Islands of Dry Tortugas National Park

Dry Tortugas National Park

Glistening emerald waters, pristine beaches, and an abundance of wildlife beckon visitors to the islands of Dry Tortugas National Park. Nestled in the Gulf of Mexico, this remote archipelago is a gem worth exploring. Diving into the clear waters reveals a bustling underwater world, while the islands themselves host a rich tapestry of history. A vacation here unveils the perfect blend of serenity and adventure, making the islands of Dry Tortugas National Park an essential inclusion in any travel itinerary.

History of Dry Tortugas

The Dry Tortugas, a remote group of islands located approximately 70 miles west of Key West, Florida, boasts a rich and storied history dating back to the early 16th century. The first European to lay eyes on these pristine islands was Juan Ponce de León, who arrived on June 21, 1513. Drawn by the abundance of sea turtles in the area, Ponce de León caught 160 of them and subsequently named the islands “Tortugas,” meaning turtles in Spanish. The designation “Dry” was later added to reflect the absence of surface fresh water on the islands.

Beyond their natural beauty, the Dry Tortugas are steeped in maritime history. On September 6, 1622, tragedy struck when the Spanish galleon Nuestra Señora de Atocha was battered by a severe hurricane and wrecked on a coral reef near the Dry Tortugas. This historic event, known as the Atocha’s shipwreck, left an indelible mark on the island’s lore and further cemented its significance in maritime history. Today, the Dry Tortugas continues to captivate visitors with its breathtaking scenery and compelling tales of exploration and adventure.

7 Islands of Dry Tortugas

Loggerhead Key: The Crown Jewel of Dry Tortugas

Loggerhead KeyLoggerhead Key, amid the stunning landscape of the Dry Tortugas group of islands in the Gulf of Mexico, stands as a captivating destination characterized by its natural beauty and seclusion. As the largest island in the archipelago, covering approximately 49 acres, Loggerhead Key offers a serene and untouched tropical environment. Despite being uninhabited, the island features a few notable structures, including the iconic Dry Tortugas Lighthouse and a charming lightkeeper’s house constructed in the 1920s. Utilizing advanced desalination technology and solar power, Loggerhead Key ensures a sustainable water supply, highlighting its commitment to environmental stewardship. With a rich scientific legacy stemming from the Carnegie Marine Biological Laboratory’s presence from 1904 to 1939, the island also boasts the vibrant Little Africa coral reef, home to a diverse array of marine life, including tropical fish, spiny lobsters, and juvenile game fish, providing a captivating glimpse into the underwater world.

Garden Key: Home to Historic Fort Jefferson

Garden KeyGarden Key, situated within the captivating expanse of Dry Tortugas National Park, is home to historic Fort Jefferson, a monumental 19th-century fortification that stands as one of the nation’s largest. Anchored by the imposing presence of Fort Jefferson, Garden Key serves as a cultural centerpiece within the park, offering visitors a glimpse into the island’s rich history and heritage. The island also boasts the inactive Garden Key lighthouse, adding to its historical charm. As the second largest island in the chain, Garden Key spans an impressive 400 by 500 meters in size, with an area of 17 hectares. Nestled just 2.5 miles east of Loggerhead Key, Garden Key offers a captivating blend of natural beauty and historical significance. From the sprawling grounds of Fort Jefferson to the picturesque vistas overlooking the azure waters of the Dry Tortugas islands, Garden Key invites visitors to explore its storied past and scenic wonders.

Bush Key: A Sanctuary for Terns

Bush KeyBush Key, once known as Hog Island due to its history of raising hogs to provide fresh meat for prisoners at Fort Jefferson on nearby Garden Key, stands as a fascinating destination within the Dry Tortugas island chain. Connected to Garden Key by a sandbar, Bush Key is the third-largest island in the archipelago, spanning an area of 30 acres and reaching less than 3 feet in height. This unique island is home to a large tern rookery, making it an important habitat for nesting sooty terns and brown noddies. Due to its significance as a nesting site, Bush Key is closed to visitors from February to September to protect the nesting birds and maintain the delicate ecosystem. Explore the intriguing history and natural wonders of Bush Key, an integral part of the Dry Tortugas island experience.

Long Key: The Bridge Between Islands

Just a stone’s throw away from Bush Key, Long Key lies as a mid-sized island in the Dry Tortugas archipelago. Its proximity, 59 meters south of the eastern end of Bush Key, makes this relatively small island an interesting feature in the landscape. With an area of 8,000 square meters, Long Key may seem insignificant in size when compared to its larger counterparts. However, the island’s unique positioning connects it to Bush Key by a natural sandbar, effectively making it a bridge between islands. This geographical characteristic enhances the allure of Long Key, transforming it from a mere landmass to a vital component in the geography of the Dry Tortugas National Park. The island’s strategic location and interconnectedness with other islands not only add to its charm but also underscore its role in shaping the unique layout of the Dry Tortugas.

Hospital Key: A Silent Remnant of History

Hospital Key bears a unique historical legacy dating back to the late 19th century. Formerly known as Middle Key or Sand Key, this picturesque island earned its name due to the construction of a hospital for the inmates of Fort Jefferson in the 1870s. Positioned 2.5 kilometers (1.6 miles) northeast of Garden Key and Bush Key, Hospital Key spans an area of 4,000 square meters (0.99 acres) and reaches a height of 1 meter (3 feet, 3 inches) above sea level at its highest point. Amid its pristine shores, remnants of its past as a hospital site offer a glimpse into the island’s intriguing history, making Hospital Key a fascinating destination for visitors exploring the captivating wonders of the Dry Tortugas islands.

Middle Key: The Ephemeral Island

Middle Key, situated 2.5 kilometers east of Hospital Key, is a distinct entity within the Dry Tortugas due to its ephemeral nature. Spanning approximately 6,000 square meters, or 1.5 acres, it barely rises 90 meters above sea level. Unlike its more prominent counterparts, Middle Key’s existence is dictated by the rhythms of nature. The island is subject to various seasonal changes, storm patterns, and tidal cycles, causing it to intermittently disappear below the sea’s surface for weeks or even months at a time. However, through this cycle of submersion and reemergence, Middle Key underscores the dynamic nature of the Dry Tortugas archipelago. Its transient presence serves as a vivid reminder of the ever-changing landscapes sculpted by the forces of nature, making it a fascinating, albeit elusive, part of Dry Tortugas National Park.

East Key: The Small Yet Significant Island

East Key, located just 2 kilometers east of Middle Key, is the smallest island in the Dry Tortugas archipelago. At 100 by 200 meters, the island encompasses an area of 1.6 hectares and reaches an elevation of over 2 meters. Despite its small size, East Key holds a unique charm and significance within the national park. The island’s compact geographical footprint in no way diminishes its ecological importance. It serves as a sanctuary for various types of wildlife and flaunts a diverse range of flora and fauna, demonstrating that size does not dictate ecological richness. The changing tides and seasons of East Key provide a unique microcosm of the dynamic interplay between land and sea, making it a fascinating focal point of study for environmental scientists. This modest island, therefore, embodies the notion that size is not a measure of significance, as it quietly contributes to the biodiversity and dynamic landscapes that define Dry Tortugas National Park.


How long is the ferry ride from Key West to Dry Tortugas?

The ferry ride from Key West to Dry Tortugas National Park typically takes about two-and-a-half hours. Please note that this duration can vary based on weather conditions.

Why is Dry Tortugas National Park famous?

Dry Tortugas National Park is renowned for its history, unique ecology, and stunning natural beauty. It houses Fort Jefferson, one of the largest 19th-century forts in the United States, and is a habitat for diverse marine and bird life. Its crystal-clear waters, pristine coral reefs, and fascinating shipwrecks also make it a popular destination for snorkeling and diving.

Why is Dry Tortugas the least visited?

Dry Tortugas National Park is among the least visited national parks due to its remote location, approximately 70 miles west of Key West. It is accessible only by boat or seaplane. Additionally, its isolation and limited facilities require visitors to be self-sufficient, especially those planning an overnight stay.

Can you stay overnight in the Dry Tortugas?

Yes, overnight camping is permitted in Dry Tortugas National Park on a first-come, first-served basis. The park provides a designated camping area on Garden Key with limited facilities. Campers need to bring all necessary supplies, including food and water, as there are no stores or concessions on the island. It’s important to note that, due to the park’s remote location, campers must be prepared for varying weather conditions and be self-sufficient during their stay.