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Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park in Key West, Florida

Updated on April 5, 2015
The best beach in Key West is found at Fort Zachary Taylor State Park
The best beach in Key West is found at Fort Zachary Taylor State Park | Source

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.


The beach at Fort Zachary Taylor State Park
The beach at Fort Zachary Taylor State Park | Source

History of Fort Zachary Taylor

The fort's parade ground, where troops assembled for inspections and drills.
The fort's parade ground, where troops assembled for inspections and drills. | Source

Construction

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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The fort's big guns played an important role in deterring ships from entering Confederate ports during the Civil War.
The fort's big guns played an important role in deterring ships from entering Confederate ports during the Civil War. | Source

Civil War

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.

Battery Adair was added during the Spanish-American War.
Battery Adair was added during the Spanish-American War. | Source
Battery Osceola was another Spanish-American War addition.
Battery Osceola was another Spanish-American War addition. | Source
A Civil war-era cannon used as in-fill when the fort was modernized in 1898.
A Civil war-era cannon used as in-fill when the fort was modernized in 1898. | Source
The moat is a relatively recent addition.
The moat is a relatively recent addition. | Source

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

Source

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.

Tthe beloved Australian pines
Tthe beloved Australian pines | Source

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.

Snorkeling at Fort Zachary Taylor State Park

Fishing at Fort Zachary Taylor State Park

The rocks on the park's west side are a great spot for anglers.
The rocks on the park's west side are a great spot for anglers. | Source

Hiking at Fort Zachary Taylor State Park

The Fort View Trail as seen from the top of Fort Taylor.
The Fort View Trail as seen from the top of Fort Taylor. | Source

Dining at Fort Zachary Taylor State Park

Visit Cayo Hueso Café for food and beverages as well as  gifts and beach rentals.
Visit Cayo Hueso Café for food and beverages as well as gifts and beach rentals. | Source

Watching boats from Fort Zachary Taylor State Park

The top of the fort makes a great place to watch the Key West speed boat races, which are held every November.
The top of the fort makes a great place to watch the Key West speed boat races, which are held every November. | Source

Getting There

A markerFort Zachary Taylor State Park -
Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park, 601 Howard England Way, Key West, FL 33040, USA
get directions

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    • DeborahNeyens profile image
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      Deborah Neyens 2 years ago from Iowa

      Thanks, everyone, for the comments. Glad to be able to share one of my favorite spots in Key West with all of you!

    • theBAT profile image

      theBAT 2 years ago

      Hi, reading your hub reminds me of Cebu here in the Philippines. Nice beach with a historical flavor. Thanks for this hub.

    • ChitrangadaSharan profile image

      Chitrangada Sharan 2 years ago from New Delhi, India

      Came back to congratulate you for HOTD! Well deserved and I enjoyed going through once again.

      Thank you!

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 2 years ago from Houston, Texas

      Hi Deborah,

      I really enjoyed reading this. As a lover of visiting state and national parks and not ever visiting this far south in Florida, I found this very interesting. Thanks for the history lesson as well as your descriptions and great photos. Up votes and happy to share and also pin to my Florida board. Congrats on the HOTD!

    • poetryman6969 profile image

      poetryman6969 2 years ago

      We missed this when we went to Key West. The photos look beautiful.

    • Dana Tate profile image

      Dana Tate 2 years ago from LOS ANGELES

      This hub was rich in history and came with exquisite, colorful, photos which, brought everything to life.

    • pstraubie48 profile image

      Patricia Scott 2 years ago from sunny Florida

      O thanks for showcasing this spot in Florida...just one of many treasures here that others need to know about.

      Angels are headed your way this afternoon ps

    • RTalloni profile image

      RTalloni 2 years ago from the short journey

      Congrats on your Hub of the Day award for this post on the park. It's an interesting place to visit…but oh the water is so beautiful and to be in it is to be out of this world! :)

    • profile image

      mikeydcarroll67 2 years ago

      You have to admit that there were a lot of features that probably made this a unique feature-storing and treating water, among other things. They must have thought about being holed up for a while should the enemy troops come through.

    • bdegiulio profile image

      Bill De Giulio 2 years ago from Massachusetts

      Hi Deborah. We've been to Key West just once but did not find our way to the Fort. Perhaps on our next visit. It looks interesting and certainly something that would appeal to me. Great job and congratulations on the HOTD.

    • mary615 profile image

      Mary Hyatt 2 years ago from Florida

      Congrats on HOTD! I have been to Key West several times; sorry I missed this park. Will go there the next trip for sure.

    • Au fait profile image

      C E Clark 2 years ago from North Texas

      What a great idea for a vacation, and excellent photos! Congratulations on getting HOTD!

    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 2 years ago from Northeast Ohio

      Deborah, this was a great and useful hub on this historical national park in Florida. Lovely photos for this travelogue. Voted up and congrats on HOTD!

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 2 years ago

      Stopped in again to remind myself I must get there one of these days! Beautiful suggestion for a vacation!

    • DeborahNeyens profile image
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      Deborah Neyens 2 years ago from Iowa

      Thanks for following, Carol. I am checking out your articles, as well.

    • Carol Houle profile image

      Carol Houle 3 years ago from Montreal

      Beautiful hub, fabulous photos. I am following you so I can see more. Thanks

    • DeborahNeyens profile image
      Author

      Deborah Neyens 3 years ago from Iowa

      Thank you, MsDora. Glad you enjoyed the tour!

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Isaac Weithers 3 years ago from The Caribbean

      Thank you for the tour of Fort Zachary Taylor State Park. such lovely views!

    • DeborahNeyens profile image
      Author

      Deborah Neyens 3 years ago from Iowa

      Thank you for reading and commenting, Room of My Own, FlourishAnyway, Eddy, EGamboa, and bravewarrior. I'm glad you enjoyed my hub and photos.

    • bravewarrior profile image

      Shauna L Bowling 3 years ago from Central Florida

      Deborah, I've lived in Florida since 1976. I lived in South Florida until 1987 when I moved to Central FL. I've been to Key West several times but never visited the park. If I ever make my way down there again, I'll be sure to check it out. I'm surprised at how small the fish are in the reefs. My brother used to snorkel when we lived in Boca. He'd run into barracuda and moray eels all the time!

    • EGamboa profile image

      Eileen Gamboa 3 years ago from West Palm Beach

      So nice to read about Key West as my dad and mom were stationed there when my dad was in the navy in the 50's. Makes me think of what they're life was like.

    • Eiddwen profile image

      Eiddwen 3 years ago from Wales

      Interesting/awesome/beautiful and useful.

      The full package and I also share.

      Enjoy your day,

      Eddy.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 3 years ago from USA

      Well researched and written with excellent photos. I've been to Key West once and loved it, but did not have time to visit the park.

    • Room of My Own profile image

      Sadie Holloway 3 years ago

      Beautiful photos to accompany a well-researched hub! I've never been to Florida, but this hub has certainly piqued my interest. Nicely done

    • DeborahNeyens profile image
      Author

      Deborah Neyens 3 years ago from Iowa

      Thank you for reading and commenting, Rebecca, Eric, Sherry, and Chitrangada.

    • ChitrangadaSharan profile image

      Chitrangada Sharan 3 years ago from New Delhi, India

      Wonderful hub, beautifully done with lovely pictures!

      Thanks for sharing the details!

    • Sherry Hewins profile image

      Sherry Hewins 3 years ago from Sierra Foothills, CA

      That looks like a wonderful place to explore.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 3 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Excellent hub, thank you/

    • rebeccamealey profile image

      Rebecca Mealey 3 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      I love national and state parks. This one looks particularly awesome. I like the shady picnic area close to the beach. Our beaches here are all hot sand and concrete.

    • DeborahNeyens profile image
      Author

      Deborah Neyens 3 years ago from Iowa

      Thanks, Dianna. I hope you get a chance to visit soon. And I will want a report back!

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 3 years ago

      I have still to visit Key West, and I live so close, but this post has inspired me to visit soon.

    • DeborahNeyens profile image
      Author

      Deborah Neyens 3 years ago from Iowa

      Thanks, Bill. I think you'd enjoy a visit to Key West. I'm headed there soon for my annual trip and I find it always recharges my creativity.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      I have never really had any desire to go to Florida, with the exception of Key West. I think that would be a great place to visit...so thanks for the early tour and history lesson.

    • DeborahNeyens profile image
      Author

      Deborah Neyens 3 years ago from Iowa

      Thanks, Linda, for reading and being the first to comment. I hope you get there someday. It's my happy place. : )

    • Sunshine625 profile image

      Linda Bilyeu 3 years ago from Orlando, FL

      I didn't have time to visit this park when I visited the Keys so thank you for the tour and history. Great photos!!