Did you know that more than 80 different units in the National Park Service preserve and protect a fort? National park forts have become some of our favorite spots to visit on our journey to visit all 400+ units in the NPS. They’re a chance to step back in time and get to know the day-to-day life of people at a certain point in history:
How did people eat, sleep, and meet their basic needs back then?
How did people cope with adversity, including the weather and illness?
How did people pass the time without the luxuries we have today?
These questions always come up during our visits to national park fort sites. We also love hearing about how the National Park Service works to preserve the historic structures and artifacts in these unique places. Some of our favorite ranger-led programs happen at forts.
Since we’ve written about visits to Fort Smith National Historic Site and Fort Scott National Historic Site on our recap of our recent Midwest National Parks road trip, we thought it fitting to pause today to talk about why national park forts are worth a visit. We’re sharing our ‘bucket list’ of national park forts we think everyone should visit.
14 National Park Forts to Fall in Love With
1. Dry Tortugas National Park
Dry Tortugas National Park has lived near the top of our national park bucket list for years. We have a multi-day camping itinerary that lives in our desktop folder of future trips to this Florida park. Dry Tortugas is the island home of Fort Jefferson, the largest all-masonry fort in the United States. Built between 1846 and 1875 to protect the nation’s gateway to the Gulf of Mexico, Fort Jefferson was never fully completed. Today visitors can take a ferry or seaplane to the park, tour the fort and surrounding beaches, and enjoy one of the least visited national parks.
2. Fort Scott National Historic Site
Fort Scott National Historic Site in Fort Scott, Kansas, is one of the most recent national park forts we visited. The site preserves roughly 20 buildings and a sizeable historical parade grounds of what was once Fort Scott. Built at ‘the edge of the ‘west,’ the exhibits detail events in the area from 1842-1873. We loved wandering around the tallgrass prairie area and the architecture of the original buildings here.
3. Yellowstone National Park
We can already hear the questions: “Why would Yellowstone National Park end up on a list of national park forts?” When Yellowstone was established as a park in 1872, so many people aimed to exploit the resources in the area that shortly after, the federal government turned to the army to protect and defend the infant park. The first buildings of Fort Yellowstone were finished by late 1891 in what’s now known as the Mammoth Hot Springs Area. Visitors today can take a self-guided walking tour of what remains of the historic buildings. Many of them still serve as offices and residences for park employees.
4. Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site
In the early 1800’s the American Fur Company was searching for the perfect location for trading post. Aiming to capitalize on the relationship with members of the local Assiniboine nation, John Jacob Aster’s fur traders established Fort Union on near the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers. The decision to build Fort Union here would prove critical, as it became one of the longest lasting fur trading post in the American west.
Now located on the Montana/North Dakota border, the park showcases gorgeous reconstructed buildings, living history demonstrations, and one of the largest rendezvous reenactments in the National Park Service each summer.
5. Golden Gate National Recreation Area
For those who seek one of the most extensive collections of historical forts in the National Park Service, look no farther than San Francisco’s Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The park is well-known as the one place where visitors can see an example of almost every type of coastal defense built by the United States between 1850 and 1970.
Home to 10 different fort units, the Bay Area has some of the best-preserved historical military outposts in the country. Visitors can check out different periods in time, from Fort Baker a former 1905 U.S. Army post located immediately north of the Golden Gate Bridge to the Fort Mason, the headquarters of the park, and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy. The Presidio and Fort Point once housed military from three different nations. Now it’s home to some of the best sunset views of the Golden Gate Bridge in the city.
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6. Fort Vancouver National Historic Site
Fort Vancouver National Historic Site is unique in that it protects a specific geographic area that was relevant in two different points of American history. The unit divides into two separate distinct areas with nearly a century of time between them.Part of the unit is a replica fort, built to commemorate the 1820’s site of the Hudson Bay Company’s trading post.
The other part of Fort Vancouver National Historic Site features the Pearson Air Museum and the Vancouver Barracks. Constructed in 1849, when the Hudson Bay Company abandoned the site, the US Army erected the first army base in the Pacific Northwest. It was here that the army used the area’s infamous Sitka Spruce trees to build some of the world’s first military aircraft.
7. Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine
Arguably no other place on United States soil has shaped our national pride than Fort McHenry. It was here in 1814, during the Battle of Baltimore, that Francis Scott Key was inspired to write the words to “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Although it wouldn’t become our national anthem until 1931, the song’s origins began from the valiant defense of the fort. Today, visitors to Fort McHenry can learn about the anthem, take a guided ranger tour of the grounds, and see drill and artillery demonstrations by the Fort McHenry Guard.
8. Castle Clinton & Statue of Liberty National Monuments
Although two different units of the 400+ total in the National Park Service, Castle Clinton National Monument, and Statue of Liberty National Monument are on our list as one, since most visitors see the two sites at the same time. Castle Clinton National Monument preserves the remnants of Castle Clinton, a military fortification built at the southern tip of Manhattan Island to prevent a British invasion following the Revolutionary War.
Today, visitors depart from Castle Clinton National Monument on the ferry ride to Statue of Liberty National Monument. On a visit to Liberty Island, we learned that the Statue of Liberty rests itself on the remnants of an old fort. Known as Fort Wood, it was constructed in 1807 as military defense of the New York harbor. Nearby Ellis Island also contains historical evidence of a military outpost; Fort Gibson was built on the island in in 1795.
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9. Civil War Defenses of Washington
While technically an affiliated National Park Service site, it’s hard not to include Civil War Defenses of Washington on this list. During the heart of the Civil War, Washington DC became a heavily fortified city with a collection of forts, batteries, and military outposts all designed to prevent a Confederate attack on the city.
Among the 17 different sites managed in partnership with the NPS is Fort Stevens, the location where President Lincoln famously came under enemy fire.
10. Fort Pickens – Gulf Islands National Seashore
In the early 1800s, European and American military experts viewed the northern Gulf Coast as some of the most important seaboards in the world. Fort Pickens, near Pensacola, was built in 1833 as part of a strategy to defend more than 3,500 miles of Florida coastline. What’s left of the Fort is now part of Gulf Islands National Seashore and one of Florida’s most popular national parks.
We loved walking from the white sandy beaches to the national park during our visit in 2015. The sunsets are gorgeous, the bird watching and biking trails are plentiful–it’s a truly unique national park fort experience.
11. Christiansted National Historic Site
One of five different national park units in the US Virgin Islands, Christiansted National Historic Site preserves Fort Christianvaern, one of the best-preserved colonial forts in the Caribbean. Completed in 1749, the Fort’s bright yellow walls commanded the Christiansted harbor entrance, announcing the Dutch presence in the area. It’s definitely on our bucket list of national park forts, and one of the most popular tourist attractions on the island of St. Croix.
12. Cabrillo National Monument
When we wrote about Cabrillo National Monument as being “San Diego’s Hidden Gem” it was in part due to the military history surrounding this historic landmark. Not only is the location thought to be where the first European expedition had set foot on the West Coast, but it’s also home to the remanents of the Point Loma military outpost. It was here that the U.S. military constructed many of the coastal defense systems built to protect the San Diego area from sea invasion, including the Old Point Loma lighthouse.
Today it’s one of the best places to hike in the area and offers stunning views of the Coronado and downtown San Diego beaches.
13. Fort Sumter & Fort Moultrie National Historical Park
It wouldn’t be possible to have a list of national park forts without listing Fort Sumter. On April 12, 1861 the first shots of the Civil War rang out here as the Confederacy fired on the US Garrison, marking a pivotal moment that would define the rest of American history. Today visitors can wander the Fort Sumter grounds and the exhibits at nearby Fort Moultrie. The park is popular among military history fans as it details the entire history of American seacoast defenses from 1776 to 1947.
14. Fort Smith National Historic Site
Fort Smith National Historic Site in Fort Smith, Arkansas finds itself last on this list (but certainly not least), simply because it’s the most recent fort we’ve visited in our #parkchasing adventures to date. Located on the banks of the Arkansas River, Fort Smith was once thought to be the edge of the “American West.” It shares history both as a military outpost and a federal courthouse where many of the legends of outlaws and bandits took shape. It’s just a few hours from Fort Scott National Historic Site and a fun destination to add to your own Midwest National Parks Road Trip.
As we mentioned above, the National Park Service has more than 80 different units associated with forts or the remnants of historic forts. These 14 units aren’t ranked in any particular order, just how we listed them during our bucket list planning. If we’re missing your favorite national park fort, let us know! Share a comment on this post or drop us a note on Facebook or Instagram.