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Fort Jefferson #17

Fort Jefferson | Camping and construction coexist in (sorta) harmony

By Linda Grist Cunningham, editor and proprietor

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of Key West Island News and KeyWestWatch Media LLC. She and her husband, a park ranger at Fort Zach, live in Key West with their Cat 5s.

05/18/2024

Darned if we didn’t score the luxury suite among the Fort Jefferson campsites. We could see from the ferry, long before we docked, that #17 was open. Could we get that lucky?

Oh, indeed, we did. Here’s how a real estate agent might describe #17:

“Nestled (because they all use that word) just at the edge of a cottonwood hammock and boasting amazing views of the sunrise, #17 enjoys full sun before 11 a.m., followed by increasing shade for the rest of the day as the sun travels its westward journey.

“The property is the largest of the limited campsites. It is level and relatively free of tree roots, making for easy (that’s not even remotely true) move in. Setting up your tents, kitchen and charcoal grill is a breeze. (They don’t mention that the breeze can ramp up to, oh, say 25 m.p.h. and render fire-starting attempts useless and tent-staking a Rubik’s Cube championship round.)

“With its southeasterly-facing location, #17 catches the spring winds, perfect for nighttime sleeping under the stars. (True dat. It’s the reason we never camp deep in that cottonwood hammock. You get the shade there, but, man, it can be stifling because there’s no breeze. And once that spring wind shifts gears for summer, not even #17 is gonna be breezy.)

“On your way to explore the 14-acre island and historic fort make a quick bio-break at the state-of-the-art compost toilet facilities. (Hopefully right after the ranger cleans them and not after some drunken fisherman can’t figure out which end is supposed to go where.)

“Located just steps from your lovely tropical island home, South Beach is the perfect place to while away the hours. Just plop your chair and umbrella high atop the dune and watch the day-trippers cavort in the crystal-clear waters of the Atlantic Ocean with the fort rearing high above. (There WAS that 12-foot hammerhead shark that ripped through the swimming area chasing a school of tarpon, oblivious snorkelers to either side. So, yeah, there are sharks. This ain’t Disney World.)

“If you’re lucky enough to have squatter’s rights to #17 for three nights and four days, you’ll understand why camping at Fort Jefferson was on your bucket list.”

After dredging the moat and other areas around Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas, the fill is sifted to separate sand from coral and other debris. There’s at least three feet of new sand on the island’s two small beaches and in the overflow/group camping sites.

Fort Jefferson | What it’s like to camp in construction

Ranger Ed, two friends and I returned this week from our annual trek to Fort Jefferson. Our lucky #17, which we drew at long last, has the three things that make pack-in-pack-out camping less challenging: a better chance for a breeze, proximity to the beach and toilets (but not so close as to enjoy the aromas) and shade for most of the day.

This year there’s the added bonus of construction. We spent hours watching huge, U.S.-flag-flying Tonka toys with heavy-equipment artists at the wheel make sand less than 50 feet from our kitchen table. By the end of our four days a mountain of dredged fill had been sifted into sand, with the rocks, coral and assorted debris readied for construction use and the former overflow camping area leveled and packed smooth.

Despite the constant machine noise and backing-up beep-beeps — and the sand-laden wind that added grit to skin, hair, food and beverages — I’ve got to admit it was an applause-worthy show.

Garden Key, on which Fort Jefferson is located, is in the middle of a massive reconstruction project that will extend at least through the end of 2024. The moat is being dredged and its walls repaired. New docks will go in later this year and more than three feet of new sand has been spread on South Beach and North Beach. Heck, we didn’t even need water shoes to navigate through the coral and into the water. That hardscrabble will be back after the first couple of storms, I’m sure.

Although camping at Fort Jefferson is different each time we do it, there are a couple of heads-up if you plan to visit this year:

  • The big field that’s used for overflow and group camping is reduced to a few yards. That means already tiny spaces have been jammed together. Thirty or so fishermen on a group charter descended on our last night with a generator, a dozen tents, a kitchen setup and a rowdy post-midnight happy hour. That’s normal, of course, though this year was way crowded because so much of the field is being used for construction.
  • One of the two beaches is often closed, so everyone gets to share a lot more than usual.
  • It’s noisy, gritty and cramped. This is one year when those celebrated remote-tropical-island vibes don’t happen until almost sunset when the machinery shuts down and the last seaplane leaves.

But. The quiet does happen. The sun sets, the stars twinkle and all is right with the world. Best trip ever. Until next year.

Want more info? Travel along with Ranger Ed and me

Fort Jefferson | No one tells you about the prepping

Fort Jefferson | Is it worth it the trouble?

Fort Jefferson | 10 insider tips

Fort Jefferson | Yep, there’s really a ghost — and the pix prove it

Getting to the Dry Tortugas | Everything you need to know from the NPS and the Yankee Freedom

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