One of the most popular birding sites in the entire National Wildlife Refuge System, Ding Darling NWR was established in 1945 thanks largely to efforts spearheaded by Sanibel Island resident and famed editorial cartoonist J.N. “Ding” Darling. Covering more than half of Sanibel Island, the refuge sees nearly a million visitors a year. Most drive Wildlife Drive in their cars, but five trails offer places for you to take a wander for birdwatching. Of these, the Indigo Trail is the easiest to access and the most popular, where you can walk up to 4 miles round-trip to the end of the dike and back.
Location: Sanibel Island
Length: 4 mile round-trip
Lat-Long: 26.445730, -82.113055
Fees/Permits: $1 cyclist/pedestrian
Bug Factor: moderate to annoying
Restroom: at the nature center near the trailhead
The refuge is open from sunrise to sunset daily except Fridays.
Cross the causeway to Sanibel Island (toll) and, at the T intersection, turn right on Periwinkle Rd. Turn right on Periwinkle Rd and follow the “Captiva” signs through Sanibel to Sanibel-Captiva Rd. Drive 5.1 miles to the park entrance on the right, and park near the visitor center.
Starting beneath the educational center, the Indigo Trail passes under the building alcove with the soda machines. Aiding in your understanding of the flora along the trail, interpretive markers are scattered throughout the forest. Bicycles are permitted on this trail but must be walked along the boardwalk, which takes you out over the tropical hammock and into the mangrove forest.
As the habitat transitions into the mangrove forest, the boardwalk acquires railings. Passing a bench, you walk between black mangroves, sea oxeye, and glasswort, smelling the sharp tang of the salt marsh. At 0.2 mile, the trail crosses Wildlife Drive. Continue on the shell path to the sign-in box, and drop in your walk-in fee to hike the trail.
In the early morning hours, there is some shade from the buttonwoods, but all other times of day, this trail is in full sun. The Indigo Trail follows the top of a dike separating the mosquito control impoundments. Prior to mosquito control efforts, only the hardiest of settlers could tolerate life on Sanibel, where mosquitoes swarmed thicker than anywhere else in the United States—according to local lore, a record of more than 365,000 caught in a single trap on one night in the 1950s.
At the 0.5 mile marker, you’ve hiked 0.7 mile—the mile marker corresponds to a starting point measured from where you crossed Wildlife Drive. You soon come up to a bench with some open water behind it, a good place to watch for alligators. Peeling gumbo limbo trees line the trail on the right as you approach the 1 mile marker. Along much of the hike, the vegetation hides the canals paralleling the trail. Stop and listen, and you’ll hear the squawk and chatter of the birds hidden in the mangroves.
As you approach the 1.5 mile marker, the waterway on the right opens up into a large impoundment where you can look off into the distance to watch for flocks of ibises browsing across the mud flats. Wild coffee grows at the base of a cabbage palm, while giant wild pine drapes from the tangled branches of the red mangroves. At 1.8 miles, you come to a trail junction with the Cross Dike Trail. This 0.2-mile paved connector leads past an observation deck with permanently mounted binoculars down to Wildlife Drive, offering a side trip with opportunities to see roseate spoonbills, which are commonly sighted in the shallows along that part of the drive.
Once past the Cross Dike Trail, the Indigo Trail narrows to a twisting track between the cabbage palms. Salt hay grows up to the edges of the footpath, bordered by sea oxeye. The trail ends abruptly where the dike ends, at the accurate “2 mile” sign, surrounded by a mangrove forest with small stretches of open water.Turn around and retrace your path back past the Cross Dike Trail. As the day wears on and the heat of the ground increases, keep alert for snakes sunning on the dike. At 3.8 miles, you cross Wildlife Drive and head back onto the boardwalk, coming up to the soda machines at the visitor’s center with a desire for a cold drink. Your hike ends at the parking lot after 4 miles.