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Fort Matanzas: St. Augustine’s charming free fort

Fort Matanzas, 14 miles south of St. Augustine, is a fun, free, scenic stop

Fort Matanzas is not huge and grand like its older, bigger brother, the St. Augustine fort.

But the smaller fort 14 miles south of St. Augustine, has charms all its own, starting with the free boat ride you take to reach it.

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 built of coquina, like Castillo San Marcos in St. Augustine. (Photo: David Blasco)
Fort Matanzas is built of coquina, like Castillo San Marcos in St. Augustine. (Photo: David Blasco)

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.

It’s right off a very scenic stretch of A1A.

Visitors reach the fort by a short ferry ride across the Matanzas River. Then you can climb a very narrow ladder to get to the top of the tower — people were smaller then!

The cost of visiting Fort Matanzas? It is all free.

As a national monument, Fort Matanzas is operated by the National Park Service.

The ferry to Fort Matanzas near St. Augustine
The ferry Fort Matanzas ferry with the fort in the background. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Important note: Fort Matanzas ferry and fort are open Wednesday to Monday with no ferry on Tuesdays, and to get a ticket you will probably have to arrive early. Tickets are often gone by 11 a.m.

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., and 3:30 p.m.

The visitor center offers a movie about the fort and near it is a pretty nature trail into a live oak forest. 

It’s also worth allowing more time to walk the short trail, explore the Fort Matanzas beach or have a picnic. Families with kids, in particular, should enjoy this outing.

Open land surrounding Fort Matanzas near St. Augustine
Rattlesnake Island, home to Fort Matanzas, looks much as it did when the Spanish were there. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Why did the Spanish build Fort Matanzas?

Fort Matanzas protects St. Augustine’s “back door” — the ocean inlet where the Matanzas River flows into the Atlantic. The fort is small: 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 and stop incursions from the ocean. The informal ranger tour covers more Fort Matanzas history and the military strategy behind it.

One of the pleasures of the fort 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.

Spanish flag at Fort Matanzas near St. Augustine
The Cross of Burgundy Flag was used as flag of the Spanish territories. It flies over Fort Matanzas National Monument near St. Augustine. (Photo: David Blasco)

Fort Matanzas beach

Within in the boundaries of the national park, there are expansive sandy areas, both beaches and sandbars around the inlet. It’s an excellent for beachcombing. Watch out for rip currents if you swim, however. Inlets can have very strong currents.

There are free parking lots on both sides of A1A, serving a beach on the river and one on the ocean. Parking lots fill up, however, and during busy times people wait for a space.

Fort Matanzas Fort Matanzas wiki Fort Matanzas: St. Augustine's charming free fort
The lookout at Fort Matanzas National Monument is spectacular. (Photo: Wikimedia/Michael Rivera)

Tips about visiting Fort Matanzas National Monument

  • Fort Matanzas tickets: Passes for the ferry are given on a first-come-first-served basis at the visitor center and usually fill up by 11 a.m. You cannot reserve them by phone or for a future day.
  • If you are late for the tour, your seat will not be held.
  • In 2024, there are seven ferries a day , each with a capacity of 34 and there are no tours on Tuesdays.
  • The ferry will not operate during lightning storms and windy conditions.
  • Even babies and children need a pass.
  • Animals, except for service animals, are not allowed in the visitor center, on the boat, or at the fort.
  • Boats and ramps are ADA compliant, so strollers and wheelchairs can access the boats.
  • While these waters are great for kayaking, you can only see Fort Matanzas with the ranger arriving via ferry.
  • 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.
  • Cannon demonstrations are offered on some weekend tours.

Map of Fort Matanzas National Monument area
Map of Fort Matanzas National Monument area

Fort Matanzas National Monument

8635 A1A South
Saint Augustine
(904) 471-0116
Fort Matanzas National Monument website

Gun deck at Fort Matanzas near St. Augustine
Soldiers lived and ate together in the tower of Fort Matanzas National Monument. (Photo: David Blasco)

Things to do near Fort Matanzas:

Ranger on gun deck at Fort Matanzas near St. Augustine
Fort Matanzas’ five guns maintained control of Matanzas Inlet. (Photo: David Blasco)

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