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Exploring Fort Clinch State Park, Amelia Island Florida

Exploring Fort Clinch State Park, Amelia Island Florida

If you love history, nature (or both!) Fort Clinch State Park is an amazing place to spend the day when you visit Amelia Island, Florida.

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With a three-mile canopy road leading to a Civil War-era military fort, miles of hiking and biking trails, and a long stretch of sandy beach, Fort Clinch has something for everyone.

Mr. SBC and I spent a day at Fort Clinch State Park on our trip to Amelia Island, and here are my favorite things to do and see from our visit.

Driving the canopy road at Fort Clinch State Park

The term “canopy road” might be unfamiliar to some readers. In general, a canopy road is a roadway that has an overarching tent of foliage, blocking the sun. It could consist of live oaks, sweet gums, hickory trees, or even old-growth pines.

Living in New England, we don’t often have canopy roads—though in winter we sometimes experience a similar thing due to snowfall pushing down the branches of massive pines, creating a fairytale tunnel to drive through.

But in parts of the southeastern US, canopy roads are even more magical—especially when they’re made from mature oak trees just dripping with Spanish moss.

When we paid the $6 for our car to enter the park, the attendant proudly told us that Fort Clinch State Park has the longest canopy road in the south. I almost squealed with glee!

We’d be taking the canopy road to its end at the Visitors’ Center, where we could buy tickets to explore Fort Clinch itself.

The drive along this narrow roadway is so beautiful! If you’d like to see it for yourself, check out my short 3-minute video below of our drive through the canopy road:

Fort Clinch Canopy Road | Amelia Island Florida

On our way back we even spotted a young deer on the canopy road, foraging under the shady trees.

Buying tickets for the museum and Fort Clinch

The end of the canopy road found us at the Visitors’ Center, with plenty of parking, clean restrooms, and a picnic area. Inside, there’s an information desk, ticket desk, and a small gift shop.

The Visitors’ Center at Fort Clinch offers clean restrooms, picnic tables, a ticket desk and a small gift shop

Tickets to visit the military fort and its small museum are just $2.50 per person.

A quick history of Fort Clinch

Fort Clinch served as a military post during three wars—though it never saw any direct action.

Although fortifications on this site at the entrance to Cumberland Sound existed as early as 1736, construction of the fort you can see today began in 1847.

The brick and stone fort, built by the Army Corps of Engineers, was intended to protect the southern coast of Georgia from foreign invaders.

But when the Civil War began in 1861, the Confederacy took control of the unfinished fort. By March of 1862, as the Union had gained control of coastal Georgia, Confederate General Robert E. Lee gave the command to evacuate.

Under Union command, Company E of the New York Volunteer Engineers worked to complete the fort, but when the war ended in 1865 the structures were still not finished. By 1869 Fort Clinch was empty.

During the Spanish-American War the fort was again used as a military barracks and ammunition depot, but then sat empty again until it was sold in 1926.

But by 1935 Fort Clinch and its surrounding land became one of Florida’s first state parks. The Civilian Conservation Corps started restoring the fort the next year.

During WWII the fort was used as a military operations center, but has been open to the public since the end of the war.

The Fort Clinch Museum

After purchasing our tickets to Fort Clinch, the ticket clerk gestured to the doorway, inviting us to go back outside and then through to the museum.

Passing through the exit, we found ourselves in a small courtyard with a low brick wall separating us from the people who hadn’t yet bought tickets. I was a little confused—there were a few doors in this area and no clear sign as to where we should enter.

The correct entrance was through the double white doors, and we soon found ourselves in a small two-room museum.

You’ll pass through the small Fort Clinch museum for an overview of the history of the fort

Just inside the entryway, a sign touted the General Clinch Augmented Reality Experience, a free tour that you could download. We both tried to connect to the park’s WiFi to download the tour, but we couldn’t get much of a signal at all.

If you’re planning to visit Fort Clinch, make sure to download the app before your visit, because WiFi at the park is super slow.

The museum itself was underwhelming—about 30 percent of the spaces were empty, with blank spots where historical displays used to be. But I decided to give it a try and read all of the placards to get an overview of the fort before we toured it.

Whether a museum is tiny or expansive, I always try to walk away with at least one interesting new piece of knowledge. This time, I found out my small tidbit of learning just a moment after we walked in.

I love history, and I often visit military sites and museums—but I don’t often research weapons. It’s just not my thing. I’m much more interested in social history, but since our society places so much emphasis on the history of war, lots of my history travel includes battle sites and forts.

However, a strange cannon-like thing on wheels with a large metal shield drew my attention. It was a Gatling gun! I’ve actually never picked up a gun of any sort, and know almost nothing about them.

A Gatling gun at the Fort Clinch museum

But of course I’ve heard of a Gatling gun, and knew it was an early form of machine gun. But I always assumed it was some kind of rifle. Nope!

It was only used in the US Civil War a few times, but this gun—patented on November 4, 1862—could originally shoot 200 rounds a minute.

Although inventor Richard Gatling (the son of a wealthy North Carolina planter), hoped the tremendous power of his weapon would actually discourage battles, I shivered to think of how the war could have turned out if he patented this gun just a couple of years earlier.

A small display of artillery ammunition at the Fort Clinch museum

Touring the fort at Fort Clinch State Park

Leaving the small museum, we found ourselves back outside and it was obvious how to get to Fort Clinch from the museum.

Walking across a sandy path toward the looming fort, we saw lots of Frisian horses (otherwise known as chevaux de frise). No, we didn’t encounter a field full of adorable Dutch draft horses to pet (those would be Friesian horses, sorry.)

Chevaux de frise, like these at Fort Clinch, were often used as anti-cavalry obstacles

Wooden chevaux de frise, designed as anti-cavalry obstacles, were first used in the second half of the 16th century during the Dutch War for Independence. In the US, devices like this were used in battle through the Civil War, especially by the Confederacy.

Historic Fort Clinch overlooks the St. Marys River, with views to the Cumberland Island National Seashore and the Atlantic Ocean

Fort Clinch is just steps from the water, and I hoped we’d be able to enjoy a view from the top of the fort. We weren’t disappointed!

Fort Clinch was very well armed with strategically-placed cannon

Passing through the tunnel-like entrance to the fort, we emerged onto the expansive parade grounds. From here we could see that multiple doorways were open, beckoning visitors to explore what was inside.

A view of some of Fort Clinch’s barracks from the parade grounds

Although there are usually living history reenactors at the fort in Civil War-era clothing, we visited in the off-season so we weren’t able to have the full experience.

However, there were several rangers on hand for guests who had questions about the fort. You can also book a guided tour through the state park in advance.

Tip: Consider planning your visit for the first weekend of the month, when a soldier garrison visits the fort to demonstrate battlefield skills and fire the cannons!

The first building we entered was a barracks—a small room where soldiers would prepare simple meals, eat and sleep. A real wood fire in the barracks hearth was welcome on such a chilly January day!

A real wood fire in the barracks hearth was welcome on a chilly day

The rickety three-tiered bunk beds (I shook one to test the sturdiness) and simple furnishings spoke to the spartan lifestyle the soldiers would have lived 160 years ago.

Would you like to sleep in these rickety bunk beds?

Many of the rooms that were open showed other similar barracks, though we also saw officers’ housing, offices, a small shop where soldiers could purchase extras, and even a small jail!

The shop was set up as it would have been during the Civil War
A store of ammunition at Fort Clinch

Climbing up to the roof level of the fort, we were able to explore the entire top of the structure to see the cannons up close and drink in the view of the Cumberland Sound.

If you’re visiting the fort with small kids or people who have difficulty with balance, be aware that this section can be dangerous. The edges of the walking area slope down, and there isn’t a fence or guardrail to stop people from tumbling over the edge!

Beaches at Fort Clinch State Park

Fort Clinch State Park has three main beach areas. We visited the beach directly north of the fort itself, which is where the St. Marys River flows into the Atlantic.

Reaching the shore from the fort is a quick walk from the entrance—just follow the path through the sandy grass.

Georgia’s Cumberland Island National Seashore is easily visible across the channel from the beach at Fort Clinch

We visited in January when a storm was battering the east coast, so the wind and cool temps left the beach nearly deserted, except for a few people who also hoped to find some of the shark’s teeth that Amelia Island is famous for.

Tip: Bring a pair of binoculars, and you might catch a glimpse of wild horses on the Cumberland Island National Seashore, just across the river in Georgia.

The wide, flat beach is perfect for a long stroll out to the beacons. Maybe you’ll find a shark’s tooth!

Despite the chilly wind, we enjoyed a long stroll to the eastern end of the beach where we noticed a couple of beacons on the shore which I assumed functioned as lighthouses.

The beacons stood on temporary wooden pilings. I thought that was a bit strange. But later on in our visit to Fort Clinch State Park, I found out why! (You’ll have to keep reading to find the answer.)

The beacons on the beach sat atop temporary wooden pilings

The other two beaches are located just south and just north of the jetty. You can pick up a free park map when you buy your tickets to enter the park, or at the Visitors’ Center.

The beach area north of the jetty is too dangerous for swimming, but it’s a great spot for sunbathing, shell collecting, fishing, and spotting wildlife.

South of the jetty is a three-quarter-mile stretch of Atlantic Beach where swimming is permitted. There aren’t lifeguards at any of the beaches, but a flag system set up at the entrance to the beach describes the day’s surf conditions.

Hiking and biking at Fort Clinch State Park

If you’re planning to hike at Fort Clinch State Park, there are miles of trails you can discover. Mountain bikers also have a variety of trails to explore—but be sure to read the signs at each trailhead. Not all trails are mixed-use.

Check the sign at each trailhead for safety information

The main trail is a six-mile path you can access from the Visitor Center parking lot. This trail covers forested areas as well as steep dunes, making it a challenging hike. Bikers need to follow the loop trail in one direction, while hikers can go either way.

Willow Pond Nature Trail, accesssible from the canopy road, offers two loop options for hikers—the 25-minute Willow Loop and the 45-minute Magnolia Loop. Bikes aren’t allowed on the nature trails.

There’s also a quarter-mile hiking trail that starts at the west inlet parking area. This trail winds through maritime hammock, or coastal hardwood forest, and along the edges of steep dunes.

The canopy road is also a popular bike route in the park, as is biking on the beach. Large-tire bicycles are permitted on the hard-packed sections of the beach at low tide. You can also rent beach cruisers at the Visitors’ Center.

The Willow Pond Oil House

I’ll admit I’m a sucker for visiting preserved ruins—there’s just something so hauntingly romantic about them. I always find myself squinting at these old structures, trying to conjure up what the derelict building might have looked like in its prime.

When we were driving down the canopy road to the fort, I had noticed a small tumble-down brick building, just across the road from a trailhead parking lot. I made a mental note to check it out on our way out of the park.

The remains of the Willow Pond Oil House at Fort Clinch State Park

I’m so glad we stopped to discover the Willow Pond Oil House! Although you’ll only need to take about five or ten minutes to check out this spot, it’s super-interesting and answered my questions about the strange beacon built on pilings we had walked to on the beach.

A set of historical placards explained that during the 19th century a series of beacons worked in tandem with the Amelia Island Lighthouse. (We tried to see the nearby lighthouse itself, but it’s only open for tours on the first and third Wednesday of each month).

The shifting sands in the St. Marys River made it treacherous for vessels navigating into the Cumberland Sound, so a system of stationary and movable beacons helped sailors navigate without running aground.

There was my answer! Building a permanent beacon right at the water’s edge wouldn’t be helpful for boaters if the sands are always shifting.

This small, fenced-in area contains not only the ruins of the Willow Pond Oil House, a structure that could safely hold 450 gallons of kerosene (a year’s supply for the beacons) but also the brick pilings that formed the base of one of the stationary navigation beacons.

Where to stay while visiting Fort Clinch State Park on Amelia Island

If you’d like to stay right on the grounds of Fort Clinch State Park, they offer two campgrounds with 69 campsites in total.

Located at the north end of the park on the St. Marys River, the Amelia River campground has 42 sites, shaded by live oaks.

Surrounded by sand dunes, the Atlantic Beach campground lets campers enjoy the sun in one of its 21 RV or six tent sites.

Each campsite features a picnic table, fire ring, potable water, and electric hookups. Well-behaved pets are welcome at both of the campsites.

To make a campsite reservation, visit the Florida State Parks reservations website or call 800-326-3521.

If you’d prefer to stay in a hotel, Amelia Island has plenty of highly-rated hotels for all budgets.

We stayed at the nearby Omni Amelia Island Resort (read my full Omni Amelia Island review here), which is just a 20-minute drive along the coast from the park’s entrance.

Or click any of the links below to check prices and availability for some other highly-rated Amelia Island lodgings:

Fort Clinch State Park FAQ

What is the address for Fort Clinch State Park?

Fort Clinch State Park is located at 2601 Atlantic Avenue, Fernandina Beach FL 32034.

How much does it cost to enter Fort Clinch State Park?

It costs $6 per vehicle (with 2-8 people) to visit Fort Clinch State Park. Vehicles with a single occupant only need to pay $4. Pedestrians, bicyclists, extra passengers, and passengers with an Annual Individual Entrance Pass are charged $2.

When is Fort Clinch State Park open?

Fort Clinch State Park is open from 8 AM until sunset, 365 days a year.

When is Fort Clinch open?

Fort Clinch is open daily from 9 AM to 5 PM.

How much does it cost to camp at Fort Clinch State Park?

Camping at Fort Clinch State Park costs $26 per night plus tax, plus a $6.70 reservation fee and a $7 nightly utility fee for RV, cabin, bungalow, boat, and yurt units. Tent campers do not need to pay the utility fee.

Florida residents 65 years of age or older or with a Social Security disability award certificate or a 100% disability award certificate from the federal government receive a 50% discount on the base campsite fees.

How much are tickets to enter Fort Clinch?

In addition to the fee to enter Fort Clinch State Park, guests wanting to enter the fort itself need to buy a ticket. Tickets are currently $2.50 per person.

Have you visited Fort Clinch State Park on Amelia Island? I’d love to hear about your visit in the comments below!


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Michelle

Sunday 6th of February 2022

There is more than enough to keep someone busy for a day at Fort Clinch State Park. After spending some time learning about the history of Fort Clinch State Park I'd like to go for the six mile hike.

Carrie Ann

Monday 7th of February 2022

Hi Michelle, I wish we could have spent a few more days at the park! I'd have loved to do the six-mile hike if we had more time :)

april

Saturday 5th of February 2022

Wow! Perfect- I was hoping to visit Florida yet this month-- but not sure with all this crazy weather.. Thanks for the details about this amazing Fort- the fees and the biking!

Carrie Ann

Monday 7th of February 2022

Hi April, the weather's been so nutty this year! I hope it gets better before you head to Florida :)

Krista

Saturday 5th of February 2022

I hadn't heard of Fort Clinch before but it looks amazing to visit for the day. I love going to historic sites so this is right up my street.

Carrie Ann

Monday 7th of February 2022

Hi Krista, I bet you'd love visiting Fort Clinch! Thanks for stopping by :)

Jenn

Saturday 5th of February 2022

Beautiful! Amelia Island looks like a fun place to spend a day hiking. Thanks for sharing.

Carrie Ann

Monday 7th of February 2022

Hi Jenn, Fort Clinch State Park really is a beautiful place to spend the day!

kmf

Saturday 5th of February 2022

The timing of your post is perfect as I’m planning to visit Amelia Island. And Fort Clinch State Park is on my list. History and nature are definitely my thing!

Carrie Ann

Monday 7th of February 2022

That is perfect timing! Enjoy your trip to Amelia Island :D