Fort Matanzas: worth the drive, walk, boat ride and climb
You’ve been in St Augustine all day and are ready to end it on a high note. The town is wonderful and it’s so calm and relaxed everywhere, but you’ve been walking so much because every narrow street is just taunting you to head that way. You’re tired. What can you do to make the most of the last few hours of daylight? How about get into the fresh air and experience Fort Matanzas on the Inner Coastal Waterway.
It’s a beautiful piece of history and is the perfect relaxing jaunt to close out a day. So, here’s the full scoop on a visit to one of our favorite sites in the whole National Parks system.
What you'll find...
Location of Fort Matanzas
Only about 20 minutes south of St Augustine, the Fort sits directly on the Mantanzas River. The river is actually an inlet… or part of the inner coastal waterway… or the ocean. Either way, Fort Matanzas sits on the water with a barrier island separating it from the Atlantic Ocean. The land is pretty marshy, but beautiful. If you’re down in Daytona, it’s an hour’s drive north and it’s totally worth it.
Tip: remember it’s located on a marsh… so there are bugs. Not at the Fort, but, well, keep reading below.
Tip 2: remember, Florida is hot, so going early in the day or at the end of the park’s operating hours is ideal. Check when the last boat leaves though, as it’s not too late in the day (maybe 4pm).
History of Fort Matanzas
First off, Matanzas means “slaughters”. Yeah, let’s start there. In the 16th century there was a massacre and a lot of Frenchmen were laid out. Hence the river took on the name. A century later, the Spanish were trying to keep the land and the British were being all greedy and they would fight and shoot cannons at each other and so on, so Fort Matanzas was built.
Like the Castillo de San Marcos fifteen miles north in St Augustine, Fort Matanzas is built from coquina, a stone quarried in Florida made of compressed shells and natural mortar.
The fort was active from 1742 until the last Spanish soldiers left (only three of them) in 1821. From 1821 on out it was held by the US military but wasn’t being kept up. It even weathered the US Civil War.
Eventually, it was just in really bad shape… and then became the first building in US history to get federal funds for the purpose of historic preservation (shared with Castillo de San Marcos). Pretty cool, huh?
Fun fact: Fort Matanzas continually changed hands between the Spanish, British and Americans for the duration of its use. Busy place, that fort. It survived lots of attacks and hurricanes, but really took a beating. Thank goodness it got funding to rebuild and restore.
How to actually get to the Fort
From Florida A1A you drive (or be really cool and bike) into Fort Matanzas National Monument. Spanish moss is everywhere and since you’re just off the beach, there’s a nice breeze that makes the moss sway. So cool.
You’ll want to RUN into the park headquarters because for some reason, this is the only place in north Florida that has mosquitos. Millions of mosquitos. Only this parking lot. Not even the Fort has them. Once inside, you’ll get a boarding pass for the ferry, you’ll get a stamp in your National Parks Passport, and then you can talk to a ranger or watch a short film about Fort Matanzas. When the ranger tells you, you head outside and RUN to the ferry dock and you’re done with the mosquitos.
Tip: there is a mostly mosquito free movie room to wait in. As a courtesy to others, make your entrance/exit quick and close the door behind you. Those skeeters…
Once down on the Matanzas River, you board your pontoon ferry across the water to Fort Matanzas. Our park ranger told us to watch for pelicans, fish, manatees, dolphins and more. We were wishing for manatees… but settled for bombarding pelicans, which were super cool. We crossed, docked and then headed up the ramp onto Anastasia Island and onto Fort Matanzas.
While you’re welcome to do a bit of walking around the fort, you can’t go too far. And remember the National Park rule: NO MEADOW STOMPING. The reason you’re there is the Fort though, so you need to head up the stairs.
Note: This is not a wheelchair accessible activity. If you can’t do the two stairs at the first dock, you can’t do the ferry or the fort. We did the boat and Fort with a stroller… but then we take strollers hiking and are weird like that.
You’ll find that once you’re at the top of Fort Matanzas, the view is amazing: looking down river towards the Atlantic Ocean and north towards St Augustine. Pelicans and osprey are flying everywhere. It’s so quiet, except for the occasional truck cruising down the highway a mile away. Since you cannot see the highway, the view is pretty much what those original Spanish Solders saw 300 years ago.
On the first level, the park ranger will share the history of Fort Matanzas, a bit about the construction and how it came to be what it is today. It’s one of the better ranger talks we’ve attended. Once you’ve learned a little something, you can explore.
Note: Fort Matanzas isn’t huge like the Castillo de San Marcos to the north. While it’s nice to sit and enjoy the view, exploring the actual structure doesn’t take more than 20 minutes.
There are three levels you can explore: the first (above) has cannons and a lookout with the soldiers’ quarters , the second is the officers’ quarters with a nice view, and the top of the tower is only accessible by ladder. As an adult, the ladder was a bit creepy, but our oldest made it just fine…with hands-on support both up and down. The Spanish flag still flies, but that’s just for show.
Tip: if you’ve got the strength to climb the ladder, do it. The rungs are farther apart than you’d expect, so know that you need to be pretty dexterous with your feet/legs to make it to the top. Once you’re up there, the view is striking and totally worth the climb.
We really enjoyed just hanging out at Fort Matanzas. It was great for allowing a baby to roam in safety and for a big kid to get imaginative and explore. We grown-ups enjoyed the history, the scenery and the people we met. Oh yeah, since everybody rides the boat together and you can’t come and go all willy-nilly, you make friends.
Fun story: we met some wonderful folks who were actually moored just off the fort. It’s a pity we had plans later, as they invited us aboard to just relax and enjoy the Matanzas River. Maybe they’ll be moored there next time too… This is indicative of the great people you’ll meet at off-the-beaten-path sites like this.
Over all, Fort Matanzas is a wonderful afternoon adventure. Allow up to two hours to do the boat ride and exploring the Fort. There is a half mile nature trail too that we skipped due to the mosquitos, but who knows, maybe next time there won’t be flocks of skeeters everywhere. We will go back to Fort Matanzas if we have friends or family with us for the first time or when the boys are older, but it’s not an “I can’t wait to go back and do it again” sort of thing. It’s definitely worth the time and the drive, so go!!
Rob Taylor is the founder of 2TravelDads, the original LGBT Family Travel blog. Focusing on ecotourism and education, 2TravelDads inspires LGBT families (and traditional families also) to go beyond their usual getaways and use travel to learn about and be part of a bigger world. “Traveling the globe and giving the kids a broad worldview.”