Spend the day surrounded by wildlife one of the best spots for bird-watching in Florida. This 6,300-acre (2,550-hectare) refuge, which occupies a third of Sanibel Island, includes a wildlife drive, tram tour, picnic spots, and a scavenger hunt. The wetland swamp is also part of the largest undeveloped mangrove ecosystem in the United States.
Start your visit to the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge with a stop at the free visitor center. From there, you can then choose to go kayaking or fishing, or head over to Wildlife Drive, a scenic 4-mile loop where you can drive, hike, or bike to spot wildlife along the way. Keep your eyes peeled for alligators, racoons, American crocodiles, and exotic birds. A guided tram tour is a good way to see these critters.
Things to Know Before You Go
- This refuge is a must for bird-watchers.
- The visitor center has restrooms and water bottle–filling stations.
- Visitors should never approach, touch, or disturb wildlife in the refuge.
- Check out Discover Ding, the refuge’s wildlife-spotting app, to take a self-guided tour or quiz yourself with trivia.
- Speed limits are strictly enforced.
- Dogs on-leash are permitted.
How to Get There
You can enter the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge on One Wildlife Drive on Sanibel Island in southwest Florida, 25 miles (40 kilometers) southwest of Fort Myers. Take the Sanibel Causeway from the mainland, turn right onto Periwinkle Way and slight right on Palm Ridge Road, then continue to Sanibel Captiva Road. You’ll see Wildlife Drive on your right.
When to Get There
The refuge is open from 7am–5:30pm daily; the visitor education center is open from 9am–4pm. Note that Wildlife Drive is closed on Fridays. The best time to visit is during low tide, so check area tide charts ahead of your visit.
About Ding Darling
Born in Michigan and raised in Sioux City, Iowa, Jay N. “Ding” Darling was a Pulitzer Prize–winning cartoonist who maintained a winter home on Captiva Island. His political cartoons, which appeared for 50 years in the Sioux City Journal and the Des Moines Register, were syndicated in 130 daily newspapers. Many of his cartoons revolved around themes of conservation and politics.