For the first stop in our series on Key West public beaches, we visit the southern tip of Key West. Here we find a large, relatively undeveloped, partially forested patch of land surrounding Fort Zachary Taylor, a historic, pre-Civil War brick-built fort that originally sat on an offshore island connected to the mainland by a walkway. The fort and the land around it comprise 87-acre Fort Zachary Taylor State Park, which includes what the locals call Fort Zach beach, probably the most popular of the Key West public beaches.
Picnic area at Fort Zachary Taylor State Park
While Smathers beach may top it for sheer length, Fort Zach offers a more natural setting, with a lengthy, scalloped main beach backed by a broad open space and nice grove of shady trees. Around the point at the western end of the beach, and in front of the fort, a rocky shoreline borders a large open meadow area crossed by walking trails. The main beach fronts a sea bottom that begins shallow then slopes gradually away to the deeper waters of the main Gulf\Atlantic ship channel running between the western tip of Key West and the small Keys, sandbars, and shallows of the Key West National Wildlife Refuge a few miles to the west.
Inner Yard at Fort Zachary Taylor and the Key West Main Ship Channel (Image by Rolf Müller)
This positioning near the ship channel, a main migratory route for fish moving between the Gulf and the Atlantic, means that Fort Zach beach offers excellent snorkeling potential when water conditions are favorable. The near shore waters are protected, easy and safe for beginners. Further out, experienced snorkelers, free-divers, and SCUBA divers can enjoy interesting underwater terrain and the possibility of seeing larger fish along the edges of the channel. The proximity to the channel also makes this beach good for fishing, which is allowed, and a stone jetty at the west end of the main beach is a good spot to try casting some bait out toward the deeper waters.
Fort Zachary Taylor park is also known for bird watching, as it is a landfall for many types of migrating birds, and home to several native species. The park area is the first dry land that many northward-flying migrant birds see after crossing the water from points south, and the last feeding and resting opportunity for southward migrants in the fall. Surprising numbers and varieties of avian visitors pass through Fort Zachary Taylor Park. Bird watchers will find that the pine forest, open meadow, saltwater moat, and seawall and breakwater on the north side of the park all offer opportunities to spot many types of land and seabirds.
Besides the beautiful natural setting, the other highlight of this beach is Fort Zachary Taylor. One of several forts built in the mid-1800s to defend the southern coastline of the US, it was completed in 1866 and played important roles in the Civil and Spanish-American wars. The fort was taken out of service in 1947. In 1968, excavations produced the nation’s largest collection of Civil War cannons and Fort Zachary Taylor was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1973. The fort offers daily tours, and will certainly be of interest to any Civil War or US history buff.
Although the park does charge an entrance fee ($2 for pedestrians and bicyclists plus a 50¢ per person County surcharge, $4 for a single-occupant vehicle, and a carload deal of $6 for 2-8 people), Fort Zach beach is well worth it for the beauty and the amenities it offers. Besides the activities already described above, visitors can enjoy a short nature trail and bicycling within the park. The beachfront Cayo Hueso Café offers snacks, cold beverages, beach sundries, and souvenirs. Public restrooms, picnic tables, barbecues, and beach equipment rentals provide all the necessities for a full day of seaside fun.
Fort Zach Beach
Fort Zachary Taylor, Florida’s southernmost state park, offers a beautiful beach in a natural setting, a safe waterfront, plenty of room to explore, and many things to do. It is my call as the best choice on the island for anyone craving a long day at a spacious beach, and is especially ideal for a relaxing and fun family day trip.