Most Keys lighthouses are offshore and don't accommodate guests, but the Key West Lighthouse (no longer a working light, but a tourist attraction nonetheless) at 938 Whitehead Street welcomes fee-paying visitors who may climb the 88 steps to the top for a spectacular view. The lighthouse, with its museum and gift shop, is open daily Call 305-294-0012 for information.
Key West was isolated except by sea until Henry Flagler’s Overseas Railroad reached it in 1912. In the February 1908 issue of Everybody's Magazine, Ralph D. Payne wrote, “A speck of reef set far out in a tropical sea, much nearer to the coast of Cuba than to any port in its own country, Key West has long been the most remote and incongruous city claimed by an American state. In days gone by, its spongers, wreckers, and Spanish-speaking cigar makers no more dreamed of being linked to the mainland by rail than do the people of Honolulu.” But Flagler persevered, and his railroad connected the Keys to the mainland until the disastrous hurricane of 1935 destroyed it. It wasn’t until just before World War II that the Overseas Highway was built on Mr. Flagler's roadbed to open the Keys and Key West to the rest of the world by land.
If you'd like a more detailed look at Key West's fascinating history, visit the Key West Custom House Museum at 281 Front Street. Housed in the over-100-year-old structure that was originally Key West's Custom House, it is maintained by the Key West Art & Historical Society. The climate-controlled museum is open daily. For information, call 305-295-6616 or visit www.kwahs.com.
While Key West is often considered the end of the line, it is not the end of the Keys for those whose ships and seamanship are equal to the extension. There’s actually another sixty-odd miles to explore.
Immediately west of Key West lies a string of shoals and keys that extend about 20 miles to the Marquesas Keys and which offer some of the best diving and fishing in the entire state of Florida. The nearer ones, Man and Woman Keys, are popular daytime beaching and snorkeling spots for local small craft. A bit farther on, at Boca Grande, there’s a pretty good anchorage on the northwestern side. There are some interesting wrecks that you might want to explore, and the fishing is wonderful. Shoals around the entrance channel shift continually, so eyeball piloting is essential on the way in.
Farther west, across choppy Boca Grande Channel, lie the Marquesas Keys, the closest thing to a tropical atoll you'll find in North America, although there are some convincing arguments that they were formed by a meteor strike rather than natural coral and mangroves. However formed, the islands are a naturalist's and fisherman's paradise but completely without facilities.
The Marquesas are another end of the line for everyone but self-sufficient cruising boats capable of handling the passage to the Dry Tortugas, another 40 miles west. The 60 miles from Key West to the Tortugas is a route completely devoid of food, water, or facilities of any kind, and only those equipped and prepared for 120 miles of cruising and all contingencies including unpredictable weather should even think about the trip. Yet despite the isolation, or maybe because of it, hundreds of yachtsmen cruise every year to this most southerly of National Parks. Ferry boats run day trips out of Key West Seaport so you can take the tour without taking your own boat along. There are seaplanes making day trips, too. Other hundreds head out of Key West for the fabulous fishing in the same waters. Charter and party boats have routinely fished those waters from as far away as Naples and Fort Myers, a hundred miles to the north. Some environmentalists claim the Tortugas have been over-fished and have worked toward the institution of closed, “no-take” areas, so if you plan to fish here, be sure you are up to date on all current regulations regarding what species can and cannot be taken and from where. There's been a move afoot to close the entire park toall fishing! So, again, check regulations carefully before fishing there at all. We'll try to advise about the outcome on the web site update (NEWS) and here, but such news is sometimes slow to travel.
Fort Jefferson is the main attraction of the Dry Tortugas. Started in 1846 to guard the entrance to the Gulf, the fort was never finished and never saw battle. During the Civil War it was used to house Confederate prisoners of war, including the unfortunate Dr. Samuel Mudd, wrongly convicted of treason for treating the broken leg of John Wilkes Booth as he fled after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
The eastern canal into Fort Jefferson has shoaled to 1' but the anchorage can be reached via the approach on the western side of the fort, called the "main channel." Capt. Frank Papy suggests going in there on arrival, tying up at the dock and talking with the park rangers who are happy to let you know about any changes, new regulations you should be aware of, best place to anchor, etc., etc. There are good day anchorages around Garden Key and Loggerhead Key. Overnight anchoring is restricted to within 1 mile of the fort; overnight anchoring in the Loggerhead Key area is no longer allowed.
Experienced visitors (besides Papy) suggest you ask the park rangers which anchorage is best for the prevailing weather, take their advice, then use your dinghy to explore the other keys. Be aware that some are off limits, especially when hundreds of thousands of sooty terns and other sea birds nest on Bush Key and other islets in the area. The area is patrolled constantly and wildlife regulations are vigorously enforced.
The park's web site is very well done and gives a good feel for the history and ambiance of the place. They have good photos (aerials and underwater) maps, ferry information, regulations, etc., and especially for kids, information on how to become a Dry Tortugas Junior Ranger.
At Loggerhead Key, you have reached the real end of the line — there is nothing to the west but 900 miles of open water to the coast of Mexico and 80 miles of open Gulf to The Sun Coast.
Let's go there.
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