Despite the fact that we go to Sanibel every year, we actually had never been to Ding Darling together: DH had never been, and it has been many years since I have. So this year, we made a point to go to J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge (website).
Word to the wise–the no see ums can be really awful in Sanibel, and particularly in the refuge as it is protected from the wind more than say, the beach. Take bug spray. I was literally running from the car to the overlooks back to the car as fast as I could; I still have the bites on my legs to prove it.
There are a couple of ways you can enjoy Ding Darling–walking, biking, car, and in their tram. You can also canoe, kayak, or stand up paddle board in certain areas of the refuge. Fishing is also allowed in specific locations. We decided to take the 5-ish mile drive in our car as we had already gone on a run and played at least an hour of tennis. The speed limit is slow and strictly enforced; everyone is courteous as you can stop anywhere along the road to hop out and look around, which is pretty neat. I think next time we would definitely try to bike. Much of Sanibel has beautiful biking paths, and drivers are typically very very conscientious. It would be a great way to spend the morning by biking around the refuge.
Entrance to the park is $5 per car, $1 bike, or $1 for pedestrians, cash only. One of the trails also has a $1 entrance fee; the visitor center is free. The wildlife drive is open every day, except for Fridays, and is also open on all holidays. For updated hours, you can see their schedule here.
Gators are pretty common in the refuge, but we didn’t encounter any the day we went. I think they are more commonly seen in the morning, when they are basking in the sun to warm up for the day. But we did see a ton of birds, as well as some crabs and a cute little mangrove snake (nope, not poisonous). Fish are constantly jumping way, way out of the water. And there were so many birds, including the snowy egret, roseate spoonbill (the only naturally pink bird), as well as tons and tons of brown pelicans and cormorants. I had never seen the roseate spoonbills before–they are pretty cool birds, both in color and in beak. I wish we had a super duper very long zoom lens to catch one of them up close!
We were playing with DH’s brand new DSLR, the Canon Rebel EOS T5i. After the Galapagos, he was really interested in getting a better camera and splurged on a great Amazon deal. Yep, he had to go get a shmancy fancy camera that was better than mine! And then we had fun arguing over who took which photos, per usual, including some of those below.
In any case, if you are visiting Sanibel or Captiva Islands, or even southwest Florida, I would absolutely suggest going into the refuge.
If you are interested in birds, pick up a quick bird guide before you go. There are great waterproof versions with just Sanibel and Captiva birds.