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’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.”
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.
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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.
- 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)
|January||7:00 a.m.||5:30 p.m.|
|February||7:00 a.m.||5:30 p.m.|
|March||7:00 a.m. (7:30 a.m. DST)*||6:00 p.m. (7:00 p.m. DST)*|
|April||7:00 a.m.||7:00 p.m.|
|May||7:00 a.m.||7:30 p.m.|
|June||7:00 a.m.||8:00 p.m.|
|July||7:00 a.m.||8:00 p.m.|
|August||7:00 a.m.||7:30 p.m.|
|September||7:00 a.m.||7:00 p.m.|
|October||7:30 a.m.||6:30 p.m.|
|November||7:30 a.m. (7:00 a.m. ST)*||6:30 p.m. (5:30 p.m. ST)*|
|December||7:00 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Download Some Awesome Coloring and Activity Books for Your Kids
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.
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
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