About the Site
Dry Tortugas National Park (3)  


Park History


Outside Walls

Inside Walls

Garden Key

Other Islands




Garden Key

Fort Jefferson and related facilities nearly cover Garden Key. The island, formed by shifting sands and coral boulders, has an area above water of about 16 acres.

After being abandoned for 24 years in the 1870's and 1880's the military returned in 1898 at the beginning of the Spanish-American War. During that war the island was used as a coaling facility. The coaling station station itself, the ruins of a portion of which are shown below, was constructed from about 1898-1904.

Most visitors, now and when the fort housed soldiers or prisoners, have arrived at the island at the dock, shown in both pictures below. Garden Key lies about 90 miles north of the island of Cuba. This island was selected for the fort because of the excellent natural harbor which was the only one between Chesapeake Bay and the Rio Grande deep enough to accommodate the battleships of 1895.

Fishing is currently permitted from the dock. Fisherman may catch grouper, amberjack, cobia, tarpon, mackerel, snook, and red snapper.

A moat runs around the walls of the fort. On the west and the north sides of the island a walk on top of the seawall along the edge of the moat provides a convenient way to examine the outside walls of the fort.

Among the most noteworthy features of the park are the beautiful coral reefs. These are among the most unspoiled living coral reef ecosystems in north America. The clear waters around the islands provide excellent conditions for snorkeling and a closer examination of the reefs.


A beach on the southwest corner of the island, adjacent to the walls of the fort, provides an excellent place to swim or begin a snorkeling expedition.

Other Islands

Of the 100 square miles which makes up the park, less than a single square mile of land lies above water. The Tortugas chain, and the national park, contains seven small islands formed by coral reefs. Three of the smaller islands, seen below from left to right, are Hospital Key, Middle Key, and East Key. In the 1860's Hospital Key was used to isolate inhabitants suffering from the yellow fever epidemic. East Key is a favorite nesting side for the turtles after which the chain of islands are named. All of the Tortugas as subject to flooding by storm tides.

The reefs which surround (and formed) the islands have proved hazardous to shipping traffic in the Gulf. The waters of the park are littered with the rotting hulls of sunken wrecked ships, some of which date to the 1600's.

Garden Key (described above) is clustered together with two other islands. Above and to the left in the picture below is Bush Key. This island was once used as pasture for cows and hogs to supply the needs of those stationed at the fort. It once had a heavy cover of vegetation, but but the island itself disappeared in an 1870 hurricane, only to reappear later. Beyond and to the right is Long Key.

The climate in the Tortugas is ideal, ranging from about 50 to 80 degrees year round. However, the islands are indeed "dry;" visitors must bring their own water, as there is no source of fresh water whatsoever. Below is a different view of the vegetation-covered Long Key. The seas off the island are used as a nesting area for nurse sharks.

The largest of the islands is Loggerhead Key, with its signature Dry Tortugas Light Station. Loggerhead Key is the highest island and has the most vegetation of any in the chain. The island contains a small beach which provides excellent snorkeling. The lighthouse itself was actually not turned over to the National Park Service until 1992. Loggerhead Key was also the site of America's first tropical marine laboratory.


There is a rich variety of plant life on the islands as well, despite their remoteness. Below is a palm, signature tree of south Florida.

The date palm, shown below, can be found outside the walls of the fort.

As befits the "dry" islands, cactus and other succulent can be found in some abundance.



The islands were originally protected for their value as a bird sanctuary, as they serve as key nesting grounds for species including frigate birds and terns. Especially noteworthy are the nesting sites for sooty and noddy terns. Between May and September thousands of sooty terns nest on the islands. Birds of several varieties can be found in abundance. The birds below appear to be Ruddy Turnstones.

Terns and gulls can be easily confused; gulls are larger, while terns are faster and more streamlined.

The pelican is another bird common in the Gulf which can be found around the Tortugas.


The pelican can often be found where there are fish to be had, as on a dock frequented by fishermen.


Information about Dry Tortugas National Park has been drawn from personal experience, data available in the park itself, and a number of other sources, including:

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  • All photographs ©Patrick Holleran, Shannon Digital Imaging, 1994-2013

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