Visiting St. Augustine in Florida and looking for a really neat place to go that is both fun and educational? Let us introduce you to Castillo de San Marcos, a National Park right on the water with cannons and a pretty amazing history.
Visiting St. Augustine in Florida is like going back in time. Old Spanish architecture soars overhead while the streets are narrow and lined with small shops, like an old European city. It’s no wonder really since the town is our country’s oldest, founded in 1565 by Juan Ponce de Leon, the first governor of Puerto Rico. The city overlooks the Matanzas Bay, which connects to the nearby Atlantic Ocean.
Having spent a significant amount of time in Europe when I was younger, this city immediately brought me back there and I was ecstatic to share the experience with my daughters. One of the things on our list of adventures in the city was to explore Castillo de San Marcos, the historical fort that sits right on the bay. It was way cooler than we thought it would be.
About Castillo de San Marcos
The fort was actually constructed out of wood multiple times before the stone structure that stands today was built, which was done between 1672 and 1695. You can walk around the outer walls and see the packed shells, sand, and rock that make up parts of the walls. It’s truly a beautiful view overlooking the Matanzas Bay.
So the fort was constructed to protect the city and the Gulf Stream trade routes. Cannons lined the walls, many of which you can still see today, and soldiers lived and trained within the fort itself. Once constructed of stone in the late 1600s, the fort never fell to invaders.
You enter the fort through a drawbridge and can tour all around the fort from the lower levels of the courtyard and storerooms up to the top of the monument where you can see more cannons and the bell tower (and feel the nice breeze on hot days).
In 1924, President Calvin Coolidge designated Castillo de San Marcos a National Monument and just about ten years later, it was acquired by the National Park Service, who take care of it today so we can enjoy it.
Touring Castillo de San Marcos
While there are no guided tours of the fort, you can take a self-guided tour. You will be walking everywhere so be prepared with decent shoes and water.
You’ll walk through the old storage rooms, the barracks, and learn all about the history of the constant warfare between Spain and England and other nations. There’s a lot of artillery, which you will learn all about as you walk through the same pathways that soldiers walked through hundreds of years before.
Junior Ranger Program
If you visit the fort, you must do the Junior Ranger program (even if you have no kids, I still think you should do it). To my knowledge, all National Parks have a Junior Ranger program and the ones I’ve done with my kids have all been a lot of fun and truly add to the experience of visiting the park.
The Junior Ranger program usually consists of a book with lots of questions and information about the park or monument you are visiting. It encourages kids to really learn on a deeper level about each place and ask the Rangers questions when prompted.
The book for the Junior Ranger program at the fort can be found right when you enter, to the right at the little kiosk. Ask when you go because they could have moved it. The Ranger we got our books from was a lot of fun to talk to. He had little gold coins that he gave to my kids after explaining to them all about the currency used back in the 1600s when the fort was built. They loved it.
Then we headed off to complete the book. We toured the lower level, searching around for clues to complete each page and learned what the early settlers ate, what kinds of chores the people did at the fort, and our favorite, how the canons were loaded. For this question, we had to consult a Ranger, where we not only learned that some people loaded and cleaned canons differently but that cannonballs could shoot up to three miles away!
And then he let my kids hold one of the cannonballs. I’m such a nerd. I loved this stuff and I didn’t even get to hold it. My kids were enthralled, though.
Then we headed up to the gundeck and learned all about the cannons up there and got to talk to a Ranger about what he liked best about working there. Once my kids completed the book, they took it back to the Ranger at the desk where we entered and they got their Junior Ranger badge, which they were so proud of. We perused the gift shop after and the employees made a big deal that Junior Rangers were shopping. It was really cute.
Tips for Visiting Castillo de San Marcos
There are a few things to know that will help make your trip to Castillo de San Marcos a lot more enjoyable.
- Get there a few minutes before the park opens. We were the first ones in line and got to talk to the Rangers without interruption and enjoy a quiet fort before the crowds came. Also, getting there early during the summer can give you a better chance of getting through the fort before typical afternoon thunderstorms set in, which will force the gundeck to close.
- Bring water, a hat, and sunscreen. You will have a rough time if you don’t have these.
- Do the Junior Ranger program. I homeschool my kids so this was a really fun field trip for us and the Junior Ranger program was like a curriculum that I didn’t even have to plan myself!
- Plan to spend about 1.5 hours there, maybe more if you are really into history and artillery.
- Talk to the Rangers and ask questions. They really enjoy sharing their knowledge and helping guests learn about the history of the fort. The Ranger we talked to had extensive knowledge about cannonballs and we had a blast asking him all kinds of questions.
- Check the events before you go or when you get there. Unfortunately the cannon demonstrations were canceled when we were there but they may start up again (hopefully).
- If you have a child in 4th grade, don’t forget to sign up for Every Kid Outdoors so you can get your free National Parks Pass.
- Download the NPS app – it’s very helpful when exploring the fort.
Visiting Castillo de San Marcos
The fort is open all year round every day except Thanksgiving and Christmas Day. They open at 9 am and the last admission is at 5 pm, although all guests must be out of the fort by 5:15 pm.
Admission is $15/ages 16+. Under 16 is free with an adult. If you have a National Parks Pass, you get in free. You can also obtain free admission through the Every Kid Outdoors 4th grade free National Park Pass, or during any of these free admission days.
Visitation is at its lowest from mid-September to early November (I can confirm this – we went in mid-September on a Sunday morning and the crowds were not bad at all). The park is crowded pretty much all other times of year, especially during the summer, school breaks, and Christmas through New Years. It is brutally hot in the summer and there is no shade in the fort except for in the storerooms on the lower level so plan accordingly with sunscreen, hats, and water.
Parking is available right next to the fort. We stayed at a vacation rental home right in St. Augustine and walked or biked everywhere so that could also be an option if you’re nearby. Parking can be a little cumbersome in St. Augustine.
The monument will close during a tropical storm or hurricane.
Castillo de San Marcos
1 South Castillo Drive, Saint Augustine, FL