In 1846, the Army Corps of Engineers started building two large masonry forts where the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico met.
Fort Thomas Jefferson, on the Dry Tortugas would guard the entrance to the gulf. Fort Zachary Taylor would protect the city of Key West.
Used for coastal surveillance, it remained under command of the Army until 1947, when they turned it over to the Navy. It fell into disrepair until locals pushed for its preservation.
Added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1971, Fort Taylor became the anchor of this Florida State Park in 1976.
The sheer size of the fort and its architecture makes it compelling to explore, and it is the reason the southernmost state park in the United States is in Key West.
The park’s adjoining beach is the bigger draw, thanks to a sweep of white sand beach that’s a rarity in the Florida Keys, and shallow offshore waters for snorkeling.
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Address: 601 Howard England Way, Key West
Fees: $6 per vehicle
Restroom: Near the picnic area and at the fort
Land manager: Florida State Parks
Open 8 AM to sunset. Fort tours are offered daily at 11 AM.
Follow US 1 (the Overseas Highway) all the way south to Mile Marker 0 in Key West. Continue a little farther down the street. You’ll see a sign for the park. Turn left, driving through a small residential community and around the Truman Annex of Naval Air Station Key West before entering the park. Drive down the entrance road and pass the fort, parking in the beach parking area at the very end.
About the Park
Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park has two distinct sides: the historic fortress and the waterfront that fronts it.
Construction of this massive masonry structure began in 1850. At that time, the Atlantic Ocean lapped at the base of its walls, not the moat you see today.
Extension of the island with fill resulted in what is now the oceanfront of the park and the forest that occupies the land between moat and beach.
In this green space, the southernmost footpaths in Florida connect the two areas. This small network of interpretive nature trails totals less than a mile.
A botanical garden showcasing the native Caribbean species common to the Keys sits, ironically, adjoining the shade of tall Australian pines.
Although the species is invasive, they’ve been accorded special dispensation from removal at this park because of the critical shade they provide.
A seawall parallels the shipping channel from the moat of the fort to the beach, affording views of both passing ships and the nearby Marquesas Keys.
Under the shade of the tall pines, the picnic tables all afford an outstanding view.
About Fort Taylor
A visit to this state park isn’t complete without at least an introductory tour of Fort Zachary Taylor, one of the largest fortresses built in the United States.
Construction commenced in 1850, following the design for Third System forts developed by Army Corps of Engineers Chief Engineer Joseph Gilbert Totten.
Construction was still underway at the time Florida seceded from the Union. Fort Taylor had a good stock of cannon and ammunition on hand, but its open side faced the town.
Its commander, Captain John M. Brannan, became nervous watching the new local militia, the Key West Island Guard, practicing outside.
Acting on his own initiative January 13, 1861, he and his Federal soldiers slipped through the town in the middle of the night and occupied the fort.
In addition to firepower, they had four months of food and plenty of water. Backup troops joined them within a month.
Because of this early occupation by the Federal troops, Florida’s second largest city became the only city in Florida under Union rule the entire duration of the Civil War.
By the time construction finished in 1866, the fort included a desalination plant and a row of latrines flushed out by the tides.
During the Spanish-American War, the top levels of Fort Taylor were cut down to install more modern weaponry.
Concrete batteries were added, visually disruptive today amid the otherwise Gothic archways and staircases.
In the 1960s, close examination of the concrete unveiled a treasure trove atop the fort walls.
Climb to the top level and walk along the batteries to see what’s acknowledged as the largest known cache of Civil War era cannons, partially excavated from the concrete.
In addition to a quarter mile walk through the fort itself, the park has several short interpretive trails. Where signposted, they are open to bicycles.
The Fort View Trail scrambles up the man-made berm and immerses you in a young tropical hammock overlooking the moat.
The Tropical Hammock Trail dives into the deep shade of a much more lush tropical forest, with gumbo-limbo forming a thick, low canopy.
A connector trail between them loops the open fill below the fort and follows the channel to the parking area at the beach.
See our photos of Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park
More worth exploring while you’re in this area.