Exploring the Past at Fort Matanzas

“Learn about the historic events that led to the Fort Matanzas construction.”

Like many locals and tourists, on the weekends I usually head to A1A and the beaches for my entertainment. This last weekend wasn’t about getting a tan or watching my husband surf. My destination was Fort Matanzas, the fort that held the southern end of St. Augustine safe from the British. It’s just north of the Matanzas Inlet, so after a 20-minute ride from downtown you’re there. I feel like almost anyone who visits St. Augustine knows about the Castillo de San Marcos, the big fort on the bayfront. Few visitors realize that there is a second historic Spanish fort in town—and Fort Matanzas is open for tours, too.

When I arrived at the park I was surprised to discover it really is a park, and there was more to see than just the fort. There are nature trails, picnic areas, and a lot of beautiful Florida native plants and birds. It is located on the Intracoastal side of A1A, so you get the cool breezes off of the water and the whole area is shaded by live oaks. There is a little strip of beach along the Intracoastal with fish and mangroves. I saw a bunch of fiddler crabs by the beach that all scurried away when I got too close.

There is a visitor center that offers information and a boarding pass for the boat which will take you to Fort Matanzas. You will be delighted to learn the tour is free! The ferry can only take 36 guests at a time and the boat fills up quickly on a nice day. I wanted to get there early to be sure there would be room on the next boat ride across the water – I recommend you do the same.

The ferry ride over to Fort Matanzas.

The boat driver is also a knowledgeable tour guide. I have lived in St. Augustine for almost 10 years and still learned new things. The little ride across the water only took about 10 minutes before we moored at the island Fort Matanzas was built on.

A visit to Fort Matanzas is a great experience for anyone who really likes to explore history. One minute you’re admiring the coquina construction, and the next you are climbing up a ladder that gives you the same view the Spanish soldiers once had when they were defending the inlet. It’s a 360-degree view that allows you to take in the dunes, tidal creeks, marsh areas, and Matanzas Inlet. Soldiers from the observation deck would have seen an English ship coming from quite a distance away. Fort Matanzas would not have been immediately obvious to an invader until they were within cannon range due to its size and position, and with how narrow the inlet is there would have been no turning back. It morbidly makes sense that “Matanzas” means “to kill.”

Coming up the ladder to the observation deck.

The guide told us that Fort Matanzas was white with a small red tower, or sentry box, during its 80 years of use in the 18th century. Similar to Castillo de San Marcos, the National Park Service has restored most aspects of the fort except for the white plaster. By allowing the old coquina to be in plain view it enables visitors to fully realize the building’s age. I am also very aware, even on a spring day, of how hot of a building this must have been in the humid Florida weather.

Fort Matanzas Sentry Box and one of the cannons.

There is one very big difference between the Castillo and Fort Matanzas – size. With living space for about 10 people, there were normally only seven soldiers on duty at Fort Matanzas at a time. Their bare living quarters and the five cannons that protected St. Augustine remind me how glad I am to be alive in this century. I loved this experience and I can only imagine how much fun children must have here. This fort is smaller and easier to imagine yourself being a part of than the larger Castillo. A child could easily picture being a Spanish defender or an invading pirate.

Altogether, with a picnic lunch and a walk through some of the nature trails, the Fort Matanzas experience will take you about two hours. I’m still thrilled that it was free, and that the area was so shady and comfortable even in 85-degree temperatures. I felt like I was miles and centuries away from the hot beach or the bustle of a weekday. I think history buffs, families, and photographers will all be happy with a trip to Fort Matanzas. Children will enjoy peeking out the loopholes and climbing the ladder to the top, supervised of course. If you are looking for something free and fun to do any day of the year (except Christmas), venture out to Fort Matanzas. They don’t fire the cannons there though, so be sure to visit the Castillo while you are in St. Augustine for cannon firings.

St. Augustine has more forts, be sure to check them out too:

  • Castillo de San Marcos: Tour the oldest masonry fort in the continental U.S.
  • Fort Mose: Explore the site of the first legally sanctioned free African settlement in the U.S.
  • Fort Menendez: Although not historic, this is still a fun one to get the kids involved in to learn more about St. Augustine.

Local St. Augustine blogger Meaghan Alvarado is a Flagler College graduate who writes on many topics ranging from fashion and food to crafts and local St. Augustine happenings. Check out her personal blog at http://justmeaghan.com/.