If there is a place in Florida where ghosts walk the dunes, this would be it. In the early 1560s, France established a foothold in Florida, with Jean Ribault claiming the land for France. The settlement of Fort Caroline took hold along the St. Johns River. A few years later, Pedro Menendez de Aviles established St. Augustine and claimed the land for Spain. Ribault attempted to fend off the newcomers, but his ships were wrecked in a storm off this coast. Menendez marched on Fort Caroline with 500 soldiers and destroyed the colony. Afterwards, he came to this spot, now known as Matanzas – the Spanish word for massacre – and executed the shipwreck survivors on these sands.
Despite the gory past of this spot, the dunes are now swaddled in maritime forest, a gentle place with ancient oaks. The accessible boardwalk has some steep spots, but does well in keeping the kids corralled and off the dunes. A walk through this shady place provides a sense of calm. Nature heals the wounds of history as leafy green swallows up the ghosts of the past.
Location: Crescent Beach
Length: 0.5 miles
Lat-Long: 29.715251, -81.233892
Fees / Permits: none
Bug factor: low to moderate
Restroom: at the trailhead
This property is managed by the National Park Service. There is no charge for parking and strolling around the nature trail, the picnic grounds, and the visitor center. If you take the boat tour or visit the beach across the street, there is a fee.
Bicycles are not allowed on the boardwalk, but dogs are welcome.
From I-95 exit 305, Crescent Beach / Hastings, follow US 1 for 6.6 miles north to SR 206. Drive east along SR 206 for 3.9 miles to Crescent Beach. At the traffic light with A1A, turn right. Continue south for 3.9 miles to the National Historic Site entrance on the right.
The “Nature Trail” sign at Fort Matanzas is right next to the restrooms along the parking loop, and the sign says right up front it’s a half mile trail. The trail ascends a zigzagging boardwalk to climb the first of many dunes hidden under the leafy canopy of this maritime forest, a coastal hammock with an understory dense with yaupon holly and American beautyberry beneath Southern red cedar on this hill. As you head up the walkway, stop and borrow a laminated trail guide to enjoy the interpretive information provided for ten numbered stops along the route.
As you ascend, cool breezes ruffle through the forest, a relief from the hot sun. The boardwalk is made of a plastic wood, so in the heat it gives off that funky aroma that reminds me of the souvenir plastic Mold-A-Rama machines that were all the rage at Florida attractions in the 1960s. Interpretive signs point out the grapevines that swarm across the hilltop. Passing Marker 1, you start to head downhill through a sunny open area. As you descend, you can hear the echo of vehicles on the Fort Matanzas bridge along A1A, which is not far away but not visible through the dense forest. Bees buzz around the blooming catbrier. In late spring, the yaupon is in berry, which attracts songbirds to feed. You’ll hear many calls echoing through the forest. This forest is along the flyway for the painting bunting, one of the most colorful songbirds seen along the Atlantic Coast.
The boardwalk makes a sharp left to continue downhill as a straightaway, reaching a bench at a corner. You descend beneath a dense canopy of red bay trees, with trunks that look distinctly different from the live oaks in the forest, which have twists and twirls in their bark. Continuing past the bench, walk down the next long ramp to a forest road, which you cross to reach the next segment of the boardwalk. Wheelchairs may need a little assistance across the gap between boardwalks, which occurs at 0.1 mile. A large arrow points down the boardwalk, which you enter beneath the extremely crooked boughs of live oaks.
As you pass a large clump of saw palmetto on the right, look for patches of lichen growing on the wizened tree trunks. Even the cedars overhead are twisted and gnarled by the constant sea breezes through Matanzas Inlet. The next patch of saw palmetto rises well up off the forest floor on deeply textured trunks. Birds flit in and out of the fronds. Grapevines dangle from above, and you see Virginia creeper climbing the shaggy bark of the cedars. The next bench is next to Marker 4, which points out the saw palmetto.
Here and there you can glimpse bits of the forest floor beneath the vegetation, even though the boardwalk is several feet above it. Notice that it’s not at all flat, but undulates in every direction between these forest-cloaked dunes. As you walk down another straightway past Marker 5, silk bay pokes out of a copse of saw palmetto. Jogging sharply right, you head down the next straightaway, this one edged with a patch of coastal scrub. While open and sunny, this is a very pretty section of the boardwalk. Look for a prominent gopher tortoise burrow near the treeline on your right; tracks lead through the sand to the hole in the hill
A faded marker, a memorial to the massacre, rises from the forest floor on the left as you reach a trail junction. Turn left to walk up to the breezy observation deck above the dunes. It provides a sweeping view towards the inlet and down the milky aqua shimmer of the Matanzas River, where you may see boats anchored or fisherman walking the far shore. The sand holds impressions of the tracks that wildlife leave on their journeys up and over, from the gopher tortoises to raccoons, birds, and lizards. This is a sunny spot, but worth lingering at for the breeze and the views.
Returning to the main boardwalk, turn left. Walk past a pair of benches to discover a sign recounting a short history of the massacre at Matanzas Inlet, as well as the old concrete marker. It’s hard to tell which era it’s from, but it certainly isn’t a recent addition. The boardwalk turns, and you’re back in the cool shade of the forest. Just beyond Marker 10, crickets hum from beyond the stands of yaupon and the sun blazes down again. Beautiful whorled cedars rise over your head. Walk down a short straightaway, and the boardwalk ends at the forest road. Continue across it to return back to the parking area on the original segment of boardwalk, which zigzags you back down the far side of the hill to the trailhead.
From here, even if you don’t plan to take the guided tour to Fort Matanzas itself – which runs hourly on the half hour – it’s worth a walk down to the boat dock to see the fort. Simply follow the sidewalk around to the park’s visitor center. Pass through the gateway in the middle of the visitor center to continue down to the boat dock for the view.