Roughing it on Garden Key in the Dry Tortugas

“We have our coral reef eco-system, We have our seabirds behind us,” says Glenn Simpson pointing behind him while looking forward at one of the most remote locations to camp overnight in Florida.

Appropriately named Garden Key, you’ll find lush scenery 70 miles west of Key West, long with a primitive campground.

Welcome home. At Fort Jefferson, you can rough it at one of a dozen camp sites.

“You can’t believe for just three dollars, you can camp on an island that literally looks like Aruba or a fancy place in the Caribbean,” says camper Victoria Pagano.

First order of duty upon arrival, get that tent set up before the ferry leaves. The boat headed back to Key West is our only connection to the outside world. Perspective campers need to be ready. There’s no 7-Eleven or WiFi here.
In fact, there is no electricity or running water.

And when you break one of your tent’s supports, you’re at the mercy of other campers. My neighbors quickly offered assistance to help put a roof over my head.

Let’s pray this thing holds,” says fellow Dean Stactare, who came prepared with a tool box.

“You’re good if the winds stay under 20,” he cracks about his repair job.

With our tent standing just feet from the Fort, it’s time for dinner. Each campsite comes with a grill, but you must provide the charcoal. Plus, it’s a good idea to pack the most sturdy trash bags you can find. Here, all trash must be tied to a pole, so the rats cannot reach it in the middle of the night.

Rats are not the only crawling creature here. Hermit crabs are party crashers just before sunset. They love the smell of cooking hamburgers.

Campers are allowed to roam the island to sunset, when most folks quietly retreat to the beach and stare at the giant fireball sinking into the Gulf of Mexico.

“The sky is crazy with colors,” Glenn Simpson says. The Ranger with the National Park Service lives on the island for weeks at a time.

Folks go to bed early here. That’s after brushing your teeth on the beach with bottled water. There are no bathrooms, just composting toilets. The photographer for this story had to switch outhouses after he claims the spiders inside toilet room proved too threatening.

That aside, Glenn wouldn’t change a thing, “It’s a great place to camp. It’s quiet at night.”

Morning comes early here.
Some campers will take a salt water bath, while others cast a line and try to hook lunch before the seaplanes arrive. Others will explore the depths of Fort Jefferson in the morning light.

Meantime, Victoria next door assembled some loose bricks from the fort and made an oven. Perfect for baking
fresh cinnamon rolls.

The rolls are consumed faster here than the can of Spam she gave to Scott Fais as an island parting gift.

NOTE: Campers are only allowed to spend three nights in-a-row at Fort Jefferson before being ordered to pack it up.

About this Destination

Where: Garden Key, The Florida Keys, Monroe County

Open: Monday through Sunday

Fort Jefferson hours: sunrise to sunset

Phone: 305-242-7700

General admission:
Adults 16+: $5
Children 15 and younger: Free

Camping Fee: $3.00 per person

It doesn’t have a physical address!

Mailing address:
Dry Tortugas National Park
P.O. Box 6208
Key West, FL  33041


Ferry transportation:
Yankee Freedom II

Seaplane transportation:
Key West Seaplane Adventures

Accessibility note: Several areas of Fort Jefferson are flat and accessible to those in wheelchairs and ECV scooters. While the beaches are sandy, the interior of the fort and island landscaping is a compacted shell base (like cement) and mixture of wild grass.

Production note: Although the lighthouse located on the third level of the tower was used in the filming of Florida on a Tankful Summer Road Trip with Scott Fais, it is not open to the public.

GPS Longitude & Latitude:
Latitude: 29.89601
Longitude: -81.31115

Latitude: 29° 53′ 45.636″
Longitude: -81° 18′ 40.1394″

Drive Times:
From Orlando to Key West: 6 hours, 45 minutes
From Tampa to Key West: 7 hours, 15 minutes

Source: Roughing it on Garden Key: Florida on a Tankful