Fort Matanzas, 14 miles south of St. Augustine, is a fun, free, scenic stop
Note: Ferry service to the fort has been suspended due to damages to the dock from Hurricane Matthew. The park visitor center and surrounding grounds are still open.
It’s not huge and grand like its older, bigger brother, the St. Augustine fort.
But Fort Matanzas, 14 miles south of St. Augustine, has charms all its own. Built in 1742, about 50 years after St. Augustine’s Castillo San Marcos fort, it is impressively historic, especially for everything-is-new-here Florida.
Fort Matanzas is located on a spectacular inlet with expansive views of water and marshland. Wildlife is abundant: Dolphin are frequently spotted in the water; wading birds fish along the shore, osprey fly overhead. You reach the fort by a short boat ride across the Matanzas River. You can climb a very narrow ladder to get to the top of the tower — people were smaller then!
And did I mention? It is all free.
As a national monument, Fort Matanzas is operated by the National Park Service. It’s right off a scenic stretch of A1A. A tour takes an hour — that includes the boat trip to the fort, a talk by a park ranger and the trip back. Boats run at 9:30 a.m., 10:30 a.m., 11:30 a.m., 12:30 p.m., 1:30 p.m., 2:30 p.m., 3:30 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. It’s worth allowing more time, though, to walk the short trail, explore the beach or have a picnic. Families with kids, in particular, should enjoy this outing.
The Spanish built Fort Matanzas in order to protect St. Augustine’s “back door” — the ocean inlet where the Matanzas River flows into the Atlantic. The fort is petite: 50 feet on each side with a 30 foot tower. When the Spanish occupied it, a force of seven men could man the tower and its five impressive cannons. The informal ranger tour covers more of its history and the military strategy behind it.
One of the pleasures of Fort Matanzas is its beautiful setting. The park preserves a good chunk of these barrier islands and when we visited Rattlesnake Island was bright green with vegetation and full of bird life.
The Fort Matanzas visitor center offers a movie about the fort and near it is a pretty nature trail into a live oak forest. On the ocean side of A1A are two free beachside parking lots. There are expansive sandy areas, both beaches and sandbars, around the inlet that would be excellent for beachcombing. (Watch out for rip currents if you swim, however.)
Tips about visiting Fort Matanzas:
- I think it’s better to visit Fort Matanzas before Castillo San Marcos. That way, you’re not comparing the little fort to the big one you just saw.
- While these waters are great for kayaking, you can only see Fort Matanzas with the ranger arriving via ferry.
- Cannon demonstrations take place during the regularly scheduled tours (except for the 9:30 a.m. and the 4:40 p.m. tours) on the first Saturday of the month. While daily cannon-firing is also a highlight at St. Augustine’s fort, the more intimate nature of Fort Matanzas would make this extra thrilling. In the winter, rangers schedule occasional night-time torch-light tours.
- The Fort Matanzas website.
Things to do near St. Augustine:
- Castillo de San Marcos, the fort in St. Augustine is a must-visit in the area.
- Princess Place Preserve, a nearby county park with an 1888 hunting lodge once owned by a princess. Good hiking and camping.
- Washington Oaks Gardens State Park, historic gardens plus unusual conquina-rock beach.
- Flagler Beach, an Old Florida beach town.
- Tour the St. Augustine lighthouse
- Anastasia State Park, miles of beaches plus the archaeological site where coquina was quarried to build the St. Augustine Fort.
- Fort Mose Historic State Park, the site of the first legally sanctioned free African settlement in United States.
- Faver-Dykes State Park, large park good for kayaking, canoeing and birding along Pellicer Creek.