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Sanibel Island is just off the coast of Florida near Fort Myers and it is one of the best places for shelling, not just in the US, but in the world. Yup. The whole world.
When we went to Fort Myers in 2021, we went to Sanibel for a few hours two different mornings to avoid the crowds later in the day. I liked visiting this way but you can easily just do a day trip to Sanibel if you have less time in the area.
While there aren’t tons and tons of things to do on Sanibel, there are enough things to keep you busy for a whole day there. This might not be the best way for everyone to spend one day on Sanibel, but it is my ideal day on Sanibel and one I plan to make happen later this year.
Sanibel is a fairly small island so it’s easy to see it all in one day but it would also make a great place for a long weekend in Florida just relaxing on the beach and taking it easy.
So whether you’re taking a day trip to Sanibel or just passing through, this will help you find the right way to spend your time on the island.
Travel Services I Recommend:
AllTrails – This is my favorite hike tracking app.
America the Beautiful – The national park pass is essential.
Booking.com – This is great for finding and booking hotels.
Get Your Guide – I recommend Get Your Guide for booking tours.
National Park Obsessed – This is the best national park planner.
Skyscanner – Skyscanner is great for finding and booking flights.
Enterprise – This is my rental car recommendation.
See all my resources here.
Tips for visiting Sanibel:
- The Sanibel toll is $6 and I think it gets sent to you. You don’t have to stop on the bridge to pay.
- Beach parking is $5 per hour at all of the public beaches and can be very limited. You can find the number of parking spots at each beach (and other amenities) here.
- Traffic here can be pretty bad. Traffic onto the island is very heavy from 8-12 and off the island from 2:30-6:30 so if you can do the opposite during those times, that will be best.
- I didn’t include dining in this post because I haven’t eaten here at all but this is a pretty relaxed day trip to Sanibel here so you can squeeze it in when necessary.
- Sea turtle nesting season is from May to October so be sure to fill in holes and knock down sandcastles at the end of the day. If you’re on the beach at night, use a green or red flashlight instead of a regular one. Nests will usually be marked.
- There are a lot of bikers on Sanibel (like, bicycles) so if you’re driving, be sure to keep an eye out for them on or crossing the road. If you are biking, be careful of all the vehicles.
Start your day on Sanibel nice and early and by nice and early, I mean way too early. Like, get to the beach 30 minutes before sunrise early if you’re super committed to your shelling, or just right around sunrise if you’re a little more laid back about it.
But before you get here, you’ll have to decide which beach you want to go to which may also determine how early you get there. Parking is a lot more limited at some of the beaches than others, like Blind Pass Beach.
Lighthouse Beach has a lot more parking so you may not have to go quite as early but it does get busy quick. I haven’t been to the other beaches yet but I know I would still go as early as you can.
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Next, hit up the shell museum. Here you can learn all about the shells and marine life of southwest Florida. It’s a little expensive at $24 per person but could be worth it to learn about the shells you just found. And it sounds like they have quite a bit to see there.
I would like to do this next time I’m there. They have some temporary exhibits alongside 30 permanent exhibits, including the Great Hall of Shells which is home to more than 500,000 shells. Plus you can see over 50 species of marine life!
This is optional, well, all of it is, but if you don’t like biking just skip this one. You can either just bike around for a bit, Sanibel is a very bike-friendly island, or you can park then just bike through the refuge and to another beach.
Some hotels or rentals may have bikes for your use but if you’re staying off-island, you can rent them while you’re visiting for the day. This could be a good way to avoid dealing with minimal beach parking.
This is also a personal preference, but Sanibel is home to three whole bookstores and one of them is ENTIRELY mysteries and thrillers. Sign. Me. Up. I could probably spend a whole day on Sanibel just in the bookstores.
They’re all pretty close to each other near the main part of town and I love them. The mystery one is my favorite but both of the Gene’s Books locations are great and had some good deals outside when we were there.
Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge
The scenic drive through the Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge is just four miles long making it perfect for biking. Of course, you can drive it, which is what we did, and that will go by much faster. If you’re short on time, drive it. If you like biking and have plenty of time, I’d bike it.
There are a few short walks to viewing areas, an observation tower, and a couple of longer hiking trails but nothing too crazy. 1-2 hours should be plenty of time if you’re not rushing through. It’s a short drive.
We didn’t see much wildlife here and we drove through two different days. We saw some giant pelicans, a couple of manatees, an osprey, and a few other birds but not much. It was still a pretty drive through here.
It’s $10 per vehicle but a national park pass can get you in here if you have one. There are also tram tours through the refuge if you want to join one of those instead.
After the refuge, head back to the beach for some more shelling. There is usually a low tide super early in the morning and in the afternoon so try to time it for that. Check Sanibel tides here.
There are seven public beaches on Sanibel that are all great for shelling and I would head to one that you didn’t go to this morning. Or, if you’re staying on the island, you may have a private beach at your hotel which would be great for avoiding the crowds.
The beaches to choose from are Lighthouse Beach, Blind Pass Beach, Bowman Beach, Turner Beach (technically on Captiva), Causeway Island Park (I wouldn’t pick this one), Tarpon Bay Beach, and Algiers Beach.
And, as long as they’re on a leash and you clean up after them, you can bring your pups! Depending on how much time you have left before sunset, you could probably hit up a couple of the beaches as long as you can find parking.
Sunset on the beach
Finally, finish up your day on Sanibel by enjoying the sunset from one of the many beautiful beaches. If you’re tired of the Sanibel beaches, you could head over to one of Captiva’s three public beaches instead.
The beaches to choose from are Alison Hagerup Beach Park at the end of Captiva Drive, Andy Rosse Lane Park (no dedicated parking), and Turner Beach right near Sanibel. If you’re going to any of these for sunset, I’d head there early to make sure you can get parking. Or stick to wherever you’re at on Sanibel instead.
There you have it, the best way (I think) to spend one day on Sanibel Island in Florida. Of course, if you don’t like biking or books, this may not be the best option, but you can’t go wrong with lots of beach time, the shell museum, and the wildlife refuge.
What to bring shelling on Sanibel
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.
Shell bag – I usually use a plastic grocery bag for shells but will be getting these mesh bags for shells for my next beach adventure. I think any mesh bag should work pretty well you just want to make sure the holes are small enough so little shells don’t fall out. This kind would be better if you’re snorkeling for shells.
Shell scoop – A Sand Dipper shell scoop can help you get shells that are under water if you don’t want to snorkel/swim. They can also help just on the beach so you don’t have to bend over. You can scoop the shells right up. Buy a shell scoop here.
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Have you been to Sanibel? What did you think of it? Do you want to go? How would you spend one day on Sanibel?