Get Your Bird On At The Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge On Sanibel

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I love visiting wildlife refuges and one we knew we wanted to visit when my parents were here was the J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel. It’s a tiny little refuge on the bay side of Sanibel.

The first time they came to visit, we went to the Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge and loved it! We saw so much wildlife, it was amazing. We were expecting something like that but it was not. Merritt Island is 140,000 acres and Ding Darling is just 6,400 acres.


It’s not a bad wildlife refuge by any means, it just wasn’t what we were expecting. I’m still glad we went though. We actually went to Sanibel three different times during this trip and the refuge twice. And both trips in were about the same with wildlife: minimal.

The first day we went to the refuge was a Sunday, kind of in the middle of the day. We also stopped at all three bookstores on the island which are really amazing. There is one that is just full of crime/mystery/thrillers from around the world.


The traffic going onto the island and coming off that day wasn’t bad at all. We eventually made our way from the bookstores to the refuge and off we went.

The road was super wide and traffic was pretty slow but there wasn’t much of it, kind of like the wildlife. The first little overlook boardwalk thing we stopped at had a few people and no wildlife, just a nice view of the mangroves.


There were a few other little pull-off things that were right by the mangrove trees but it’s not like, a view so I’m not really sure what they’re for, maybe fishing or something?

Eventually we came across a dyke trail that goes out to another mangrove-y view. It’s not the best view but we did get to see two manatees at the end which was awesome!


After that we just finished the short drive without seeing much else. We did stop at the observation tower and saw the biggest pelicans ever. Seriously, they were huge.

From far away I thought they were giant swan boats they looked so big. It was weird that once we got closer they actually looked a little smaller but they were very impressive either way.


The second time we went was a Tuesday morning after some shelling with my dad super early at Lighthouse Beach. It was not good shelling, like at all, and the refuge was just as uneventful.

We skipped the walk where we saw the manatees this time and really only saw the pelicans again. We did see an osprey in it’s nest both days which was pretty cool.


On the second visit, we were watching the osprey and a group of people biked by and one of the ladies said “oh look, it’s an egret!” so I named it Egret the Osprey.

Overall, it was kind of a let down as far as wildlife goes but I’m still glad we went. It could have just been the time of year that we were there that was reason for the lack of wildlife but who knows.

It’s a fun little place to spend an hour or two on Sanibel between shelling and bookstores. I would love to hear what wildlife you’ve seen there!


Where is the Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge?

The entrance to the refuge is pretty much in the middle of Sanibel. It’s about 20 minutes from Lighthouse Beach and about ten from Blind Pass Beach.

If you’re visiting in peak season (December to April) definitely plan on that drive taking longer. We got lucky with traffic on Sanibel and didn’t have long waits or traffic jams, but it can get really bad.

I would 100% recommend going first thing in the morning, especially if you’re doing any shelling on Sanibel, to beat the traffic. It gets worse mid-morning, early-afternoon. This way you’re probably leaving the island when most people are trying to get on it.

How much is the Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge?

The Ding Darling entrance fee is $10 per vehicle or $1 per pedestrian/bicyclist. If you have a national park pass, that will also get you in. If you plan to visit a lot, an annual pass is $25.


Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge hours

The refuge is open daily, except Fridays! The drive also has very strange hours. They open at 7AM every month, except it’s 7:30AM in March. Here are the closing hours:

  • December – February 5:30Pm
  • March 6PM
  • April – 7PM
  • May – 7:30PM
  • June-July – 8PM
  • August – 7:30PM
  • September – 7PM
  • October – 6:30PM
  • November – 5:30 or 6:30 (I’d call ahead or just go earlier)

You can see all of the hours on here, I’m not sure why November has two different sets of hours or what the stars mean, there isn’t any clarification on the brochure.

How long is the Ding Darling drive?

The scenic drive in Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge is just four miles long. It’s a super short drive but it feels longer than four miles. It is a one-way drive.

While most people drive it, it is also popular to bike through the refuge. Biking is popular all over Sanibel, but it would be a nice way to experience the refuge, too.


How long do you need for the Ding Darling Drive?

1-2 hours should be enough to see Ding Darling. The speed limit is just 15 MPH, but most people go a lot slower than that. Plan for two hours, but it could be less, especially if you’re not seeing wildlife.


What wildlife can you see at Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge?

  • Manatees
  • Alligators
  • Pelicans
  • Roseate Spoonbills
  • Osprey
  • Dolphins
  • Frogs
  • Tons of fish (fishing is very popular here)
  • Black-necked Stilts
  • Snowy Plover
  • Mangrove Cuckoo
  • Yellow Crowned Night Herons
  • Egrets
  • Ibis
  • And even more birds

What to bring to the Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge

Dry bag – This is a must if you’re kayaking or canoeing.  You’ll want to keep your phone and camera dry while you’re on the water.  Here is a set with three different sizes.

Bug spray – You’ll want to bring this no matter when you visit, but especially if you want to go in the summer.  I like the Ben’s bug spray as well as the Off! Deep Woods.

Hiking poles – These will be helpful on longer hikes that are on the steeper side.  They’ll be good if you have bad knees for when you’re going downhill and will give you something to lean on going up the hills.

Water bottle – It’ll be hot and you’ll need to stay hydrated.  Even if it’s not hot you need to stay hydrated.  A Hydro Flask will keep your water ice cold all day long.

Sunscreen – If you plan on being outside, you’ll want sunscreen.  I like the Hawaiian Tropic Sheer Touch a lot AND it’s reef safe! If you’re sensitive to fragrance though, it’s not a good choice. I also like the same one but specifically for your face.

Hat – You’ll want some kind of hat to keep the sun out of your eyes, or a visor.  A baseball hat should be fine but I like my giant sun hat, too.

Sunglasses – This is a must no matter where you are.

Headlamp – I tend to carry my headlamp around all the time when we’re hiking, just in case. 

Egret the Osprey

Is the Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge worth it?

I think so, yes. At least if you’re there in the winter. We were pretty unlucky with shelling and wildlife this trip and we barely saw anything mid-March. I’m not sure if this is normal or not.

Even if you don’t see wildlife, it’s a nice little drive, though not the most exciting. There are some little overlooks and an observation tower, plus at least two hiking trails so there are things to do/see even if wildlife is minimal.

The huge pelicans

Best time to visit Ding Darling

The best time to see wildlife at Ding Darling is low tide, so try to plan your visit during the day around that if you can. As for the best time of year to visit Ding Darling, that depends a little.

The best time for birding is January to March and we were here at the end of this window, so it makes sense we didn’t see much. April to June is OK for birding, but it slows down significantly at the end of April.

July to September is very slow for birding but you can see manatees in Tarpon Bay all summer and you may see some alligators. Things are pretty slow from October to December, but birds begin to arrive again in December.

So, I would visit between January and April if your goal is to see birds and other wildlife. It’s also just the best time to visit Sanibel and south Florida.

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Have you been to the Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge? What did you think of it? Did you see a lot of wildlife? What kind?

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