Beaches / Florida Keys / Historic

Fort Zachary Taylor State Park: Key West’s hidden gem


The bricks came all the way from New York.  The craftsman who knew how to lay the bricks came from England and Ireland.

Fort Zachary Taylor: The bricks came all the way from New York. Craftsman who knew how to lay the bricks had to come from England and Ireland.

I had been to Key West many times before I got to Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park.  Apparently, I am not alone. In reviews on Yelp, folks talk about it as “my little hidden secret.” The reason Fort Zachary Taylor is not better known is probably its location: When in Key West, the only indication of the fort is a small street sign. Because it is on the water behind the Truman Annex, you don’t pass it while walking or driving. Fort Zach, as locals call it, is only visited by people who seek it out. There are plenty of good reasons to seek it out:

  • The Civil War fort is a beautiful relic, with brick archways built by Irish and British craftsmen who learned the castle- and fort-building trade from generations of artisans.
  • The fort has the largest collection of Civil War armaments in the United States – amazing cannons, even if you’re not into cannons.
  • The beach, at the point where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Gulf of Mexico, is Key West’s best beach with clear water, good snorkeling and a shaded picnic area.
  • The rock-lined western shore is a serene and awe-inspiring place to watch a famous Key West sunset without a crowd.
  • With a $6 admission and ample parking, it ranks as one of the best buys on the island.

Touring Fort Zachary Taylor

Fort Zachary Taylor was begun in 1845 and took 21 years to complete.

Fort Zachary Taylor was begun in 1845 and took 21 years to complete.

You can tour Fort Zach on your own with an informative free brochure or take a daily free guided tour at noon. I recommend the tour: Our guide, a knowledgeable ranger, told the history as a series of interesting stories.

Visitors are fascinated by the row of latrines, which emptied into the ocean and flushed by the tide. Because there is not a huge difference between high and low tide, this was not highly effective.

Visitors are fascinated by the row of latrines, which emptied into the ocean and were flushed by the tide. Because there is not a huge difference between high and low tide at Key West, this was not highly effective.

With hurricanes, disease and the need to ship in bricks and granite from New York, this fort took 21 years to build. Even though not complete during the Civil War, it was held by Union forces, a key tool in enforcing the blockade that prevented supplies from reaching Confederate ports.

Many of the "missing" Civil War cannons were actually built into the walls for extra fortification during WWI or WWII.

Many of the “missing” Civil War cannons were actually built into the walls for extra fortification during  the Spanish American War.

While the fort had plenty of guns – 165 – they were never fired except for practice. The fort played an important role in World War I and II and again in the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962.

Cannons like these could be fired 10 miles accurately with 10-inch Parrott Rifles.

Cannon balls stacked neatly: You won’t be bumping these over. They’re too heavy.

After the late 1960s, Fort Zachary Taylor’s brilliant past had dimmed. The fort, once three stories high, was reduced to two during the Spanish American war.

Dredging of a ship channel resulted in earth being piled around the fort, which once was surrounded by water. What’s worse:  Most of its Civil War era cannons were missing.

But in 1968, Key West resident Howard England began excavations inside the fort and discovered that during modifications for the Spanish American war, dozens of historic cannons were buried in the fort’s walls to reinforce Battery Osceola.

Some were removed, acid-cleaned and displayed.

Others remain embedded in the walls: Now it’s a visible graveyard of Civil War cannons.

England’s work established Fort Zachary Taylor as the place with the most Civil War cannons in the country and the fort was on its way to becoming a state park. The park’s entry road is named after England.

The beach at Fort Zachary Taylor

The beach is rocky but beautiful with good snorkeling.

The beach is rocky but beautiful with good snorkeling.

The beach is well shaded.

The beach is well shaded.

Lots of visitors to Key West complain they didn’t get the memo about its poor beaches. I’ll tell you straight up:  If it’s beaches you want, I have a lot better places to recommend visiting!

Cayo Hueso Café offers reasonably priced sandwiches, snacks and beverages served on a shaded patio overlooking the beach.

Cayo Hueso Café offers reasonably priced sandwiches, snacks and beverages served on a shaded patio overlooking the beach.

The beach at Fort Zachary Taylor is considered the best, however. It is quite rocky, so water shoes are somewhere between helpful and essential. The water, however, is clear Caribbean blue, a mix of the Gulf and Atlantic. Other beaches in Key West are shallow with water that tends to be stagnant and murky.

Zachary Taylor Beach aerial

The beach from the air

At Fort Zachary Taylor, the rocky bottom and rock formations off shore attract a number of tropical fish, so it makes a good spot for snorkeling from shore. (You do need to swim out into water too deep to stand in, so young snorkelers will benefit from life preservers.)

Along the sandy beach are picnic tables shaded by Australian pines. Though an exotic species, Keys residents begged to keep them, and visitors are thankful for the shade.

Near the beach is Cayo Hueso Café, which offers reasonably priced sandwiches, snacks and cold beverages served on a shaded patio overlooking the beach. (No sandwich costs more than $6.50; a hot dog or slice of pizza is $3.) (Menu as PDF.)

Given Key West prices, a day at Fort Zachary Taylor and lunch at Café Hueso is a cheap and wonderful day of fun.

Sunset at Fort Zachary Taylor

Sunset cruises sail by Fort Zachary Taylor.

Sunset cruises sail by Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park.

Fort Zachary Taylor if a terrific place to watch the yellow ball drop into the sea.

Fort Zachary Taylor if a terrific place to watch the yellow ball drop into the sea.

The park stays open through sunset every night, and visitors in the know keep their admission receipt and come back at dusk to watch the big golden ball drop into the water.

There are a few picnic tables with sunset views, but many folks sit on the rocks, surreptitiously sipping wine (alcohol is prohibited in state parks). The sunset boats cruise by with sails spread.

You couldn’t ask for a better view. As soon as the sun sets, a ranger will send you on your way and close the park.

On bikes, we pedaled just outside the park to the adjacent seawall at the Truman Waterfront at the foot of Southard Street and watched darkness fall. That, too, is an off-the-beaten-path spot to gaze at the ocean in Key West.

Planning your visit to Fort Zachary Taylor State Park

Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park 601 Howard England Way Key West, Florida 33040 (305) 292-6713  Friends of the Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park If you come by foot, be prepared for a long walk on the entrance road. Since parking is included, this is one place to visit by car in Key West. Biking in is also highly recommended. The park is open from 8 a.m. to sundown. The fort closes at 5 p.m. Admission is $6 per vehicle for two to eight people, $2 for pedestrians and bicyclists; $4 for single-occupant vehicles or motorcycles.

Special events at Fort Zachary Taylor

In February, Civil War Heritage Days re-enacts life in the fortress during the Civil War. Re-enactment participants who portray southerners are “captured” as their vessel attempts to run the Federal blockade of Key West Harbor. The ship’s master is put on trial by a Federal court. The case is taken from an actual court transcript from 1862. The event features a military-style parade from a Civil War memorial to Fort Taylor along Duval Street.

The Fort Taylor Pyrate Invasion, held the first weekend of December, takes visitors to the days of piracy from 1675 to 1825. In the fort’s scenario, the English hold the fort and are attacked by pirates who eventually take it from the small company of Redcoats.  It’s historical fiction, but visitors see pirate encampments, living history demonstrations, live battles and wandering musicians.  

More things to do in Key West

 

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One Comment

  1. I WOULD LOVE TO MOVE TO THE KEYS!!!
    CG

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