Garden Key in Dry Tortugas

Garden Key in Dry Tortugas

Garden Key is the central and largest of the seven Dry Tortugas islands in the Gulf of Mexico. Famous for the historic Fort Jefferson, the largest brick masonry structure in the Americas, Garden Key offers an intriguing blend of natural beauty and history. The turquoise waters surrounding the key teem with colorful marine life, making it a paradise for snorkeling enthusiasts. With its pristine beaches, lush vegetation, and exotic bird population, Garden Key is truly a jewel of the Dry Tortugas.

Beaches on Garden Key

Beaches at Garden KeyThe beaches on Garden Key are an outdoor enthusiast’s dream, combining the pristine nature of undisturbed sands with the awe-inspiring views of the azure sea. These beaches are characterized by their gradual slope and easy entry, making them an ideal spot for beginner swimmers and snorkelers. The tranquility of the waters coupled with the abundant marine life also make for great snorkeling adventures.

Here are some highlights about the beaches on Garden Key:

  • The swim areas on Garden Key are easily accessible via North, South, and East Beach. Each of these beaches offers unique charm and beauty, ensuring a memorable beach experience for all visitors.
  • The beaches of Garden Key are treasure troves for shell collectors, the sands littered with pieces of coral and beautiful shells. These natural souvenirs serve as a perfect memento of your visit to this beautiful location.
  • The South Swim Beach stands as the crowning jewel among the beaches of Garden Key. With its crystal-clear water, lack of waves, and breathtaking views of Fort Jefferson, it is undoubtedly a beachgoer’s paradise.

Camping on Garden Key

Camping in Dry Tortugas National Park offers an unparalleled outdoor experience amid the pristine beauty of the islands. With 10 sites available at the primitive campground, campers can immerse themselves in nature on a first-come, first-served basis, accommodating up to six people per site. Equipped with charcoal grills and picnic tables, the campsites provide a comfortable setting for outdoor dining and relaxation. While Garden Key offers toilets, there is no running water, electricity, or Wi-Fi service, allowing campers to disconnect from modern amenities and reconnect with nature. Reservations are essential for those planning to camp, ensuring availability and a seamless experience. With a wide range of activities available, including boating, fishing, paddling, swimming, and wildlife watching, campers can fully embrace the natural wonders of the Dry Tortugas. However, it’s crucial to come prepared with all the necessary supplies, including a tent, fresh water, fuel, ice, and food, to make the most of this unforgettable camping adventure. Additionally, large groups of 10-20 people must make reservations with the park to ensure accommodations on Garden Key.

Water Activities on Garden Key

Water Activities at Garden KeyGarden Key presents an array of immersive water activities that allow visitors to truly appreciate the beauty of its surrounding marine environment. The crystal-clear waters teem with incredible biodiversity, offering a front-row seat to a simply breathtaking underwater spectacle.

Here are water activities you can indulge in on Garden Key:

  • Snorkeling and Diving: One of the most popular attractions of Garden Key is its vibrant underwater environment. Most campers can wade right off the beaches into this underwater wonderland. The 46-square-mile Research Natural Area surrounding Garden Key is home to a variety of marine life, including endangered elkhorn and staghorn coral.
  • Fishing: The main dock, where the ferry from Key West drops off, is one of the best fishing spots on Garden Key. Whether you’re a seasoned angler or a novice, the excitement of reeling in a catch amid this picturesque backdrop is unparalleled. Do note that kayak fishing limits you to a one-mile radius of the campgrounds on Garden Key.
  • Kayaking or Paddleboarding: Offering a range of paddles from quick, close-by bouts to longer ones in the open water, kayaking or paddleboarding on Garden Key is a must-try experience. Paddle to Bush Island and Long Key within the harbor area, but keep in mind that you cannot go ashore and must remain a minimum of 100 feet offshore.

These activities not only enrich your visit to Garden Key but also bring you closer to the breathtaking natural beauty that defines this place.

Fort Jefferson on Garden Key

Fort Jefferson, a magnificent coastal U.S. military fortress, holds a significant place in America’s history. Situated within the Dry Tortugas National Park of Florida, it stands proudly as the largest brick masonry structure in the Americas. The impressive fort spans 16 acres and is constructed with over 16 million bricks, an undeniable testament to the craftsmanship of the era. Nestled on Garden Key, in the lower Florida Keys, Fort Jefferson is perched 68 miles (109 km) west of the prominent island of Key West. This remarkable fortification serves as a monument to the military engineering and strategic planning of the 19th century.


Fort Jefferson stands as a testament to the strategic importance of the Dry Tortugas islands in North America’s maritime history. Constructed to safeguard the deepwater anchorage, this imposing fortress began its journey in the early 19th century, with U.S. Navy Commodore David Porter inspecting the area in 1824-1825. Spanning nearly 30 years, from 1846 to 1875, the fort’s construction was never fully completed or armed, yet it played a significant role during the Civil War. Union warships utilized the harbor as part of their campaign to blockade southern shipping, and the fort served as a prison, primarily housing Union deserters. Among its most notable inmates was Dr. Samuel Alexander Mudd. Following the Army’s abandonment in 1874, Fort Jefferson found a new purpose as a coaling station for warships, further solidifying its place in American military history.

The Lighthouse of Garden Key

The Garden Key Light, also known as the Tortuga Harbor Light, stands as a historic beacon within the confines of Fort Jefferson on Garden Key in the Dry Tortugas in Florida. Initially established in 1824 and illuminated two years later, the first iteration of the lighthouse featured a conical brick tower serving as the sole structure on Garden Key until the construction of Fort Jefferson in 1846. Despite ongoing construction efforts until 1861, the fort was never fully completed. In 1858, the Dry Tortugas’ lighthouse was erected on a nearby island, prompting the relocation of the first-order Fresnel lens from the Garden Key lighthouse. Subsequently, the Garden Key lighthouse adopted a fourth-order Fresnel lens and assumed the role of harbor light for Fort Jefferson. Over time, the original brick tower was replaced with a boilerplate iron tower atop a stairwell within the fort in 1877. Tragedy struck in 1912 when the keeper’s house succumbed to fire, leading to the automation of the lighthouse and the installation of tanks of compressed acetylene to fuel the lights. Ultimately, the Garden Key Light was deactivated in 1924, concluding its illustrious history of guiding mariners through the treacherous waters of the Dry Tortugas.

The Lighthouse in the Fort on Garden Key


When was Loggerhead Key Lighthouse built?

The Loggerhead Key Lighthouse was constructed in 1858. This iconic structure stands tall on Loggerhead Key, the westernmost islet of the Dry Tortugas in Florida, serving as a testament to its history and heritage of maritime navigation.

How do you get to Garden Key in Florida?

Garden Key, home to the historic Fort Jefferson, is located in Dry Tortugas National Park, about 70 miles west of Key West, Florida. It is accessible only by boat or seaplane. The Yankee Freedom, a high-speed catamaran, provides daily ferry service from Key West. Seaplane services are also available from Key West, offering a breathtaking aerial view of the park. Reservations for both modes of travel are strongly recommended due to the park’s popularity and limited capacity.

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

The boat trip from Key West to Dry Tortugas typically takes around two-and-a-half hours. This duration can vary slightly based on weather conditions and the specific vessel used. Regular ferry services are available, offering a convenient and scenic journey to the unspoiled beaches and historic sites of Dry Tortugas National Park.

What is the best time to visit Dry Tortugas National Park?

The optimal time to visit Dry Tortugas National Park is between January and May. During these months, the weather is typically mild, with low rainfall and humidity making the conditions ideal for outdoor activities such as snorkeling, swimming, and bird-watching. The park is also less crowded during this time, providing visitors with a more serene and intimate experience.