Just before dawn on Tuesday, November 15, 2016, a bit of light rain fell on Garden Key in Dry Tortugas National Park. It was barely enough to warrant putting the rainflies on our tents, but it caused us to stir a bit. By the time the sun rose just about 7am, most of us were awake and ready for a quiet, relaxing day on the island.
As late afternoon arrived on Garden Key on November 14, 2016, the vast majority of the island’s inhabitants outside of Fort Jefferson were lounging and relaxing.
By late Monday morning, November 14, 2016, our group of eight was settled into our campsites in the small campground on Garden Key at Dry Tortugas National Park. Garden Key is about 1.8 million square feet, although its size was hugely expanded (from an estimated 350,000 square feet) during the construction of Fort Jefferson in the nineteenth century. Regardless, it is a very small desert island with the remains of a huge masonry fort. There was nothing claustrophobic about being on Garden Key, but for a few days our world would contract from the bigness of living in major cities and being constantly connected. We would be living on a tiny bit of land barely rising out of the sea and largely cut off from the outside world.
Dry Tortugas National Park protects almost 65,000 acres in the Gulf of Mexico seventy miles west of Key West, Florida. The National Park is surrounded by the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and the Tortugas Ecological Reserve. While the surface area of the Park is mostly water, a handful of tiny islands rise above the waves for a total of 104 acres of land. Chief among these are Loggerhead Key, which boasts the 157-foot tall Dry Tortugas Lighthouse, and Garden Key, site of Fort Jefferson and the primary hub of visitation in the Park. Only one other island, Bush Key, of the remaining five is open to the public. President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared the Dry Tortugas island group a National Monument in 1935. The boundaries were expanded in 1983, and Congress upgraded the Monument to a National Park in 1992.
[Note: It feels strange to be writing about our trip to Dry Tortugas National Park and Biscayne National Park while those Parks are closed and damaged and while Florida is just beginning to recover from the devastation of Hurricane Irma. But these places will reopen and recover, and any part this website plays in encouraging more people to visit these Parks and spend money this winter and in years to come in the Florida Keys will, I hope, help in some small way.
Additionally, at Out in the Parks, where I sell prints of a selection of my photographs of the National Parks, I’m doing a fundraiser: while the four National Parks impacted by Hurricane Irma—Biscayne, Dry Tortugas, Everglades, and Virgin Islands—remain closed, 100% of proceeds from photographs featuring these Parks will benefit their respective affiliated non-profit organizations: Florida National Parks Association, Everglades Association, and Friends of Virgin Islands National Park.]
As 2016 aged, Sean and I reached the conclusion of our aim to calibrate the National Parks that we had visited so that by the end of the National Park Service Centennial year we would have been to the same National Parks. After our descent of the Grand Staircase, Sean had been to twenty-one Parks to my twenty Parks since he had been to Dry Tortugas National Park during a spring break trip to Key West while he was at Michigan State University in the 1990s. He had caught up to Yosemite, Shenandoah, and Grand Canyon, and now it was my turn. We would, logically, add Biscayne National Park to our trip, thereby ending 2016 with our visited-Parks number at a not-too-shabby twenty-two.
After our grand hike on Widforss Trail, instead of returning immediately to our campsite, we went to the Grand Canyon Lodge campus to hit the North Rim Visitor Center one last time. It was the late afternoon of Saturday, September 17, and we knew we wouldn’t be able to linger at Grand Canyon National Park the next morning waiting for the visitor center to open if we wanted to get back to Phoenix in time for our flight home.
The morning of Saturday, September 17 was clear and warmer than the previous morning. Our plan for the final full day of our Grand Staircase adventure was to hike the Widforss Trail, a ten-mile round trip through the forests of the Kaibab Plateau to Widforss Point. Widforss Point, which provides a panoramic view of the Grand Canyon, is the type of viewpoint that on the developed South Rim would be served by shuttle buses and a packed parking lot. But because it was on the far less developed and less visited North Rim, it was accessible only to hikers and backpackers.