Milky Way looms above Dry Tortugas National Park.
Milky Way looms above Dry Tortugas National Park. (Photo: Harun Mehmedinovic)

Going to Key West anytime soon? If so, don't miss the opportunity to charter a boat and hit up Dry Tortugas National Park.

As one of the lesser known gems of the National Park System, this 100-square-mile park is tasked with preserving seven individual island keys surrounded by vivid blue waters and a wealth of diverse marine and bird wild life. The park's most iconic centerpiece is a 19th-century brick fortress known as Fort Jefferson.

Constructed between 1846 and 1875, Fort Jefferson's primary mission was to guard one of the country's most lucrative and valuable shipping channels. About 16 million bricks were used to build the all-masonry fort — the largest of its kind in the U.S. — though the structure remains unfinished to this day.

Brick corridors of Fort Jefferson in Dry Tortugas National Park.
Brick corridors of Fort Jefferson in Dry Tortugas National Park. (Photo: Harun Mehmedinovic)

While the six-sided fortress is impressive, the logistics of traversing the waters around it have a long, treacherous history.

"Low and flat, these islands and reefs pose a serious navigation hazard to ships passing through the 75-mile-wide straits between the gulf and the ocean," according to the National Park Service. "Consequently, these high-risk reefs have created a natural 'ship trap' and have been the site of hundreds of shipwrecks."

A lighthouse was built on the key in 1825 to guide ships, but scores of shipwrecks have occurred over the centuries. Today, the remnants of the nautical disasters in Dry Tortugas' vicinity are federally protected along with the fortress and the area's fragile marine ecosystems.

The Milky Way gleams over a lighthouse in Dry Tortugas National Park.
The Milky Way gleams over a lighthouse in Dry Tortugas National Park. (Photo: Harun Mehmedinovic)

Of course, the fortress isn't the only reason you should add Dry Tortugas to your bucket list. Because the island is so remote, it boasts one of the darkest night skies on the East Coast.

This ultra dark night sky is what inspired photographer Harun Mehmedinovic to visit this location as part of his ongoing, crowdfunded SKYGLOW project. In past few installments of the SKYGLOW series, we've observed a glittering milky way over a rare super bloom in Death Valley and the surreal dance of synchronized fireflies in the Great Smoky Mountains.

This time, viewers are treated to a breathtaking glimpse of not only the cosmic grandeur of our skies but also the unyielding expanse of sea stretching out for miles in all directions:

Catie Leary ( @catieleary ) writes about science, travel, animals and the arts.