The far-flung Dry Tortugas National Park is best accessed from Key West, a nearly four-hour drive from Miami, Florida. From Key West, visitors to Dry Tortugas must either take an outrageously expensive seaplane, or a less-outrageously expensive but still spendy three-hour ferry (there's only one ferry company, run by a third-party vendor). We opted for the latter, which cost more than Ryan's cross-country flight, and was rather turbulent.
Anyway, Dry Tortugas is home to Fort Jefferson, which was built between 1846 and 1875, was never finished, and served as a military prison until 1874. The fort itself is quite a masonry feat, made up a millions of imported bricks, three stories tall and surrounded by a moat. Dry Tortugas key was named for the abundance of sea turtles inhabiting the surrounding reefs, and for the lack of fresh water on the key itself. While there, our tour guide informed us that Fort Jefferson was built by "laborers" to protect the interests of a nascent United States of America. Here's another perspective: For Jefferson was built by slaves to advance imperialism. What do you think?
Located about an hour southwest of Miami, this park takes visitors away to another realm! Picture this: vast, uninterrupted landscapes where horizons are accessorized by mangroves and scantily-clad evergreen trees, interrupted only by myriad birds and their songs, and where the excitement lies underneath the surface. Everglades is one of the largest U.S. National Parks, clocking in at 1.5 million acres of mostly water or swamp. This park is probably best explored via canoe along well-established back country routes, and is not for the faint of heart as this is the only habitat in the world where alligators and crocodiles cohabitate. Don't worry though, there are plenty of activities for the terrestrial visitors, such as:
- Royal Palm Visitor's Center - Here visitors can find a few short hikes through lush forests quietly hosting Spanish moss and bromeliads, and on an expansive network of elevated wooden trails overlooking mangroves and prime alligator viewing points. We attended two ranger-led walks here, one during the day and one at night, where we learned some quick yet fascinating facts about our prehistoric, reptilian ancestors! Go at night to see dark skies, bright stars, and the eerie red glow of beady alligator eyes peering just above the waterline. A shout-out to our ranger who emphasized that Everglades National Park exists largely because of a woman named Marjorie Stoneman Douglas.
- Pa-hay-okee Overlook shares views of expansive mangroves and hammocks (densly-wooded areas with only a few inches of elevation) and gives visitors insight into the lives of the park's earliest human inhabitants.
- Nine Mile Pond: Here, we joined a FREE NPS-ranger-led canoeing trip through three ponds and mangroves. This was probably my favorite NPS program to date, as we ventured into unfamiliar aquatic territory during prime alligator mating season. We saw several alligators, the aptly-named, thirteen-foot croczilla (with MASSIVE, pearly-white fangs), and were alerted to the deep, guttural growl of alligators attracting mates.
- Flamingo Visitor's Center is the last stop on Everglade's earthen journey. Visibly damaged during Hurricane Irma, services were limited here, however, visitors could still walk around the grounds and catch glimpses of chubby, lovable manatees bathing in the marina's warm water!
This park is comprised of several keys, accessible only by boat, and is home to expansive, colorful, coral reefs and its equally colorful inhabitants. Much of what makes this park special lies beneath the ocean, however, we don't SCUBA. Tours of the other keys were expensive, and coupled with windy and chilly, weather, we opted to hang around the visitor's center - conveniently located near a nuclear power plant, and two landfills. We read that low levels of radiation seep into the surrounding waters, and were further discouraged from participating in water activities. I'm sure the park is beautiful and maybe one day we'll make it back! We are happy, however, that NPS protections extend offshore.
And there you have it! 40 parks by 40 for Ryan! (And somewhere around 38 or 39 parks for Cristina.) Check back in a few months for a report on our adventures in Iceland!