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, who in the early 1940s actively worked to get the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to purchase the land for conservation when the State of Florida planned to sell it to developers.
Location: Sanibel Island
Lat-Lon: 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.
Activities by map
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, which is up to 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, 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 -- and 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.