CLOSED indefinitely due to damage from Hurricane Ian.
Preserving more than half of Sanibel Island for the sake of its renowned bird life, Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge is named for editorial cartoonist J.N. “Ding” Darling.
In the early 1940s, he actively worked to convince the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to purchase the land for conservation when the State of Florida planned to sell it to developers.
Resources for exploring the area
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Location: Sanibel Island
Trailhead: 26.445460, -82.112938
Fees: $5 per vehicle, $1 per hiker or cyclist. Access to the Visitor Center is free.
Open: Hours vary daily but are roughly dawn to dusk; see their website for specific hours by month. Wildlife Drive is closed on Fridays.
About the Refuge
While most visitors come to drive the scenic loop around the refuge, to truly explore the nooks and crannies of this preserve, you have to take to the trails.
With the exception of the Indigo Trail, a 4 mile round-trip out into the mangrove forest on an elevated berm, the rest of the park’s trails are short interpretive walks meant to focus on a specific aspect of this refuge.
Ding Darling is noted for its large migratory bird population during the winter months.
Be sure to stop at the observation deck along Wildlife Drive to scan for roseate spoonbills. Their pink feathers show up well against the dark mud of the marsh.
Take the time to walk the Shell Mound Trail, a loop around an ancient midden in a tropical hammock.
A separate portion of the refuge, the Bailey Tract, has its own set of hiking and biking trails surrounding a group of ponds created long ago for mosquito control. They’re now an excellent place for birding.
See our photos of Ding Darling prior to Hurricane Ian
Calusa Shell Mound Trail
A wheelchair-accessible boardwalk near the end of Wildlife Drive in Ding Darling NWR, the Calusa Shell Mound Trail provides a peek into the ancient history of Sanibel Island.
Red Mangrove Overlook
The shortest walk in Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, the Red Mangrove Overlook provides a fine perspective for birding – and watching mangrove crabs up close.
Wulfert Keys Trail
Does a crocodile smile? You might find out with a walk down the Wulfert Keys Trail, which follows a mangrove-lined canal at Ding Darling NWR to the edge of Hardworking Bay.
At Ding Darling NWR on Sanibel Island, the Indigo Trail is the easiest trail to access from the visitor center and the most popular, with up to 4 miles round-trip.
Cross Dike Trail
Connecting Wildlife Drive and the Indigo Trail, the Cross Dike Trail at Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge is an easy paved walk between two impoundments.