Fort Matanzas: St. Augustine’s charming free fort reopens after storm

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

A turret at Fort Matanzas near St. Augustine
Fort Matanzas is built of coquina, like Castillo San Marcos in St. Augustine.

This smaller, free Spanish fort south of St. Augustine reopened in May after eight month of being closed due to Hurricane Irma.

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, 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.

The ferry to Fort Matanzas
The ferry with Fort Matanzas in the background

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.

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

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.

Gun deck at Fort Matanzas near St. Augustine
Soldiers lived and ate together in the tower of Fort Matanzas.

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 at Fort Matanzas near St. Augustine.

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 at Fort Matanzas is spectacular.

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.
  • Boats and ramps are ADA compliant, so strollers and wheelchairs can access the boats.
  • Fort Matanzas National Monument is open to the public from 9 a.m.to 5:30 p.m. every day except Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day. Ferries leave hourly on the half hour.
  • While these waters are great for kayaking, you can only see Fort Matanzas with the ranger arriving via ferry.
  • Cannon demonstrations occur 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.

Note: Ferry service to Fort Matanzas was closed for eight months after Hurricane Irma, returning in May 2018.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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