The National Parks of the U.S. East Coast
Heading south this year? Fill your journey with historic sites, picturesque anchorages, and stunning beaches.
Fort Matanzas National Monument, St. Augustine, Florida
We stumbled upon this little gem on our first trip south after visiting a friend in St. Augustine, which lies 15 miles to the north on the Intracoastal Waterway. That’s the only way in here; Matanzas Inlet is closed to navigation, not to mention that a fixed bridge and overhead power lines cross it. Most cruisers steam right on by this river on their way either to or from St. Augustine, but we were looking for a quiet place, so we hung a left off the waterway, following Anchorages Along the Intracoastal Waterway’s advice for negotiating the somewhat shoaly entrance. We were only a couple of hundred yards in when a voice hailed us on the VHF. “You want to get farther to the right there, captain,” he said. “Way you’re headed, you’re gonna hit the bottom.”
We followed the helpful advice and slid without mishap into this narrow, tide-sluiced river, where we dropped the anchor just off the fort, which is on Rattlesnake Island. A little while later, a pontoon boat came rumbling by, and we waved it over. The driver told us that this ferry was the way to the fort and that we could come anytime tomorrow to the visitors center to hop a ride. All of it was free. And yes, he’d been the one who’d saved us from an embarrassing encounter with the bottom. The next morning, we dinghied to the visitors center where we watched a short film about the fort’s history, and then, after a brief walk on the boardwalk that wends through the woods and marsh here, we hopped our ride and headed for the fort. The Spanish word matanzas means “massacres” or “slaughters” and refers to two bloody Spanish attacks on several hundred French settlers here in 1565. In 1589, the Spanish built a wooden watchtower to keep an eye on the back door into St. Augustine, mainly fending off the likes of Sir Francis Drake and a variety of pirates. The actual fort wasn’t completed until 1742, about 50 years after the much bigger Castillo de San Marcos was completed in St. Augustine. It was only intended to hold a small garrison of seven to 10 soldiers who could warn troops at the Castillo de San Marcos of impending attack. We were allowed to explore the fort for as long as we wished. Afterward, we dinghied toward the inlet, where several broad beaches invited us to stretch our legs. On the way we saw sea turtles, dolphins, and even a loon, far south on its migration.
Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park and Biscayne National Park
For many cruisers heading to the Bahamas or other points east rather than farther south to the Florida Keys, this is the logical end of the line and a good jumping-off point. Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park occupies the southern end of Key Biscayne, and its No Name Harbor, which offers complete shelter, lies only a one-mile walk from cruising necessities and the public-transportation terminal located at the park entrance. It also has trash disposal, showers, restrooms, free pumpout, easy access to the park’s beaches and walking trails, and a decent restaurant. The downside is that it’s pretty small (and can get predictably crowded), and it costs $15 a night to anchor here, paid in honor boxes on the shore. We anchored outside the harbor and dinghied in; the privilege of tying up is $2 per day. The park itself is beautiful; a minor miracle, really, offering a peaceful, lovely, undeveloped sea and landscape within the shadow of Miami. Its lighthouse was built in 1825, and you can get free guided tours at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. Thursday through Monday.
Immediately south of Cape Florida lie the boundaries of Biscayne National Park. Its 173,000 acres, 95 percent of it water, contain cays, islands, underwater sanctuaries, reefs, beaches, and mangroves that stretch all the way to Key Largo. Anchorages Along the Intracoastal Waterway provides a thorough listing of the various spots here, and it makes special mention not to anchor in grass or run aground, since fees can be substantial if you damage the bottom or reefs. If you don’t mind running that risk and you watch your weather carefully, you can be rewarded with a truly remarkable place to gunkhole.
Wendy Mitman Clarke and her family are working their way south aboard Osprey with their sights currently set on the Caribbean.