This National Monument is hidden just 14 miles south of the city of Saint Augustine. It is easy to reach by car and perfect for a small road trip. Perfect for a quick stop while driving along A1A between Saint Augustine and Flagler Beach. This is a great addition to your visit to the Castillo de San Marcos.
History of Fort Matanzas
Fort Matanzas played a crucial role in the defense of the Spanish settlement city of St. Augustine. The Matanzas River allowed a rear entrance to the city of St. Augustine and avoiding the city’s main defense system – Castillo de San Marcos. Construction of the fort began in 1740 and was completed just two years later in 1742. Just before completion, the British approached the inlet with twelve ships. The cannon fire of Fort Matanzas drove off scouting boats and the warships never engaged the fort. This was the only time the fort’s cannons engaged an enemy. The standard garrison of the fort was one officer in charge, four infantrymen, and two gunners. During crisis times more troops could be stationed at the fort.
When the Spanish Empire started falling apart, Spain spent little effort maintaining the fort. The United States took control of Florida in 1821. By that time the fort had deteriorated so badly, that it was unusable.
The grounds of Fort Matanzas have a long history, closely connected with the founding of St. Augustine by Pedro Menéndez de Aviles. Over 250 French Huguenots were killed by Menéndez upon the shores of this inlet in 1565. The French, led by Jean Ribault tried to capture St. Augustine but a hurricane carried the French ships far to the south and wrecking them. At the same time, Menéndez led a force to attack Fort Caroline. It was an easy capture, with the French soldiers gone. The surviving soldiers of the shipwrecked army started their march back to Fort Caroline, not knowing that it had been already captured. When Menéndez found out about the French Huguenots being blocked by the inlet just south of St. Augustine, he and 50 soldiers marched south. Menéndeztold the French soldiers that Fort Caroline had been captured and urged the French to surrender, which they did. After the French survivors were brought across the inlet, Menéndezordered them slain. Only a few survived, which were needed in St. Augustine. Two weeks later, more shipwrecked French soldiers arrived and the story repeated itself. Another massacre. From that time on, the inlet was called Matanzas, the Spanish word for “slaughters”.
Fort Matanzas was designated a United States National Monument on October 15, 1924. The National Park Service is now operating the fort in conjunction with the Castillo de San Marcos National Monument in the city of St. Augustine.
Visiting the National Monument
While driving along A1A you will see a big sign telling you to turn here to get to the monument. As mentioned earlier the Monument is located on Rattle Snake Island and is only accessible by boat from the National Park Service. Even if you have your own boat, you are not allowed to enter the grounds of the National Monument on the island. Only National Park Ranger lead groups are allowed to enter the grounds. Please respect this historic location as the visit to Fort Matanzas is completely free. Yes free! Everything from parking to the boat ride is offered free of charge for everyone and you don’t need an annual National Park Pass.
The only requirement is to grab a free boarding pass for the boat at the visitor center next to the parking lot. Tours leave 30 minutes past the hour starting at 9:30 a.m. and the last boat will leave at 4:30 p.m.
I recommend you to get here early as the parking lot is not very big and it could be full already. Also please only park in designated areas. There is overflow parking available across A1A and it’s just a short walk.
While there take advantage of the Ranger-lead Nature-Walk tour which takes you down to the beach next to the dock. The ranger will talk about local wildlife and plant life. You most likely get to see some juvenile fish and if you are lucky to see some of the different kinds of crabs living along the shoreline or even dolphins in the Matanzas River. I arrived just shortly after the 10:30 boat left and the nature walk takes about 30 minutes. Perfect while you wait for the next boat to arrive. Also, watch the short 8-minute long video about the history in the visitor center. Just ask one of the rangers about the next playtime.
After or before your boat tour to the fort, take the Coastal Hammock Trail. The trail starts in the parking lot next to the restrooms and is about 0.4 miles long (roundtrip).
Ferry Ride to the Fort and Exploration
Check your ferry pass for your group indicator. Usually, they take two trips out to the fort with Group A being first, followed by Group B.
Once out on the island, the ranger will give you a short overview of the grounds and some additional information about the history of the fort. After that, you are free to explore the grounds but unfortunately, they only give you about 30 minutes before you have to head back to the ferry and the second group can go on the island and explore it. This makes the small area less congested and you can take pictures of the fort without it being overflown with visitors.
To get to the highest point, the roof of the fort, you have to walk up two sets of stairs to the officer’s room. From there you have to climb a ladder through a small rectangular opening in the roof. Be careful and watch out for people trying to go back down. The opening is really small and you have to squeeze yourself through.
But you will be rewarded with great views of the Matanzas River and the Matanzas Inlet. I recommend you to work your way down from the top while visiting the fort. No matter if you go all the way up to the roof or stop at the second set of stairs in the officer’s quarters. That’s also where the gunpowder was stored. One level below is the soldier quarters and a small kitchen.
Outside cannons are set up to protect Saint Augustine from ships that try to make their way up from the south. The cannons have a range of about 1.6 miles and when you look down south the bridge over the Matanzas inlet is only a mile away.
Please be respectful and don’t climb on the walls or cannons of the fort. Help preserve this historic place and take nothing besides pictures and good memories.
If you think 30 minutes are not enough out there, you can always take a later tour again, depending on availability. As tours are free, you can go as many times as you want.
Peter has a passion for Traveling, Photography, and Geocaching. These are the best ingredients for amazing adventures all over the globe. “Traveling is fun, no matter if you stay in a luxury hotel or travel like a backpacker.” Peter shares his experiences on his Blog www.gatetoadventures.com
Some of Peter’s photos are published on corporate websites, in-flight magazines, travel guides, and much more.