Horseshoe crabs mate in the mangrove shallows as a family of ducks swims serenely by. In the distance, the primal tattoo of a pileated woodpecker echoes along Wildlife Drive.
Welcome to J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, the natural showpiece of Sanibel Island.
Begin Your Adventure in the FREE Interactive Visitor & Education Center
You are about to embark on a rare journey into part of the largest undeveloped mangrove estuary system in the nation. To prepare yourself for the extraordinary but often subtle natural encounters, stop in at the hands-on “Ding” Darling Visitor & Education Center and Refuge Nature Store, open seven days a week – free for all ages.
Wildlife volunteers at the desk can direct your explorations of the Refuge. They are armed with maps, tips, loaner binoculars, GPS devices for EarthCachers, and invaluable knowledge about the Refuge. Take time to watch the live-feed camera and a short video; both will give you a sneak preview of what you will see along the 4-mile Wildlife Drive.
Visit the Refuge Nature Store, which specializes in birding guides, nature gifts, “Ding” Darling logo wear, and games, books, and toys that teach kids the joys of the great outdoors. Proceeds help support Refuge education and wildlife research programs.
Exhibits throughout the Center re-create habitat scenes within the Refuge with interpretive signs and video to engage visitors of all ages. The Children’s Discovery Area involves families in interactive exercises to learn more about Refuge creatures. The hands-on Marvelous Manatee Exhibit includes life-size models of a manatee mother and calf, a real skeleton, and a CSI-type wildlife forensic lab. A “Living With Dinosaurs” exhibit displays and interprets the skeleton of the crocodile that lived in the Refuge for many years. A new Sea Turtle exhibit includes adult loggerhead and hatchling nest models.
Learn more about the history of the Refuge by peering 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 Sanibel and Captiva islands in the 1930s. An annual festival celebrates his birthday and contributions. “Ding” Darling Days takes place one week in mid-October beginning with a free Family Fun Day. dingdarlingdays.com
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.
With a smartphone, visitors can download the free Discover Ding game app or hit the iNature Trail along Wildlife Drive, which uses QR code technology.
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. Continue to the Mangrove Outlook boardwalk to see skittering, clacking mangrove crabs climbing trees and brown pelicans scooping up fish in the clearing.
On the Cross-Dike between water impoundments, a pavilion offers a place to rest or catch one of the Refuge’s free, seasonal education programs. In the impoundments, nature reaches its peak performance with flocks of white ibis, roseate spoonbills, white pelicans (in winter), egrets, herons, reddish egrets, and anhingas in a feeding frenzy.
The 30-foot Observation Tower gives photographers and birdwatchers an elevated perch from which to view feedings in the impoundments.
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.
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.
Tarpon Bay Explorers runs the official Refuge concession daily. Here you can rent a kayak or stand-up paddleboard to explore Refuge backwaters on your own, or join a narrated tour. The concession also rents bikes and pontoon boats for Refuge exploration. Sea life and sunset nature boat and kayak tours explore the rookeries and underwater world of fish-fertile Tarpon Bay. Fishing charters are also available, and the recreation area also has a nature gift shop.
Exploring the Rest of the Refuge
Another hot spot for kayaking is the Buck Key Paddling Trail offshore from Captiva Island. Hikers will enjoy more than 3 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.
Become a Supporter
Call 239-472-1100 ext. 233 or visit the “Ding” Darling Wildlife Society-Friends of the Refuge at dingdarlingsociety.org