Explore map of Florida Keys, are a group of islands located in the southeastern United States. They stretch about 120 miles off the southern tip of Florida, between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. The Keys are famous for their coral reefs and are part of a larger archipelago. The most well-known island is Key West, which is also the southernmost point in the continental United States. These islands are connected by the Overseas Highway, which is a scenic route that offers stunning ocean views. The Florida Keys are a popular destination for fishing, boating, snorkeling, and scuba diving, attracting tourists who enjoy their tropical climate and unique natural beauty.
Expore the map of Florida Keys showing interstate highways, US highways, other principle highways, railroads, cities, keys, airports, beaches, forests, and national parks.
About Florida Keys
The Florida Keys are a group of islands made of coral located off Florida's southern coast. They are the southernmost part of the United States. Starting just 15 miles south of Miami, these islands form a curve stretching south and west to Key West, the last inhabited island, and then further to the empty Dry Tortugas. The Keys are positioned between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico, marking the border of Florida Bay. Key West's southern part is very close to Cuba, just 93 miles away. These islands are located between 24.3 and 25.5 degrees North latitude.
Most of the land, over 95%, is in Monroe County, but a small part reaches into Miami-Dade County, including Totten Key. The total area is 137.3 square miles. As of the 2010 census, 73,090 people lived there, with a density of about 532 people per square mile. However, many people live in certain dense areas like Key West, which is home to 32% of the total population of the Keys. By 2014, the population was estimated to be 77,136.
Key West is not only a city but also the administrative center of Monroe County. The county includes part of the mainland, mostly in the Everglades National Park, and the chain of islands from Key Largo to the Dry Tortugas National Park.
History of Florida Keys
The Florida Keys, initially home to the Calusa and Tequesta tribes, were mapped by Juan Ponce de León in 1513. He named them Los Martires ("The Martyrs") as they resembled suffering men from afar. The word "Key" comes from the Spanish 'cayo', meaning a small island. Key West, once the biggest town in Florida, thrived on income from salvaging shipwrecks. Its location was perfect for trade with Cuba, the Bahamas, and the main route from New Orleans. However, as navigation improved and shipwrecks decreased, Key West's economy declined in the late 1800s.
Initially, the Keys could only be reached by water. This changed when Henry Flagler completed the Overseas Railway in the early 1910s. Despite setbacks from hurricanes in 1906, 1909, and 1910, Flagler extended his railway to Key West using a series of over-sea bridges.
The most intense hurricane to hit the U.S. struck near Islamorada in the Upper Keys on Labor Day, 1935. This hurricane brought winds up to 200 mph and caused a storm surge over 17.5 feet high, resulting in over 400 deaths. It was one of the four Category 5 hurricanes to hit the U.S. coast since 1850, alongside Hurricane Camille (1969), Hurricane Andrew (1992), and Hurricane Michael (2018).
In 1935, bridges were being built for a highway through the Keys. Many World War I veterans, working there as part of a relief program, died when a rescue train didn't arrive before the storm. This led to a Congressional investigation due to the high number of deaths and accusations of mismanagement. The hurricane also ended the 23-year operation of the Overseas Railway, as the damaged tracks were never rebuilt. Instead, the Overseas Highway (U.S. Highway 1) became the primary route from Miami to Key West.
The Seven Mile Bridge, one of the longest bridges at the time of construction, connects Knight's Key to Little Duck Key. This concrete bridge replaced the original that went over Pigeon Key, home to railway workers in the 1900s. The old bridge, partially closed in 2008, was deemed unsafe and needed expensive repairs. A ferry now transports visitors to Pigeon Key.
After the 1935 hurricane destroyed the railway, the old railroad bridges were converted for automobile use, forming the Overseas Highway. This highway, stretching from Key Largo to Key West, offers a journey through the unique tropical islands of the Florida Keys and views of the largest coral reef chain in the U.S.
Following the Cuban Revolution, many Cubans moved to South Florida, including the Keys. The Keys have always had a close relationship with Cuba, just ninety miles away by sea, and continue to be a destination for Cubans seeking a new life.
In 1982, the U.S. Border Patrol set up a checkpoint on US Highway 1, causing major issues for travel and tourism in the Keys. After legal efforts to remove the checkpoint failed, Key West's mayor, Dennis Wardlow, declared the city the "Conch Republic" in a symbolic act of independence on April 23, 1982. He surrendered after one minute, humorously asking for one billion dollars in "foreign aid." This act brought attention to the Keys' situation, leading to the removal of the checkpoint. The concept of the Conch Republic became a quirky part of the Keys' identity, contributing to tourism through souvenirs and continued protests.
Geology of Florida Keys
The Florida Keys in the north and center are parts of an old coral reef called the Key Largo Limestone. The northernmost island of this ancient reef is Elliott Key, in Biscayne National Park. North of Elliott Key, there are smaller keys made of sand around bits of this old reef. Further north, Key Biscayne and areas beyond are barrier islands made of sand.
The shape of the Florida Keys today is due to big changes in sea levels during past ice ages. About 130,000 years ago, sea levels were about 25 feet higher than now, covering all of southern Florida. Reefs formed along the edge of the underwater Florida Platform, from what is now Miami to the Dry Tortugas. This process created the Key Largo Limestone seen from Soldier Key to Big Pine Key and the Newfound Harbor Keys. The types of coral in the Key Largo Limestone are visible on these keys. Sea level changes exposed parts of the reef, which then eroded. Acidic water, often from decaying plants, dissolves limestone. Some of this limestone reformed as a harder cap rock, seen on top of the Key Largo and Miami limestones across the Keys. The limestone eroded from the reef made oolites in the sea behind the reef. These oolites and remains from sea creatures formed the Miami Limestone. This limestone is now the surface rock of the lower Florida peninsula and the lower keys from Big Pine Key to Key West. Past Key West, the old reef is covered by newer sand. The upper and middle keys, made of Key Largo Limestone, form a long, narrow curve. The lower keys are at a right angle to this curve. This shape comes from an old tidal-bar system, where tidal channels cut through a submerged deposit. These bars turned into Miami Limestone, and with sea level changes, they now form the islands. The channels between these bars are the gaps between the islands.
Close to the Florida Keys, along the Florida Straits, is the Florida Reef. This reef stretches 170 miles from Fowey Rocks near Soldier Key to just past the Marquesas Keys. It's the third-largest barrier reef system in the world.
Environment of Florida Keys
The climate and environment of the Florida Keys are closer to that of the Caribbean than the rest of Florida, though unlike the Caribbean's volcanic islands, the Keys were built by plants and animals. The Upper Keys islands are composed of sandy-type accumulations of limestone grains produced by plants and marine organisms. The Lower Keys are the remnants of large coral reefs, which became fossilized and exposed when the sea level dropped.
The natural habitats of the Keys are upland forests, inland wetlands and shoreline zones. Soil ranges from sand to marl to rich, decomposed leaf litter. In some places, "caprock" (the eroded surface of coral formations) covers the ground. Rain falling through leaf debris becomes acidic and dissolves holes in the limestone, where soil accumulates and trees root.
Flora and Fauna of Florida Keys
The Florida Keys are home to unique plants and animals, some of which are not found anywhere else in the United States. This is because the Keys mark the northern limit of their natural range. The local climate also supports many non-native plants. However, some of these foreign plants, originally brought for landscaping, are now invading and threatening the natural habitats.
The natural plant life in the Keys is varied. It includes species from both temperate climates, like the red maple (Acer rubrum), slash pine (Pinus elliottii var. densa), and oaks (Quercus spp.), which are found at the farthest southern point of their range, and tropical species. These tropical species include mahogany (Swietenia mahagoni), gumbo limbo (Bursera simaruba), stoppers (Eugenia spp.), Jamaican dogwood (Piscidia piscipula), and many others that only grow in tropical climates. There are also native palm trees, like the Florida thatch palm (Thrinax radiata), which reaches its largest size in the Keys.
Unique animals also live in the Keys, such as the American crocodile, the Key deer (protected in the National Key Deer Refuge), and the Key Largo woodrat. The American crocodile is mostly found in the Neotropics, but the Keys are part of its northernmost habitat. The Key Largo woodrat is only found in the northern part of Key Largo and is a key focus in the Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge. About 70 miles west of Key West lies the Dry Tortugas National Park.
The waters around the Keys are protected as part of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. This area helps preserve the rich marine life surrounding the islands.
Climate of Florida Keys
The Florida Keys have a tropical savanna climate. Apart from some coastal areas in Miami, the Keys are the only place in the continental United States where temperatures have never dropped to freezing since people started living there. The lowest temperature ever recorded in Key West is 41 °F (5 °C), which happened in 1886 and 1981. It's rare for temperatures to fall below 48 °F (9 °C). Most of the Keys are in the USDA zone 11a to 11b; Key West is in zone 12a.
There are mainly two seasons in the Keys. From June to October, it's hot and wet. From November to April, it's the dry season, with little rain, lots of sun, and warm breezes. The winter, with average high temperatures around 75 °F (24 °C) and lows above 60 °F (16 °C), is the busiest tourist season. Key West is Florida's driest city, and during the peak of the dry season, the Keys can get quite dry. Some plants in the Keys are small and scrubby because of the strong sun, sandy soil that drains quickly, and the dry conditions in winter.
The Florida Keys sometimes face threats from tropical storms and hurricanes, leading to people moving to safer places on the mainland. In 1998, Hurricane Georges damaged many Caribbean islands and then caused flooding and harm in the Lower Keys before hitting Mississippi. In 2005, Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma impacted the Keys, although none directly hit the area, causing a lot of damage and flooding. The most intense hurricane to strike the Keys was the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, a Category 5 storm.
All parts of the Keys are at risk during tropical cyclones because none of the islands are more than 20 feet above sea level, and many are even lower. This means almost every area can flood, besides facing strong hurricane winds. To cope with this, many houses in the Keys are built on stilts made of concrete, with the ground floor not meant for living and enclosed by weak walls that can break away easily. However, Monroe County reports that there are between 8,000 and 12,000 homes that are not legal but still have people living in them.
When there is a hurricane watch or warning, or sometimes even during a tropical storm warning, people are often told to leave the Keys. Getting out of the Keys requires using causeways and a two-lane highway to the mainland. It can take 12 to 24 hours to evacuate everyone. These times are important for emergency plans and also affect rules about building and development. The number of building permits allowed increased in 2005 when local governments lowered the estimated time needed to evacuate.
Hurricane Irma hit Cudjoe Key on September 10, 2017. This storm destroyed about 25% of homes in the Keys and caused major damage to another 65%. Most people had left the area before the storm arrived. On September 12, some parts of the Keys could not be reached by road, and some areas were closed off. The Governor, Rick Scott, reported that the damage was severe, with many places lacking power or water. The Lower Keys were hit the hardest, with less damage in Key West. Some parts of the Lower Keys were so badly damaged that they might not be livable for months.