A huge portion of our South West Florida road trip was to relax and unwind for Chuck’s birthday. One of the reasons we chose Sanibel / Captiva was for the J.N. ‘Ding’ Darling Wildlife Refuge.
Ding Dong Darling
To be completely honest, we giggled a bit every time we said the name Ding Darling. We’re huge fans of the Netflix reality series and makeup competition ‘Glow Up.’ Celebrity judge Val Garland’s tag line is “Ding, Dong, Darling!!!”
So, it was nearly impossible for us to talk about the wildlife refuge without connecting the two.
Who Was J.N Darling?
J.N. Darling was a well-known cartoonist who became important in the conservation movement. He was appointed to a Blue Ribbon Committee on Wildlife Restoration by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1934.
The wildlife refuge, established in 1976, which occupies almost one-third of Sanibel Island, was named for the conservationist.
J.N. ‘Ding’ Darling Wildlife Refuge
While Sanibel Island is famous for its shelling, the wildlife refuge makes it a prime spot for bird watching. The wildlife refuge is managed by the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, whose website provided a great ‘Birding Checklist.” This shares local birds, and the seasons you might expect to see them.
The Visitor and Education Center is free to the public and open Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. January – April and until 4 p.m. May – December. And is closed every Federal Holiday.
Our understanding is that currently, the exhibits are closed, and the information desk and store are the only parts of the Visitor and Education Center open.
The refuge occupies approximately 5,200 acres for hiking, biking, fishing, and kayaking. The admission fees are:
$10 per vehicle
$1 per bicycle or pedestrian.
Children 15 and under are free.
Additionally, the Ranger told us that our admission was also good for the next day if we wanted to return.
As a National Park, America The Beautiful and Federal Duck Stamp passes are accepted for entry and can be purchased at the main gate.
We chose to explore the Wildlife Drive. This is a four-mile-long, one-way, paved, handicapped accessible drive through the refuge.
It is open from approximately 7 a.m. through what appears from the times posted on the website to be sunset. It is open every day EXCEPT Friday, regardless of holidays. Which we found to be rather rando
The reserve’s website ‘COVID Closures and Updates’ indicates that the Tram Tours of the Wildlife Drive are ongoing. However, while we saw the parking area on the main road, we never saw a tram.
We drove the trail stopping along the way to watch local fishermen, check out the beautiful birds and scenery, and walk along a few of the trails that cross the roadway.
There are two designated launch sites for kayaks and canoes, restrooms, and several observation decks along the trail.
We especially liked this observation tower; the views were amazing! Additionally, there were two handicapped-accessible parking spots at the bottom and a ramp that accessed the tower’s lower level. The tower had built-in binoculars and a wonderful bird identification chart.
Walking / Biking Trails
Along the way, several walking and biking trails crisscross the refuge. The Indigo Trail seemed to be the longest at nearly two miles.
We parked and wandered the Wulfert Keys Trail, about 1/3 of a mile, out to a beautiful observation point where we saw some fish and some boaters across the way at a neighboring island. Along the trail back, we saw a Marsh Rabbit, an Iguana, and some tiny little Crabs that ducked into the ground every time you got too close.
Farther down toward the end of the reserve, we parked and headed off on the Calusa Shell Mound Trail. Named for the indigenous people who inhabited the area, there were some informative signs along the walk. The trail was about 1/3 of a mile long, with a well-constructed boardwalk. The trail looped around through overhanging trees, and while pretty, it seemed to have less educational information than we had expected.
We really enjoyed the Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge. It was peaceful and quiet. The views are incredible, and we found all of the facilities (roadways, boardwalks, trails, and bathrooms) in excellent condition.
This is absolutely something that guests of all ages would enjoy.
18 thoughts on “‘Ding’ Darling Wildlife Refuge”
Sami bel is my favorite location. Now I’ve got to go again! Oooh autocorrect—Sanibel!!!
It was Mark’s first time back in a decade or more and Chuck’s first time. For us, it’s the best during the off-season. But, as Floridians, most things are enjoyed that way.
Ding Darling definitely makes me giggle too! But the pictures here look stunning! Looks like such a peaceful refuge!
It’s so tranquil, we really enjoyed spending the day there.
This looks like it was really fun trip.
Relaxing was key for us, and the drive is beautiful, and the trails are quiet and easy to navigate.
Sounds like a grand day out. I love Florida’s wildlife – but is there a way to join an organized tour? I’m not driving so that I’d depend on a shuttle. I know that this can be a problem in the US.
We’re not sure about locally organized tours. But, we did see that the refuge itself offers a narrated tram through the Wildlife Drive
I’ve always heard that Sanibel Island is beautiful, but had no idea there is so much to see and do there. I’m keeping this in the back of my mind for the next time we visit florida.
Close by there is a shell museum and we loved going to the beach.
I was waiting to see if you saw an alligator and sure enough you did! So cool but so scary. The place looks so serene and beautiful one would be tempted to take a kayak out for sure.. but how do you know alligators won’t try to chomp you?! Still, I’d like to visit this place to see those beautiful birds.
LOL, we live in Florida so gator sightings are pretty common. We’ve been out in the mangroves locally and we just find that the places we’ve kayaked seem to be safe. Never had a gator encounter in the gulf. Could be the salt water – and we always stay away from the local lakes.
Our daughter is an ornithologist and would love to visit the Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge and add to her bird list. We take lots of pics of birds so she can identify them for us. We would definitely plan to do the Wildlife Drive. And wander on the trails. Looks like a very relaxing stop.
From what we learned it seems to be a bird lover’s paradise. The bird viewing chart we linked to tells people the best season for specific birds. As we were there mid-summer and it was pretty hot, we’re assuming we saw fewer than other seasons.
I’ve been to Florida a couple of times – and love the wildlife there – but i havent made it to sanibel island yet!
It’s a nice quiet get-a-way, at least it is during the off-season. LOL
Sounds like a great day out for nature lovers and a really good value for money aswell.
We had a great time and couldn’t believe we could come back the next day too