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Fort Matanzas: St. Augustine’s charming free fort

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.

A turret at Fort Matanzas near St. Augustine
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.

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.

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

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.

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)

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.

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)

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.)

View through a stone window at Fort Matanzas near St. Augustine
The view of Matanzas Inlet from Fort Matanzas National Monument is spectacular. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

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

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 St. Augustine:

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

A note from the editor:

The information in this article was accurate when published but can change without notice. Please confirm details when planning your trip by following the links in this article.

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