Last updated on September 15th, 2021 at 12:37 pm
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 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.
As of July 2021, when the fort reopened to the public after more than a year of closure, the ferry and fort are open Wednesday to Sunday.
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., 1:30 p.m., 2:30 p.m., and 3:30 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 National Monument:
- Passes for the ferry are given on a first-come-first-served basis at the visitor center and may fill up early in the day. If you are late for the tour, your seat will not be held. In fall 2021, there are six ferries, each with a capacity of 34 and they only operate Wednesday through Sunday. The ferry will not operate during lightning storms and windy conditions.
- 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.
- 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.
- Pre-pandemic, cannon demonstrations were a highlight of many visits, but are not being offered now. We hope to see them return soon.
Fort Matanzas National Monument
Things to do near St. Augustine:
- 10 outdoor and natural things to do in 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. Free.
- 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.
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