Where are all the great beaches in Key West?
Key West may be known for a lot of things – its laid back vibe, Duval Street pub crawl, and nightly sunset celebration are three that come to mind – but its beach scene is not one of them.
But it's an island, you may protest. Shouldn't there be beautiful beaches with long stretches of white, powdery sand?
Keep in mind that while Key West is an island, it's surrounded by America’s only living coral reef. The reef serves as a barrier to protect Key West from the ocean’s full fury. With no waves crashing into its shores, the island lacks both surf and natural sand.
Most of the Key West’s beaches, including the beach at Fort Zachary Taylor State Park, are rocky. What little sand there is was trucked in from elsewhere. You can still enjoy your beach time in Key West. Just wear your water shoes to protect those tender feet from the sharp coral.
There are many special places in Key West. One of my favorites is Fort Zachary Taylor State Park.
The stunning park is home to Key West’s best beach for sunning, swimming and snorkeling. As an added bonus for history buffs, it is the site of the country’s southernmost Civil War fort. The 54-acre park additionally offers nature trails for birding enthusiasts, rock jetties for fishing, and picture-perfect views of the Key West shipping channel and sunset.
Although situated on a prime piece of real estate at Key West’s southwestern point – where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Gulf of Mexico – the park feels like it's off the beaten path. The park's entrance is tucked away behind the Truman Annex residential neighborhood and naval station, meaning the unsuspecting cruise ship passenger is unlikely to stumble upon it during a port of call. On most days, the park and its treasures can be enjoyed in relative seclusion.
History of Fort Zachary Taylor
After the War of 1812, the United States Army began building a series of defensive fortresses along the nation’s coastlines. Construction on the Key West fort began in 1845. It got it's name in 1850, a few months after President Zachary Taylor died in office. Due to yellow fever epidemics, hurricanes and material shortages, the fort’s construction took 21 years to complete.
As originally constructed, the fort was a three-tiered masonry structure built 1,200 feet offshore and connected to the island by a causeway. One of the fort’s four buildings housed a barracks for soldiers; the other three buildings were for armaments. The fort’s features included latrines that were flushed by the tide, a desalination plant and 40 underground cisterns to hold fresh water supplies.
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When Florida seceded from the Union in 1861, U.S. Army Artillery Captain John Milton Brannan seized Fort Taylor for the Union. Throughout the Civil War, the fort served as the base of operations for a U.S. Navy blockade squadron. Federal troops used the fort's artillery, including 10-inch Rodman and Columbiad cannons with a range of three miles, to threaten supply ships attempting to reach Confederate ports in the Gulf Coast.
Although the fort never saw hostile action during the war, the blockade squadron captured and detained around 300 vessels. Some historians believe the fort's strategic location played a crucial role in bringing an end to the conflict.
Modification and modernization
Fort Taylor again saw heavy use beginning in 1898 when it was used to protect Key West from invasion during the Spanish-American War. The Army "modernized” the fort during the war, removing the top two tiers of the fort and building two new batteries to accommodate newer coastal artillery.
As part of the the modification, the fort’s Civil War-era cannons were used as in-fill to support the new battery walls. This buried treasure – the largest collection of Civil War-era cannons in the United States – was discovered in 1968. Today, a walk along the rooftop of the Osceola Battery provides a view of a partially excavated cannon.
Fort Taylor was part of the Coastal Artillery Corps during the First World War, and the U.S. Army installed long-range and rapid-fire cannons on the batteries. Anti-aircraft guns later were installed when the fort served as a military training site during World War II.
The Army decommissioned the fort in 1947 and turned it over to the Navy to maintain. The fort saw brief action for a final time during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962.
In the mid-1960s, the U.S. Navy dredged the Key West shipping channel. With no other place to put it, the dredged material was used as fill around Fort Taylor. As a result, the fortress became landlocked.
A moat later was added to create an illusion that the fort was surrounded by water as it once was.
New life as a park
In 1973, Fort Zachary Taylor was named a National Historic Landmark and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The U.S. Department of the Interior deeded the fort and surrounding property to the State of Florida in 1976. The grounds became a part of the Florida State Park system in 1985.
Guided tours of the fort are offered daily at noon, with self-guided tours available all day until 5:00 p.m.
Visiting Fort Zachary Taylor State Park
The best way to get to Fort Zachary Taylor Park is by bicycle. You will find the entrance near the shipyard at the end of Southard Street.
There is a nominal admission fee for visitors. The daily fee for pedestrians and bicyclists is $2.50, which includes a $.50 county surtax; vehicles pay more based on occupancy.
Traveler tip: Keep your receipt to come and go all day at no additional charge.
After stopping at the gate to pay the entrance fees, follow the narrow road as it winds to the left around the naval station and into the tropical hammock. Watch for birds feasting on native plants in the hammock, especially during the spring and winter migration when the park becomes a favorite refueling stop of many migratory birds.
The entrance to the fort is on the right about a quarter mile down the road. The beach and picnic area are straight ahead.
As you reach the beach parking area, breath deep and take in the sharp, woody perfume of the Australian pines. The pine trees that provide welcome shade to the picnic area actually are a non-native, invasive species. However, because they are such a beloved feature of the park, any suggestion they be eradicated has been met with strenuous objection.
Bikes are not allowed in the picnic area or on the beach but you will find bike racks at the back of the parking lot. For a quick tour of the park's major features, proceed on to the short bicycle trail along the shipping channel and around the fortress moat. Then claim your spot on the beach and be prepared to enjoy the day.
Recreation at Fort Zachary Taylor Park
If you simply want to spend the day lounging on the beach, chairs and umbrellas are available for rent from the concession stand (or bring your own). If you are feeling more ambitious, here are some recreational options at the park:
- Snorkeling: Live coral and many varieties of tropical marine life can be found just off the beach. Snorkel equipment may be rented at the concession stand.
- Fishing: Fishing is permitted from the rocks along the shipping channel on the west side of the park. As you wait for the fish to bite, you'll get a great view of the boats coming and going from the harbor. Licensing requirements may apply.
- Hiking: Two short hiking trails offer up close views of native trees and vegetation. There are interpretative plaques along the way to identify plants and provide other information. Many birds, butterflies and iguanas also can be found along the trails. Fort Zachary Taylor Park is part of the Great Florida Birding Trail.
- Picknicking: The shaded picnic area has tables and grills for enjoying a meal al fresco.
- Yoga: 90 minute classes are offered daily on the beach beginning at 8:15 a.m. The cost for drop-ins is $18, which includes the park entrance fee.
- Dining: Cayo Hueso Café serves beach fare and beverages from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. daily.