with an unrelenting sun (the Dry Tortugas have neither potable water nor much shade), I’d brought along the following: a cooler with wheels to transport five gallons of water, electrolyte powder, a 48-ounce Nalgene, three days’ worth of food, a knife, a spork, a plate, a tent, a sleeping bag, a sleeping pad, cash for the campground fee of $15 a night, pajamas, a jacket, quick-drying shorts, underwear, a long-sleeved sun shirt, flip-flops, sneakers, mosquito repellant, two books, a headlamp, ChapStick, sunblock, sunglasses, a hat, two towels, body wipes, a bathing suit, prescription swim goggles, a nose clip, a snorkel, a rainbow kite named Fred, and a giant ocean float in the shape of a red macaw.
The next morning, when I arrived at the ferry terminal with my gear, I was greeted by a large group of children. Fifty-three excited fifth graders from Horace O’Bryant, a public school in Key West, were joining me on what would be a first trip to the Dry Tortugas for all of us. The diverse group of Conch kids (i.e., young native Key Westers) seemed as surprised to see me as I was to see them—the other passengers were older, mostly white, and could just as easily have been guests at a yacht show.
The Yankee Freedom III, the high-speed catamaran that ferries visitors to the Dry Tortugas, has a capacity of 250 as well as flush toilets, ice water, air-conditioning, coffee, breakfast, lunch, snacks, beer, and whatever else a customer who can afford the nearly $200 ticket might require. The ferry makes only one round-trip journey a day, depositing its passengers on Garden Key, home to historic Fort Jefferson, a massive brick hexagon built in the 1800s. In their allotted four or so hours, visitors are encouraged to snorkel, stroll, and take a tour of the fort before boarding the ferry for the two-hour trip back. Few elect to camp, so I, with my stuffed backpack and tent, stood out considerably. The most common question I received from strangers was “How?” To which I’d respond, honestly: practice, a knowledge of my comfort levels, and a lifelong willingness to sweat.
After we docked in Garden Key, the day-trippers were allowed to disembark, while we campers were held back to be briefed on how to leave no trace of our stay and what to do in case of an emergency. I then dragged my pack and cooler a few hundred feet from the ferry to a somewhat shaded area, flanked by sea grapes, where I began setting up my tent. The mosquitoes descended at once. And truly, I should have known better. It had rained a few days prior, but I’d let my eagerness to finish camp chores get the better of me. One of the rangers who saw me suggested I move my camp to an area in the open sun beside Fort Jefferson, a spot where the prevailing winds would sweep away not only the mosquitoes but also the stifling heat of the night. I heeded his advice, and by the time I had hammered my last tent stake into the ground, a crowd had gathered near the fort for a tour.
In 1513, Juan Ponce de León became the first European to encounter Las Tortugas. The “dry” was added later by British cartographers to signal the lack of water on the islets, which numbered 11 before storms and tides engulfed four of them. The Dry Tortugas ring a natural deep-water harbor, which meant ships in the Gulf could seek shelter there when bad weather loomed or when vessels needed repair. As the name indicates, the other items of interest were turtles. Many delicious turtles.
“If you were to write Las Tortugas on a map in 1513 it would be like writing McDonald’s on an island today,” said a ferry crewman named Hollywood, who led the tour.
Turtles still ply the waters, but all five species that call the Dry Tortugas home are listed as either threatened or endangered. Fort Jefferson, on Garden Key, remains. The Dry Tortugas’ position in the Florida Reef—the third-largest coral reef system on the planet—meant that any large ship or invading army wishing to enter the Gulf of Mexico from the east had to sail south of the islands, which essentially made the Dry Tortugas the keys to the Gulf of Mexico. At Fort Jefferson’s peak, it featured some of the most powerful weapons of its day, including 25-ton cannons that could fire at any ship within three miles of the island.
Never in the fort’s history was a single cannon fired in battle.
The never-fully-realized fort was also used as a prison during and after the Civil War. By the early 1900s it was mostly abandoned, paving the way for its transition to a bird reserve, then a national monument, and finally a national park in 1992.
After the crowds left on the 3 p.m. ferry back to the mainland, the quiet of the place was staggering. There were about a dozen other campers with me that night, among them Stacie and Mike, a pair of Key Westers with whom I’d become fast friends. We felt the strange and selfish pleasure of silence in a space usually flooded by crowds. A tropical island Magic Kingdom all our own.
Once the golden hour struck, Stacie, Mike, and I climbed up to the top of Fort Jefferson. The air was thick and humid that evening. The clouds blocked the sunset. But as night descended, the island came alive, slow-moving hermit crabs by the hundreds blanketing the campground, their sound dampened by the grass. A new moon rendered the sky the darkest I’d ever seen, as I stood within earshot of the crash of waves.
The next morning, I walked with Stacie along the shoreline trail from our campground to another of the Dry Tortugas, Bush Key. The half-mile path, closed most of the year to protect nesting birds, had only recently reopened. While we strolled, we saw conch and starfish. Jerry, one of the other campers, had beaten us out to the trail and drawn a smiling sun in the sand. At a certain point, the white coral fragments beneath our feet made it look like we were walking on bones. We kept an eye out for masked boobies while magnificent frigate birds soared above us, the throats of the males hot-rod red, and we talked about Audubon, who spent a lifetime killing avian life so he could paint it for posterity.
We may very well be living in the dismantling, you and I, whether we choose to watch or not.
Back at the campground, Stacie and I watched the next batch of tourists disembark from the ferry and gather in front of the fort. Save for the birds and sea life, it felt like few things had come to exist naturally in the Dry Tortugas; Fort Jefferson seemed made of impossibility itself. The worn granite staircase slabs that spiraled through each bastion had been shipped from the north. Drinking water had been produced by steam condensers, also shipped in, powered by fuel brought from the mainland.
And now, Fort Jefferson is up against rising seas and a national park system with a $12 billion maintenance backlog. A plaque at the fort’s visitor center reads, time, weather, and water continue to take their toll, necessitating ongoing stabilization and restoration projects. But to what end? How long can a state as susceptible to climate change as Florida continue to bet against itself by electing politicians who refuse to grapple with its vulnerability? We may very well be living in the dismantling, you and I, whether we choose to watch or not. And how does one build among constant erosion? Where do we go?
I spent my last day in the Dry Tortugas walking the brick perimeter of the fort, pausing to stare at the deeper patches of dark blue scattered amid the shallow turquoise, the water undulating up and down, up and down, like the drowsy breaths of an aquatic Dalmatian.
From my campsite, I could see the lighthouse on Loggerhead Key, where, for decades, Cuban refugees had landed at night, far from the Coast Guard’s reach. Until recently, the “wet foot, dry foot” policy allowed any Cuban who reached land to eventually become a permanent resident—and Dry Tortugas, park rangers were often the first to officially welcome them. Now, Cubans wishing to enter the United States face the same process as any other immigrant group.
“For generations of Cubans,” Hollywood had shared with me after the tour, “Loggerhead Key served as their Statue of Liberty and Garden Key as their Ellis Island.” An old chug, one of the small boats used by Cubans seeking refuge, is on display at Fort Jefferson. As I watched the waters swirling around the lighthouse, I wondered what the quest for refuge would look like for South Floridians as the seas continue to rise.
Still, I kept returning to the unexpected relief I had felt upon seeing the rebuilding efforts at Bahia Honda, even though I suspected it was a losing battle. How painfully easy it is to blur the lines between irrationality and hope, especially when it comes to our home. Maybe nothing will make Floridians give up on Florida—not yet anyway. Our love runs too deep for our own good.
Only a plane, an automobile, and a boat stand between you and Dry Tortugas, one of 11 Florida national parks. Rent a car at Miami International Airport before setting off via U.S. Highway 1. The 160-mile stretch is divided into the Upper, Middle, and Lower Keys. The Upper Keys, closest to Miami and scattered in an area just over 30 miles long, extend through Key Largo to the end of Islamorada; the Middle ones cover about 25 miles before giving way to the Lower Keys. Along the way, hit these stops for a true Florida Keys road-trip experience.
Islamorada, a village that encompasses four keys, has a vibrant entertainment, shopping, and dining scene, and hosts an abundance of marine wildlife as well as places to interact with it. Swim with dolphins or paint with sea lions at the Theater of the Sea. A local treasure, Robbie’s, features an open-air market and offers buckets of bait to feed the tarpon. Betsy, a gigantic, spiny lobster sculpture, guards the eclectic Rain Barrel Artisan Village, a rustic spot with galleries and local artists selling paintings, ceramics, and knickknacks.
The Turtle Hospital, 34 miles south on Marathon Key, leads 90-minute educational tours of the hospital and rehabilitation facility, which includes 23 tanks and a 100,000-gallon saltwater pool for disabled turtles.
Just a mile from the Key West ferry port to Dry Tortugas, visit the Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum, where the Nobel Prize–winning author lived and wrote for nearly a decade. Tour the gardens and cozy up with one of the more than 40 resident cats.
Shell World is 30,000 square feet of souvenir bliss: glass seashells decorated with mermaids, flamingo salt and pepper shakers, and rare shells and coral from around the world, all ranging from 25 cents to $1,000.
A road trip through the Keys wouldn’t be complete without a slice of key lime pie. Try Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen, where the breakfast is just as good as the pie; Blond Giraffe Key Lime Pie Factory for an award-winning slice in Tavernier; or Old Town Bakery, a quaint family establishment in Key West.
Dry Tortugas National Park comprises seven islands and the surrounding world-class coral reef in its 100 square miles. Teeming with wildlife and history, the park features prime snorkeling and birdwatching opportunities as well as tours of Fort Jefferson. The Yankee Freedom III ferry is the easiest way to access the park: Day passes start at $165 plus a $15 park fee, and adult camping passes run $185 plus the park fee. To camp, you must have a reservation, and you can stay a maximum of three nights. Composting toilets are available, but everything else must be packed in. The Garden Key campground charges $15-$30 per night for a spot at one of the park’s eight regular campsites or in the overflow area. Space is limited, so plan accordingly.
The ferry departs early, so stay at a nearby hotel to save time on the morning of the ride. The Gates Hotel Key West, a 15-minute drive from the ferry port, hosts live music and the Blind Pig food truck, which features regionally inspired tapas. Rooms start at $118 per night. Parking is available for $32 per day in the Old Town Parking Garage at 300 Grinnell Street, where you can leave your car until you return from Dry Tortugas. —BROOKE VAUGHAN
Sign up for the Daily Wander newsletter for expert travel inspiration and tips
Please enter a valid email address.