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What to do in Ding Darling, Florida’s Sanibel Island Nature Preserve

What to do in Ding Darling, Florida’s Sanibel Island Nature Preserve 

Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge is a national wildlife refuge created in 1945 by order of U.S. President Harry Truman to protect endangered plant and animal life and provide feeding, nesting and overnight staging areas for migratory birds.

It is located on the subtropical barrier island of Sanibel in the Gulf of Mexico and is part of the largest undeveloped mangrove ecosystem in southern Florida, consisting of aquatic, terrestrial and coastal parts.

We were interested in driving along the coast on Wildlife Drive, similar in some ways to 17-Mile Drive in California. And also to walk the trails there and see birds, flying fish and alligators.

Basic Information

Ding Darling Preserve is world-famous for the large populations of migratory birds that stop there to rest, thanks to the seafloor habitat exposed along the coast at low tide.

The nature preserve is named after one of its creators, Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Jay Norwood Ding Darling.

Today, Ding Darling Nature Preserve is home to 51 species of reptiles and amphibians, 32 species of mammals, and over 245 species of birds.

There is a fee to visit the Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge: you must pay $1 per person to enter on foot, and it costs $5 to enter by car.

For more information about the visit, visit the official website at

Visitor Center

To our surprise, the Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge has a very good visitor center that also hosts various educational programs. There is a reason young scouts are brought here and have organized activities for them.

There were school buses in front of the Visitor Center that brought kids from Sarasota. Not only did the students learn about the wildlife here, but they also participated in some contests and games.

There are mock-ups of different parts of the mangrove ecosystem, illustrating the peculiarities of local nature. Here you can touch rare seashells and hold turtle shells in your hands.


Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge, like Rookery Bay, has several trails for hikers. You can start your hike right from the Visitor Center and walk the entire park (like Tierra del Fuego National Park in Ushuaia) rather than driving. It will take almost a whole day, but the experience will be much more impressive than the hour and a half tour by car.

Wildlife Drive

In addition to hiking, the most popular activity for visitors to Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge is the four-mile Wildlife Drive, open to the public from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily except Fridays (8 p.m. in summer).

There are 2 options for visiting the Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge:

  • Drive the Wildlife Drive by yourself in a car, motorcycle, or bicycle.
  • Take an organized tour (1.5 hours) on a special shuttle with a naturalist guide.

We chose the first option and saw the reserve ourselves, taking a map and a short description at the entrance.

Recommendation: It is better to be here at low tide to see more birds that come to feed on the banks.

Unfortunately, we didn’t make it to this magical time for photographers and nature lovers, as during our visit in October the tide was late in the evening when the park was already closed. Nevertheless, we did get to see some jumping birds and alligators. The most convenient way to look at birds is from special towers on viewing platforms.

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