Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida and Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas
Key West is an odd city. It’s even odd in the context of Florida, which is itself an odd state. Only about one-fourth of Key West has relatively normal homes and businesses. Half is beaches, a Naval Air Station, a state park, and what looks like an urban project. And the rest is an unapologetic tourist trap – for anyone familiar with San Francisco, picture a supersized version of Fisherman’s Wharf. Dust all of it with a vibe that feels more Jimmy Buffet than full-on Caribbean and you have a city unlike any other.
Overly tan men in their 50s wearing unbuttoned shirts rode around on vintage bicycles and didn’t seem to be going anywhere. Enormous multi-million-dollar yachts glided past dilapidated eight-foot sailboats with rotting hulls and names like One Too Many and Barefoot & Topless. When I went into a McDonald’s for a drink I had to wait as a French woman in a bikini berated a hapless cashier for misunderstanding her unintelligible English, a situation that was only resolved when the quick-thinking McDonald’s manager asked the French woman if she spoke Spanish, and, learning that she did, used that language to take her order.
I spent only one night in Key West before catching the early-morning ferry to Dry Tortugas National Park. The Yankee Freedom II motored west from Lands End Marina and covered the 68 miles to Garden Key, the heart of the park, in two and a half hours. Garden Key and the six other islands of Dry Tortugas were discovered by Ponce de Leon in 1513. Seeing lots of turtles around, Ponce dug deep into his creative well and named the place “Tortugas,” the Spanish word for turtles. Sailors later added “Dry” as a warning that the islands had no fresh water.
Dominating tiny Garden Key is Fort Jefferson, a massive hexagonal three-level brick behemoth built by the U.S. in the 1840s. According to the National Park Service, Fort Jefferson is the largest masonry structure in the Americas. In 1865 Fort Jefferson claimed some measure of fame when Dr. Samuel Mudd and three other men who had been convicted of conspiring to assassinate Abraham Lincoln were imprisoned within its brick walls.
Fort Jefferson Panorama (Video)
I spent about two hours exploring Fort Jefferson and then went snorkeling. Hurricane Irene missed Florida, but the storm’s force had stirred up the water. Visibility was poor and – just like at Biscayne National Park – moon jellies were everywhere, but it was a relief to cool down on such a hot afternoon.Of the National Parks I’d visited in the east, Dry Tortugas was easily one of my favorites. I was sorry to leave. At some point I’d love to go back and spend the night at Garden Key’s campsite.
From Key West I drove to Atlanta, a city I lived in for several years in the 1990s. Two of my friends – Laura, who I’ve known since junior high school, and Dave, a friend from college, still lived there and were nice enough to meet me for a drink. It was great to catch up, and I really appreciated having a chance to meet Laura’s two sons for the first time.
Very little of what I’d heard or read about Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas held any appeal for me, but – given that my goal is to visit every National Park in the U.S. – I stopped there briefly on my way from Atlanta to Kansas City. I used a paper cup given to me by a park ranger to drink from the springs, I toured the Fordyce Bathhouse, and I left. Like Cuyahoga Valley, Hot Springs didn’t fit my idea of what a National Park should be.
I can now say I’ve been to 50 of our country’s 58 National Parks. The remaining eight aren’t going to be easy. To complete my collection I still need to visit Volcanoes National Park in Hawaii, the National Park of American Samoa, Virgin Islands National Park, and five parks in Alaska: Gates of the Arctic, Glacier Bay, Kobuk Valley, Lake Clark, and Wrangell Saint Elias.