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One of the things that makes Sanibel Island so unique is about one-third of it is a federally protected wildlife refuge. Since 1945, the over 7,000-acre J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge has been a valued and protected home for wildlife. It’s also one of the most celebrated birding locales in the country and you’ll find an impressive variety of species of birds here. If your goal is to see endangered and threatened critters, Ding Darling is your best bet. It’s home to animals like Atlantic loggerhead sea turtles, West Indian manatees, American alligators, and even the occasional American crocodile.

If you told Jay Norwood Darling he’d have a hand in opening one of the most well-known wildlife refuges for endangered and threatened species in Southwest Florida, the former newspaper cartoonist may not have believed you.

The 1924 and 1943 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for editorial cartooning penned some conservation cartoons and in 1934, President Franklin Roosevelt appointed him to a blue ribbon committee on wildlife restoration. President Roosevelt also chose Darling to be the head of the U.S. Biological Survey, a precursor to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In 1936, Darling played a major role in funding the National Wildlife Federation. More information about the refuge is available at the free Visitor and Education Center.

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J.N. “Ding” Darling.

Walk, Bike or Drive the 4-Mile Wildlife Drive

One unique thing about Ding Darling is you can explore the park and take in the sights by car. This is a great option for guests with limited mobility. The entrance fee is minimal and the park’s hours vary by the month, but it is always closed on Fridays.

Whether you are exploring the park by car, on foot or on your bike, make sure you bring your phone or tablet and keep an eye out for panels with QR codes that lead to ranger-narrated videos about the different types of plants and animals you’ll encounter along the way.

There are three main trails off Wildlife Drive:

  • Indigo Trail
  • Wulfert Keys Trail
  • Calusa Shell Mound Trail

Don’t miss the observation deck along Wildlife Drive for excellent views and photo opportunities.

Also make sure to:

  • Enjoy a day on the water in a canoe or kayak with the Tarpon Bay Explorers.
  • Use eBird to get information about bird observations from refuge visitors and volunteers.

Ding Darling Trails

Indigo Trail

This four-mile round trip trail leads to the Wildlife Education Boardwalk and a mangrove forest.

Wildlife Education Boardwalk

On this trail, you’ll see educational signs where you can learn about scat, also known as “poop panels.” Studying scat helps refuge staff track wildlife such as marsh rabbits, otters, raccoons and bobcats.

Wulfert Keys Trail

This mangrove-lined canal will take you to the edge of Hardworking Bay. You may even see an American crocodile.

Calusa Shell Mound Trail

This trail takes you around an ancient shell mound. It’s a great way to get to know the Calusa Indians who built them.

Cross Dike Trail

This trail connects Wildlife Drive and the Indigo Trail. It’s a laidback paved walk, perfect for hikers who want to take it a little easier.

Red Mangrove Outlook

This is the shortest walk in the refuge, and it provides guests great birding opportunities and a chance to see mangrove crabs up close. Also, look out for a panoramic view of a salt marsh.

Bailey Tract trails

The Bailey Tract is a separate 100-acre parcel off Tarpon Bay Road. It has its own set of biking and hiking trails and it offers even more potential glimpses of wildlife. You’ll pass by interior freshwater wetlands that are great places to spot the majestic birds and other animals Sanibel Island is known to attract.

Ding Darling Birds and Wildlife

This 7,600-acre refuge is the proud home to 51 types of amphibians and reptiles; 32 mammals, and more than 230 types of birds.

If you’re here to see different species of birds, the best times to visit are from January through April. This is when migratory bird populations are spending their winters in the sunny and warm refuge. For people who don’t live in the Sunshine State, American alligators, dolphins and manatees are huge draws. These critters are more likely to be spotted in the summer.

To get the most out of your visit to Ding Darling, download the free Discover Ding phone app. It lets you see real-time wildlife sightings, play a wildlife trivia game and post pictures.

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Ding Darling Refuge Tram Tour

Taking the Tarpon Bay Explorer’s Ding Darling tram tour is a great way to explore the park and spot wildlife most visitors wouldn’t normally get the chance to see. Experienced naturalists can help you search for roseate spoonbills, ibis, egrets, herons and much more. They’ll also share some insight into Ding Darling’s ecology and history.

The Ding Darling tram tour helps wildlife as it reduces the number of cars on the road and protects animals from exhaust fumes. The tram is also less noisy and by allowing someone else to drive, it gives you more time to watch for wildlife and take pictures. Reservations are required. Please call 239.472.8900.

Plan your Visit to J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge

Where: 1 Wildlife Drive, Sanibel, Florida

Hours: Visitor and Education Center, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday-Sunday; Closed, Friday.

Information: 239.472.1100 or https://www.fws.gov/refuge/JN_Ding_Darling/

Things to bring: Sunscreen, binoculars, bug spray, a camera and a fun attitude

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Take advantage of the beautiful weather all year long, stroll through the serene park and catch glimpses of unique Florida flora and fauna. Ding Darling has been a favorite local and tourist destination for years, and many visit Sanibel Island for Ding Darling’s bird watching alone.

Let us know what you think of the refuge. We’d love to hear about your experience!

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