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Sanibel-Captiva & Fort Myers Beach Area Features

J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge

Fall brings the angelic white pelicans. In winter, flocks of shorebirds—roseate spoonbills, reddish egrets, and a rainbow of herons—feed in the shallows. Come spring, resident birds, alligators, and manatees perform their showy mating rituals, resulting in summer’s arrival of precious new life.

Welcome to J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, where every day brings a new adventure.

You are about to embark on a rare journey into part of the largest undeveloped mangrove estuary system in the nation. To prepare for the extraordinary but often subtle natural encounters, stop in at the hands-on “Ding” Darling Visitor & Education Center and Refuge Nature Store, open daily and free for all ages.

Inside the Center, front-desk volunteers armed with maps, tips, loaner binoculars, and invaluable knowledge can direct your explorations. Take time to watch the live-feed camera and short video for a sneak preview of what you will see along the 4-mile Wildlife Drive.

Hands-on exhibits throughout the Center re-create Refuge habitat with interpretive signs and video to engage visitors of all ages. The Children’s Discovery Area involves families in interactive exercises. The “Marvelous Manatee” exhibit includes life-size models of a manatee mother and calf, a real skeleton, and a CSI-type wildlife forensic lab. “Living With Dinosaurs” displays the skeleton of a crocodile that lived in the Refuge for many years. At the Sea Turtle exhibit, adult loggerhead and hatchling nest models introduce the islands’ prehistoric loggerheads.

Peer into a remake of the “Ding” Darling Studio once used by the Refuge’s namesake. A popular and often controversial political cartoonist, Darling spent months at a time on these islands in the 1930s. An annual festival celebrates his birthday and contributions. “Ding” Darling Days takes place one weekend in mid-October, finishing with a free Family Fun Day.

Interpretation and education continue with exhibits at the public restrooms outside the Visitor Center. The “Learning Lavatories” exhibits immerse visitors in a virtual underwater experience to teach about the Refuge environment.

The Refuge Nature Store specializes in birding guides, nature gifts, “Ding” Darling logo wear, and games, books and toys that teach kids the joys of the great outdoors. Profits support Refuge education and wildlife research programs.

On Wildlife Drive:

Today’s “Ding” Darling Refuge encompasses more than 6,400 acres of protected wildlife habitat on Sanibel Island. The majority of the acreage centers around Wildlife Drive—open every day except Friday. Admission is $5 per vehicle, $1 per biker or pedestrian over the age of 15. Those visiting the Drive for the first time often opt for a naturalist-narrated tour aboard the Refuge Tram. Not only is the tram the better touring option when considering impact, but it is also the more enjoyable option, providing a more in-depth learning experience. With an experienced guide, you’ll spot wildlife most visitors would never see on their own or would not be able to identify. The guides are also a wealth of information regarding the biology and life history of these species, and they can take visitors past tidal mud flats and mangrove forests where many native birds may be observed.

You never know what you may encounter along the way. The tram tour guides are always on the lookout for interesting and unusual wildlife. They’ll stop the tram so you can stretch your legs or they’ll pause to share interesting sights and spottings with the group. The tram tour isn’t just about the wildlife; you’ll hear who J. Norwood “Ding” Darling was, and also hear much of the history of the Calusa Indians and other Sanibel folklore. The tram benefits the wildlife and the refuge, so please consider this option next time you visit “Ding” Darling NWR. Then, sit back and enjoy the ride with your hands free to snap photos or hold your binoculars as you gaze at the wildlife. By decreasing vehicular traffic you’ll protect wildlife by taking the tram. For reservations call 239-472-1351 or 239-472-8900.

Trails & Towers:

Other highlights along Wildlife Drive include the Indigo Trail and its connecting Wildlife Education Boardwalk with an interpretive observation deck and hands-on replicated animal scat challenges. The Drive passes other trailheads and wetlands, where nature reaches its peak performance with a feeding frenzy of shorebirds. The 30-foot Observation Tower gives photographers and birdwatchers an elevated perch for viewing.

Toward the end of Wildlife Drive, the Calusa Shell Mound Trail takes you into the island’s ancient past as you hike along the remains of a Native American shell mound. Cool exhibits, art, and signs teach cultural heritage as well as natural science lessons.

Recreation:

Accessible via a separate entrance along Sanibel-Captiva Road, Tarpon Bay Recreation Area offers visitors an intriguing menu of creative ways to explore the great outdoors. Opportunities to explore nature include paddling tours; sea life cruises combined with touch-tank experiences; fishing charters; and kayak, canoe, paddleboard, and bike rentals. Visit the Refuge concession (operated by Tarpon Bay Explorers) to fully immerse yourself in this stunning environment.

A hot spot for kayaking is the Buck Key Paddling Trail offshore from Captiva Island. Hikers will enjoy more than 2 miles of trails through Bailey Tract, a short distance from Tarpon Bay Recreation Area. Here, fresh water attracts birds, river otters, turtles, and alligators.

In bay waters, “Ding” Darling Refuge oversees Woodring Point and three smaller refuges known for their mangrove islands and populations of birds, manatees, dolphin, and fish.

With all of its extensive facets, J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge presents days’ worth of opportunities to learn about this unique environment and its history, to play in nature, and to bond with friends and families in the great outdoors. If you would like to become a supporter of the Refuge, call 239-472-1100 ext. 4 or visit the “Ding” Darling Wildlife Society-Friends of the Refuge at dingdarlingsociety.org.

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