Off the beaten track in Key West, Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park offers beauty and history
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. Here are five good reasons to do just that:
- 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.
- Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park has the largest collection of Civil War armaments in the United States – amazing cannons, even if you’re not into cannons.
- The Fort Zachary Taylor 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.
The beach at Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park
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!
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.
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 $10; a hot dog is $5.) (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.
Touring Fort Zachary Taylor, Civil War relic
You can tour Fort Zach on your own with an informative free brochure or take a daily free guided tour at 11 a.m. I recommend the tour: Our guide, a knowledgeable ranger, told the history as a series of interesting stories.
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.
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.
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 southernmost state park in the United Statees.) The park’s entry road is named after England.
Hidden gem: Sunset at Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park
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 beverages (alcohol is prohibited in state parks). The sunset boats cruise by with sails spread.
You could not 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.
Map of Fort Zachary Taylor Park
Planning a visit to Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park
Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park
601 Howard England Way Key West, Florida 33040
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.
Directions and location:
Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park
601 Howard England Way, Key West, FL 33040
Fort Zachary Taylor is located at the end of Southard Street on Truman Annex in Key West.
Park office: (305) 292-6713
Parking: Parking is ample and there is no cost beyond park admission.
Fees: $7 entrance fee for two in a car; 50 cents for each additional; $2.50 pedestrian or bike. (There’s a 50-cent local tax included in these fees.)
Insider tips: You can rent masks, snorkel and fins here, along with umbrellas and beach chairs. Fishing for grouper, snapper, jacks and tarpon is popular off the rock jetty adjacent to the main shipping channel.
Resources for planning a Florida Keys vacation:
- Mile marker guide with dozens of stops to help make the most of your drive south.
- Florida Keys wildlife: Places to see animals
- Tiki bars: Soak up the Keys atmosphere
- 12 great kayak outings in the Keys
- Top 10 pit stops on Overseas Highway
- Free beaches in the Florida Keys
Special places to discover in the Lower Keys and Key West
- Free things to do in Key West
- Key West on budget: Accommodations, restaurants
- Florida Rambler guide to the Lower Keys
- Eight Key West restaurants for authentic local flavor
- Bahia Honda State Park: Good beaches & a great bridge
- No Name Pub worth finding on Big Pine Key
- Key West Butterfly Conservatory: A tranquil stop
- Audubon House, a lovely refuge in Key West
- Historic Key West Seaport
- Historic Key West Cemetery is full of stories
- Hogfish Grill: Where Key West locals go for fresh fish
- Key West chickens
- National Key Deer refuge
- Key West Tropical Forest and Botanic Garden: It will charm plant lovers
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The author, Bonnie Gross, travels with her husband David Blasco, discovering off-the-beaten path places to hike, kayak, bike, swim and explore. Florida Rambler was founded in 2010 by Bonnie and fellow journalist Bob Rountree, two long-time Florida residents who have spent decades exploring the Florida outdoors. Their articles have been published in the Sun Sentinel, the Miami Herald, the Orlando Sentinel, The Guardian and Visit Florida.