Photograph by Matt Moyer, National Geographic Travel

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The top of Fort Matanzas offers a 360-degree view of salt marshes and the ocean.

Photograph by Matt Moyer, National Geographic Travel

Florida's Pristine Parks: Fort Matanzas National Monument

Discover more of the Sunshine State’s wild side with our guide to Fort Matanzas National Monument, plus nearby natural areas worth exploring.

This pristine park is composed of 300 acres of beach and wilderness, which includes a coastal barrier island, accessible by ferry. The park’s centerpiece, Fort Matanzas National Monument, is a fortified watchtower built by the Spanish with coquina (shell) stone between 1740 and 1742. This is the only place in the continental United States where you can see and explore such a fort. Climb to the top of the fort for a 360-degree view of salt marshes and the ocean. Inside Tip: The best time to visit the park is early in the day, when the weather is cooler and animals are more active.

When to Go: Fort Matanzas National Monument is open from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily, except Thanksgiving and Christmas. Boarding passes, issued for free at the visitors center, are required to ride the ferry, which leaves at the bottom of the hour starting at 9:30 a.m.

Must Dos: Besides riding the ferry and visiting the fort, catch some sun on an unspoiled mile-long beach, or take a stroll to explore the Matanzas Inlet and hunt for shells. There are also plenty of spots that offer a choice of surf fishing or angling along the tidal river running through the park. An accessible boardwalk nature trail wanders for half a mile through a maritime coastal forest.

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Did You Know? The monument’s name commemorates the Spanish killing of nearly 250 shipwrecked French Huguenots here, almost 175 years before the fort was built. After the massacre, the inlet and river became known as matanzas, Spanish for “slaughters.”

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Reenactors give a canon demonstration at Castillo de San Marcos, the oldest masonry fortification in the continental U.S.

Photograph by Matt Moyer, National Geographic Travel

Nearby Nature

Castillo de San Marcos National Monument

Castillo de San Marcos National Monument, situated with views of Matanzas Bay, has served as a cornerstone of St. Augustine for more than 300 years—first as protection for the area, now as a city park. The fort is the oldest masonry fortification in the continental U.S. It served as principle protection in the region from 1672 to 1900, having been occupied by the armies of Spain, Great Britain, the Confederate States of America, and the United States. Explore the fortress by wandering through its casements and taking in the exhibits. Best Bet: On the weekends, reenactors in period dress give historical weapon demonstrations, as well as presentations on the lives of Florida colonists.

Faver-Dykes State Park

Faver-Dykes State Park is 6,045 acres of peace among the hubbub of St. Augustine. The park features undisturbed vistas across expansive salt marshes along both Pellicer Creek and the Matanzas River. More than 700 species of flora and fauna—including ten species of carnivorous plants such as the hooded pitcher plant, dwarf sundew, and zigzag bladderwort—have been documented here. Birding is big in the park; a hundred bird species have been sighted during spring and fall migrations. Other popular activities include fishing, picnicking, and nature walks. There is a campground for overnight stays. Best Bet: On the park’s southern border, Pellicer Creek has a put-in for kayaks, canoes, and small boats (rentals available) for access to a designated State Canoe Trail.

Princess Place Preserve

Flagler County seeks to keep Princess Place Preserve’s 1,500 acres much as they looked at the end of the 19th century. The park in Palm Coast centers on a lodge finished at that time—the oldest still standing structure in Flagler County. Out back is the first in-ground swimming pool in Florida, now under renovation. Take a lodge tour, camp, hike, bird-watch, or, for those who can BYOE (bring your own equine), go horseback riding at an equestrian camp.