The southernmost hike in the United States is one of the lesser-known attractions of Key West, where pub crawls are more popular than nature walks. Still, this classy and quirky historic city has its natural charms, if you just know the nooks in which to look. Fort Taylor is one of the more obvious sites, especially for those of you checking each of the Florida State Parks off your list. Although the beach here is one of the best in the Keys, the highlight of the park is the fortress itself, a significant historic site and architectural gem. This walk along the trail system includes the Point Trail, the Fort View Trail, and an interpretive stroll through the fort itself.
Location: Key West
Length: 1.2 miles
Lat-Long: 24.546283, -81.810791
Type: loop, partially multiuse
Fees / Permits: state park entrance fee
Good for: birding, children, history, scenic views
Bug factor: low
Restroom: at the fort and at the beach
Bring your swimsuit! The park has the best beach in Key West. With the exception of a portion of the tour of the fort, this hike is entirely in the sun, so wear a hat and sunscreen along your walk.
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 naval base before entering the park. Drive down the entrance road and pass the fort, parking in the beach parking area at the very end.
When Fort Zachary Taylor was built, it was surrounded by the sea—and it’s obvious from your perspective in the parking lot that there is a beautiful beach here now, the best in Key West for swimming, sunning, and snorkeling. All of the land surrounding the fort is fill that was added over the decades after the Civil War, so native vegetation isn’t as lush as it is on other parts of the island. Start your hike along the beach to the Point Trail, which is open to bicycles.
It’s a straight path along the shoreline. Keep left at the fork to reach a picnic area with barbecue grills. You’re at the westernmost point of Key West, and this is the southernmost hike in the United States: one for the brag book! When you reach the sign that says “Foot Traffic Only,” cross the jeep trail and clamber up the slope to the seawall. It’s a rocky wall built up to protect the shoreline from boat traffic, such as the monstrous cruise ships steaming into the port of Key West. You might see one or two, and be thankful that their occupants can’t get here from there very easily—they’re probably all headed to Sloppy Joes.
Turn right and walk along the seawall to get a sweeping perspective of Fort Zachary Taylor. This deep shipping channel you’re walking along didn’t come into being until around 1964, when the rock reef was blasted and dredged to create the channel, and the dredged material became the land beneath your feet. According to a Civil War-era sketch, Fort Taylor sat at the westernmost point of the city to provide its defense, surrounded by the sea, and only a slender causeway connected it to the city of Key West. Notice the fossils in the rocks at your feet, all part of the blasted rocky reef. Look off to left and you’ll see Sunset Island, offshore from Key West, crowded with residences. Huge pieces of driftwood wash up along the shore. One of the few bright spots of color in this rocky fill are the windflowers when they bloom, and it’s always breezy here.
At 0.3 mile, you reach the back of a bicycle sign at a T intersection. Turn left and crunch your way down the footpath between the tall, waving grasses. Follow the trail to its next junction and stay to the right this time—the trail to the left goes along the fence of the military base. You are now headed towards the moat around the fort, where you get a good view of the exterior walls. Building Fort Taylor was a major undertaking. Construction of this massive masonry structure began in 1850. Before the Civil War even started, Federal troops moved into the fort, forcing Key West into Union hands at the very outset of hostilities. The 10-inch Rodman and Columbiad cannons at the fort had a range of three miles, so it was easy for the Union troops to fend off the Confederate Navy—and the port of Key West was an important shipping link to Cuba and the Caribbean. Construction of the fort was completed during the war. By 1866, the fort included a desalination plant that could convert 7,000 gallons of saltwater a day into drinking water, and a row of latrines flushed out by the tides. Hopefully the two weren’t at the same ends of the fort.
Egrets stalk the edges, hidden by morning glories, and pink muhly grass waves in the breeze. The bike trail rejoins the path from the left as you come up to the corner of the fort, where you have a good perspective of the moat from the corner of the fort. As you come to a fork of a narrow and a broad path, keep left and stay to the narrow path. At the next trail junction, a half mile into the walk, turn left and follow the trail along the side of the moat. As you come around the far corner of the fort, notice how the concrete has been chipped away to expose the original brick and mortar fort beneath it.
As the trail reaches the sidewalk coming from the fort parking area, turn left to walk down to the fort entrance. Guided tours are provided twice daily (at 12 and 2) but you can tour the fort at your own pace as well. When you emerge inside the fortress walls, turn left and climb up the staircase to the Osceola Battery. Using the second staircase, a walk along the rooftop lets you explore the batteries and the excavations done to uncover the original brick walls of the fort. In 1889, the Army removed the top two stories of the fort. Before doing so, they capped the new roof with concrete, burying a treasure that wasn’t uncovered again until 1968—the largest and most well preserved cache of Civil War-era cannons in the United States. You can look down over the guardrail and see them. By 1898, they were covered by modern weaponry, batteries of cannons and guns set up in preparation for defending Key West against invasion during the Spanish-American War.
Follow the stairs back down and walk the inner perimeter of the fort past Battery Adair, then into the brick cannon casements. As you wander inside, notice the gothic styling within the various chambers. There are some excellent views out the cannon ports. The “flushed by the sea” latrines are in the far corner of the fort. Climb up the concrete staircase nearby for a great view towards Mallory Square. The longest wall of the fort faced the city of Key West. After the Spanish-American War, the fort continued to be used for surveillance, and was turned over from the Army to the Navy in 1947. It fell into disrepair. But in 1968, the spotlight returned to this historic site, thanks to a core group of volunteers led by Howard England – who discovered and helped to excavate the cannons. They pushed for historic preservation of the site. Fort Zachary Taylor was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971, became a National Historic Landmark in 1973, and was adopted into the Florida State Parks system in 1976.
Completing your tour of the fort, exit through the gate and turn right, retracing your path along the edge of the moat. Look for Keys lilies hiding amid the sea myrtle. As you get to the corner of the fort, pass the obvious walk along the moat and look for a nature trail sign on your right, atop a berm covered in vegetation. This is the Fort View Trail, which scrambles up the man-made berm and immerses you in a young tropical hammock overlooking the moat. It’s the one shady spot along the walk, and provides a great perspective for birdwatching, as you can look down into the edges of the moat without disturbing the birds. As this brief interpretive trail ends, it leads you back down to the beach parking area. You’ve completed a 1.2 mile loop.
0.0 parking area
0.3 T intersection, left
0.4 junction, right
0.5 follow trail along moat
0.7 enter the fort
0.9 exit the fort
1.2 return to parking area
We will share an updated post-Hurricane Irma map after we have the opportunity to revisit this park