The Ultimate Guide: Visit the Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island

Two egrets -Best Guide to the Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island

Whenever I am in Fort Myers seeing family, a visit to the JN “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge is always at the top of my to-do list. It’s a beautiful spot with walking trails, bike paths, an abundance of wildlife with over 245 species of birds. 

Ding Darling is located on Sanibel Island, a popular vacation destination sandwiched between the Gulf of Mexico and Pine Island Sound, known for its pristine beaches, birds, shelling, fine restaurants, and family-friendly hotels. It’s a perfect spot to enjoy nature and spend quality time with friends and family. 

About The Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel Island

The refuge on the north shore of Sanibel Island was created in 1945 by President Harry S. Truman at the behest of Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist and noted conservationist, Jay Norwood Darling.

According to the Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge’s website, “there are over 6400 acres of mangrove forest, submerged seagrass beds, cordgrass marshes, and West Indian hardwood hammocks. Approximately 2,800 acres of the refuge are designated by Congress as a Federal Wilderness Area.”

Canoers on Tarpon Bay--Best Guide to the Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island
Visitors Kayaking along the waterway within the Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge

If the sanctuary sounds like your cup of tea, you’re in luck. Below is a useful guide with tips to help you make the most of your Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge adventure. 

Stop at the Ding Darling Visitor Education Center

I’m not typically a big fan of Visitor Education Centers but the one on Sanibel Island is worth a few minutes of your time – the people there are awesome. Instead of shoving brochures in your direction without so much as an upward glance, (don’t worry pamphlet junkies, they have those too), they take the time to talk to you about your interests, offer suggestions, and provide personalized directions on a map.

On my first visit, I told the woman behind the counter I wanted to take pictures and she made a real effort to point out spots along the route where I was most likely to see wildlife.

If you’re looking for field guides, books about nature, or souvenirs such as t-shirts and postcards, you’ll find it in the center’s gift shop.

Note: Be sure to stop by the interactive ecosystem exhibits and “hands-on” area for kids.

Bird silhouettes at sunset in the water at Ding Darling, Sanibel Island
Sunset silhouettes, along the drive at Ding Darling, Sanibel Island

Explore the Wildlife Drive

Ding Darling has trails where you can walk and bike on (more on that below), but I really love the four-mile wildlife drive, a one-way loop I’ve done often.

Initially, I thought this would be too restrictive but it’s really great.

Here’s why

  • There’s plenty of room to pull over if you see something.
  • It’s easy to move quickly (in comparison to walking the four-mile refuge) from one area to another.
  • You don’t have to carry all your crap. For me, that meant my purse, camera, tripod, and multiple lenses. I just figured out what I needed at each stop and left the rest in the car.
  • For kids, seniors, and people with mobility issues it minimizes the effort while maximizing the pleasure.
  • You can wait out bad weather without having to leave the park. I sat for 15 minutes listening to the radio during a brief rain shower and went back to my photography as soon as it was over.

Wildlife Drive Admission

$5/vehicle, $1/pedestrian, $1 bicycle

Ding Darling Hours

Open Monday-Sunday, some holiday closures
January 1- April 30 9:00 a.m. 5:00 p.m.
May 1- December 31 9:00 a.m. 4:00 p.m.

Wildlife Drive: closed on ALL Fridays, open ALL holidays unless it falls on a Friday

(Source: Ding Darling website)

 January7:00 a.m.5:30 p.m.
February7:00 a.m.5:30 p.m.
March7:00 a.m. (7:30 a.m. DST)*6:00 p.m. (7:00 p.m. DST)*
April7:00 a.m.7:00 p.m.
May7:00 a.m.7:30 p.m.
June7:00 a.m.8:00 p.m.
July7:00 a.m.8:00 p.m.
August7:00 a.m.7:30 p.m.
September7:00 a.m.7:00 p.m.
October7:30 a.m.6:30 p.m.
November7:30 a.m. (7:00 a.m. ST)*6:30 p.m. (5:30 p.m. ST)*
December7:00 a.m.5:30 p.m.
  • Admission: $5 per vehicle, $1 per pedestrian, $1 per bicycle
  • * Daylight Savings Time (DST)

Avoid holidays and Weekends

Sanibel is a small island with two-lane roads and a lot of traffic on the weekends and even more on a holiday. Though the refuge during my visits—which included the Martin Luther King holiday—wasn’t pull-your-hair-out busy, compared to a weekday, there is a huge difference in the amount of traffic and people exploring the reserve.

Roseate Spoonbill - Best Guide to the Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island-01
It’s not unusual to see flocks of Roseate spoonbills at the nature preserve.

Take the 90-minute Tram

Tarpon Bay Explorer’s, a company that provides guided nature tours, pontoon, kayak, canoe, paddleboard, bike and fishing equipment rentals within the refuge, offers 90-minute tours of Ding Darling Wildlife Drive interpreted by a naturalist. During the tour, you’ll learn about the wildlife you encounter as well as background on the area’s ecology and history.

FYI: Tarpon Bay Explorers works with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to provide sustainable educational and recreational offerings. Fifteen percent of what you spend with the company benefits the service.

Check the tour schedule for specific information.

Wildlife Tram Cost: Adults: $13.00; Children: $8.00

Reservations Recommended: Call 239 472 8900

Pick up location: Tram ticket booth next to the Visitor’s Center.

Bird walking in water - Best Guide to the Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island-063701
A beautiful blue heron at the Ding Darling wildlife refuge on Sanibel Island

Hike the Wildlife Drive Trails

There are five trails branching off of the wildlife drive offering varying lengths and views. Each trail link below leads to thorough descriptions including access points, difficulty, “bug factor,” and restroom information by Florida Hikes

Ding Darling Indigo Trail has an extra fee?): This easy mangrove forest route is the most popular of the trails and four-miles round trip.

Ding Darling Bailey Tract is one of the shortest hikes at 1.1 miles and near the Gulf of Mexico.

Ding Darling Calusa Shell Mound Trail’s under a half-mile boardwalk loop surrounds mounds left by the Calusa Native Americans that once populated the islands. Wheelchair accessible.

Ding Darling Cross Dike Trail is a paved third of a mile route with an observation deck perfect for spotting birds, alligators, and turtles within in the mangroves.

Ding Darling Red Mangrove Overlook is the refuge’s shortest hike at a tenth of a mile through roots of the mangrove revealing a panoramic view of a salt marsh.

Ding Darling Wulfert Keys Trail is a short walk to the Hardworking Bay, and where, in past, an American crocodile was spotted.

FYI – During the winter months, birders will love the large population of migratory birds that frequent the refuge.

Note: Don’t forget to bring plenty of water and bug repellent with you as well as sunscreen and a hat as the trails don’t provide much shade.

Dogs: Dogs must always be on a leash.

silhouette of birds and rainbow --Best Guide to the Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island

Take Advantage of Free Public Programs and Events

Throughout any given week, the refuge offers a number of free interesting, valuable, and educational programs including birding and wildlife tours, nature photography, shelling excursions, lecture, and film series. There are also more active options that involve hiking and biking. Water lovers will enjoy guided kayak, canoe, and stand-up paddleboard excursions.

FYI – In late 2019, the J.N. Ding Darling Wildlife refuge will celebrate its 75th anniversary. In celebration, beginning in November, there will be a Clyde Butcher exhibit (3 months long) as well as special commemorative programs and events.

Bring Binoculars

There are no guarantees with wildlife, that’s part of the fun, every trip is a treasure hunt.  But that also means you might see the jewels from a distance. Binoculars will go a long way to making your experience more enjoyable. There are viewing stations spread throughout the wildlife drive and in some places, stationary tourist telescopes are available.

Sunrise on Tarpon Bay - Best Guide to the Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island-122901

Download the “Discover Ding” Game App

This unique interactive game is designed to inspire visitors to explore the refuge and become more in tune with their surroundings. In addition to a scavenger hunt-style game, you can earn points for virtual pages, see and share photos, and post your own wildlife sightings that GPS enabled so that others can share your encounter with you. 

Also included are fun facts about the flora and fauna, the history of the refuge, an alert giving users a heads up to unique sightings, trail closings and other real-time information. Plus, a nifty Resource Page includes information about local services including restaurants, hotels rentals etc.

To Use: Download the Discovery Nature app,  iOS or Android, then look for the “Discover Ding” icon to find the specific download for the refuge.

Download Some Awesome Coloring and Activity Books for Your Kids

Downloadable coloring books based on alligators, snowy plovers, sea turtles, and respecting wildlife. The Wilderness Explorer Activity Book are for children eight-years-old and up.

Bird - Best Guide to the Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island-119201

Photography Enthusiasts

Bring a long lens

A few species come close enough for a point and shoot but overall they were pretty far away. If you really want great photos, a long lens (at least a 200mm if not longer) will serve you best.

Visit Sanibel Island at low tide, early morning or just before sunset

At low tide, large birds such as roseate spoonbills, egrets, and pelicans, among a bevy of smaller birds, can be seen on the sandbars created by the receding water. A few of them are near the road, making it easier to see them without binoculars. You can reference this handy-dandy tide chart for times.

Birds and other wildlife are more active in the early morning and just before sunset, which is perfect if you want a decent photo because the light at that time is at its best.

White pelicans at low tide - Best Guide to the Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island-117301

Learn From The Locals

As I mentioned above, the end of the day has some of the best light and that’s when the big guns come out (no it’s not what you’re thinking) I’m talking about the hard-core photographers, not professionals necessarily, but the locals. They sport cameras and lenses that would make National Geographic envious; the kind that resembles megaphones and can shoot up the nostril of an animal 100 feet away.

I bring this up because avid enthusiasts know a lot, and more often than not they like to share their knowledge. Nothing beats help in the field. Chat them up.

J. N. Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge Map

Ding Darling Map at 12.08.14 AM

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80 thoughts on “The Ultimate Guide: Visit the Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island

  1. John Reggero says:

    Hi Susan,

    Thanks for the post. I will be visiting Sanibel Island for the first time next month (April) and I much look forward to exploring what the Ding Darling Refuge has to offer. Being primarily a landscape photographer, my lens set tends to the ultrawide, with a Nikon prime 20mm f2.8 my go to lens and with my longest a Nikon180mm f2.8, although I do have a 2x converter. In any case, that will have to do. And, hopefully, there will be opportunity along the wildlife drive to relish in some of the larger, more colorful bird species. Any suggestions as to some optimum locations for such within the park? By the way, I thoroughly enjoyed your back story and the wonderful mages from your travels. Very generous of you! Thanks again and all the very best! John

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      Hi John!

      I apologize for the delay in responding to your very thoughtful comment.

      In regard to a specific location, I really can’t pinpoint where to go because depending on the time of the day and where the light is that will change.
      I can tell you that low tide is the best because the bigger birds can see and catch fish easier. I prefer sundown versus sunrise there. The trees and the way the island is positioned, I found sunrise not to be as fruitful.

      Regarding lenses: Have you considered renting a longer lens? I’ve found it to be the perfect way to test new equipment or including a special lens in my kit when I don’t want to invest. and are great. The latter usually has better pricing.

      And thank you so much for your kind words. I’m so happy that you enjoyed the post and images.


    • Susan Portnoy says:

      So sorry for the delay.

      During the winter it is best but it’s also peak season for tourists. During the summer, tourism is lessened considerably but it can be very hot.

  2. Tiny says:

    Thanks for these great tips, and beautiful shots, Susan! This adventure is on my list for a near future as I can easily drive there from home.

  3. David says:

    Hi Susan, just reading through some of your older posts so I’m a bit late to the party. My top tip would be for people wanting to photograph the stunning spoonbills. Be there at the end of the day for the last hour or thirty minutes that the refuge is open for. This is when they fly in and spend some time in the shallows. It is a great time to get those in-flight shots.

  4. cracksinmorality says:

    I have been watching this blog very closely and must say how fantastic it really is. Like many have said, you have a talent for both photography and writing. A truly wonderful and enjoyable blog ❤.

  5. Pastor$Evangelist Robert M . Lavu says:

    Hi! Your postings make me fill like I was actually with you ad you took your photos!The inspire me to travel more and marvel at what God can do!

      • JillinoisRN says:

        It was on the island… this was back in the late 70s and early 80s. It was across from the Dairy Queen, not that far after coming across the bridge. The RV park had a path going to the gulf side beach. Had a bunch of birds as well. Nice park- and fairly big.

  6. Sang Pejuang says:

    This is very useful article for travellers and I think it’s very useful for me personally because I always go somewhere 🙂 those pics are interesting. I really like it.

  7. 16forward says:

    I especially love the first one… What a unique perspective.

    On Mon, Feb 13, 2017 at 8:50 AM, The Insatiable Traveler wrote:

    > Susan Portnoy posted: ” It was a balmy morning, just after 7am. The sun > was rising and a faint smell of salt tinged the air. I stood at the edge of > the shore photographing a large flock of white pelicans preening in the > still, ankle-high water. To their right was a handful of” >

  8. Jet Eliot says:

    Wonderfully informative post of Sanibel and Ding Darling, Susan. And your photos are extraordinary, as always. I have had the delight of spending a week on Sanibel and environs. We enjoyed Ding Darling every day; we also enjoyed a nature visit to Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in nearby Naples (board walk). And I highly recommend buying this fantastic book written by Charles Sobczak “Living Sanibel” for a wonderful field guide and information-packed adjunct to the trip. We were determined to see manatees while there (in Feb.), too, and did; at Lee Co. Manatee Park in Ft. Meyer; though it’s not idyllic and photo-taking is challenging due to red tannic waters.

I would love to hear from you! What did you think of the post?