Come for the history, stay for the ghost crabs.
One of the oldest structures in Florida is free to visit, although it’s not particularly freely-accessible. Check with the monument’s website to research ferry times to the fort from the visitor center. Don’t expect Disney-regularity. There’s only a handful of ferry trips each day and you’ll be expected to ride back to the visitor center on the very next boat.
For most folks, the 30 minutes you get at the fort will be enough. You’ll get a short history and be allowed to climb around the fort. As of 2018, visitors are allowed to take the ladder to the roof which is about 30 feet high, to see nice views of the river, islands and the spit of sand that marks the inlet. Note that the hole through which visitors climb to the roof is fairly small.
I suggest getting there early as space on the ferry is also limited to about 30 people and you have to be put on the list to get on the boat. The trip’s only about 5 minutes long and you can clearly see the fort from the visitor’s center dock.
Once of the best things to do is to check out the shore of the river both north and south of the visitor center’s dock. There are hundreds of ghost crabs out there. These little animals are one of the most fun things to watch in Florida.
Fort Matanzas was built by the Spanish military in 1742. It sits on spur of land called Rattlesnake Island near the Matanzas Inlet. While it’s not currently a separate island, it has been at various times over the past few centuries. The Matanzas Inlet connects the Matanzas River to the Atlantic Ocean and allows a water road directly north to St. Augustine. Only two years prior to the construction of the fort, the British forces located in Georgia used the inlet to lay siege to the city. It was able to survive the seige, but it was obvious that a small fort which could command that access point was needed.
A Spanish engineer named Pedro Ruiz de Olano designed the fort. Olano also created additions to St. Augustine’s Castillo. The fort was built by troops from Spanish Cuba as well as slaves and convicts.
Like the Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine and the Augustine city walls, Fort Matanzas was built using coquina “stone” that was quarried in the area. This sturdy building material could be used to build large defensive structures as well as walls for homes in the Spanish settlement. One of coquina’s biggest qualities was that the stone, which was fairly soft, could actually absorb cannon balls. Balls fired into thickly constructed walls would just push in a foot or further without cracking or splintering the stone.
Spain had control of Florida up until 1763. Twenty years later they regained control, but at that point their presence in Florida was minimal. Eventually in 1821 the United States took over Florida following ratification of the Adams–Onís Treaty The US never used Fort Matanzas, however and it was left to become a ruin.
The Fort is part of Fort Matanzas National Monument that was created in 1924. The monument consists of 100 acres of land on Rattlesnake Island and the southern end of Anastasia Island. The creation of the national monument was the culmination of the US Department of War’s (today the Department of Defense) restoration of the Fort, which began in 1916. The primary structure was shored up, major cracks in the walls were repaired and new construction, including wood roofs and steps, were completed. By 1933 the area was transferred to the National Park Service which continues ot manage it today.
On Anastasia Island, accessible by the famous beach-access road A1A, is the Fort Matanzas National Monument Headquarters and Visitor Center. The monument’s area on Rattlesnake Island has restricted access and the only way to visit Fort Matanzas itself is to take a free boat ride from the visitor center to the fort. There will be a park ranger or volunteer that is an expert on the history of the fort going over with you. The visitor center was built in 1936 and is where visitors can get a reservation on one of the boat rides.
On October 15, 1966 Fort Matanzas and the area surrounding it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. On December 31, 2008 the visitor center was also added to the National Register.
A note about the boat rides. They’re not really all that frequent. The last time I visited they were once an hour and left on the half hour. If you arrive a few minutes late, you will be waiting nearly an hour. To occupy the time, there is an interesting nature trail that takes visitors to an overlook of the Matanzas River. There is also the river’s sandy bank which can be accessed near the boat dock. This is where you can best see the ghost crabs at work.
The fort is an interesting bit of Spain’s colonial history and an easy drive if you’re visiting St. Augustine. Those who are interested in military history will find the fort fascinating, but it’s also a great place to see a glimpse of Florida’s saltwater wetlands.
And don’t forget the ghost crabs!