Destination Tips

Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge Go-To Visitor’s Guide

It was a balmy morning, just after 7 am, and I was at the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge and Bird Sanctuary on Sanibel Islanda popular vacation spot in southwest Florida, sandwiched between the Gulf of Mexico and Pine Island Sound, known for its pristine beaches, birds, shelling, fine restaurants and family-friendly hotels

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 roseate spoonbills. Next to me, hunting at the water’s edge, a heron paced back and forth. Small birds in the trees surrounding the inlet were chirping up a storm, a morning ritual I’ve missed living in the Big Apple.

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

Whenever I am in nearby Fort Myers visiting my family (about a 40-minute drive), the refuge is at the top of my list of to-dos. With so much to see and do, it’s a great place for families, nature lovers, and photographers to spend the day.

To help you get the most out of Ding Darling, I’ve compiled some useful information and personal tips you’ll want to check before your visit.

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. In 1967, the sanctuary would be named after him.

“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.

The refuge was created to safeguard and enhance the pristine wildlife habitat of Sanibel Island, to protect endangered and threatened species, and to provide feeding, nesting, and roosting areas for migratory birds. Today, the refuge provides important habitat to over 245 species of birds.”

(Source: Ding Darling website)

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

Stop at the Visitor Education Center

I’m not typically a big fan of info centers but the one on Sanibel 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 them there too), they take the time talk to you about your plans, offer suggestions, and provide personalized directions on a map.

On my first visit, I told the woman with the bobbed hair and nice smile 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 here too in the center’s gift shop. Be sure to check out the interactive ecosystem exhibits and “hands-on” area for kids.

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.

Holiday Closures: New Year’s Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Columbus Day, Veteran’s Day, Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day ● Open on: Martin Luther King Jr. Day, President’s Day. (Source Ding Darling (Wildlife Refuge website.) 


Silhouettes of birds - Best Guide to the Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island-100201

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Explore the Wildlife Drive

While Ding Darling also has trails you can walk and bike on (more on that below), its four-mile wildlife drive is a popular one-way loop I’ve done often. If you see a place you like you can pull over, get out, and commune with whatever nature is in your vicinity.

Initially, I thought this would be a pain in the bum, but it’s really kind of great.

Here’s why

  • It’s easy to move quickly (in comparison to walking the four miles of the 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 shooting as soon as it was over.

Wildlife Drive Admission

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

Ding Darling Hours

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

Ding Darling Hours (Source: Ding Darling website)

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

MonthOpenClose
 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)
Roseate Spoonbill - Best Guide to the Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island-01

Take the 90-minute Tram

Tarpon Bay Explorer’s, a company which provides guided nature tours, pontoon, kayak, canoe, paddleboard, bike and fishing equipment rentals within the refuge, offers 90-minute tours of the Ding Darling’s Wildlife Drive interpreted by a naturalist. During the tour, you’ll learn about any 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 benefits the service.

Check the tour schedule for specific days.

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

Hike the Wildlife Drive Trails

There are five trails branching off 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 (no longer than six).

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.

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 tour 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 that 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

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.

Photography enthusiasts

Bring a long lens

I had a few species come close enough for a point and shoot but overall they were pretty far away. 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 the use of 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 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. Nothing beats help in the field. Chat them up.


J. N. Ding Darling Wildlife RefugeMap

Ding Darling Map at 12.08.14 AM

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Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge Go-To Visitor's Guide

76 replies »

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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 ❤.

      • 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.

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  5. 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” >

  6. 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.

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