Things to Do At Ding Darling National Refuge

Things to Do at Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge: A Complete Guide

Things to do at Ding Darling

Nestled on the beautiful Sanibel Island in Florida, the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, commonly known as Ding Darling, is a haven for nature enthusiasts and wildlife lovers. With its beautiful wildlife and breathtaking landscapes, I was in heaven! In this post, I will delve into the top things to do at Ding Darling Nature Reserve and everything else you need to know to plan an amazing experience.

Whether you’re an avid birdwatcher (like me!), a photography enthusiast, or simply seeking a connection to nature, Ding Darling has something to offer for everyone.

My visit to Ding Darling was definitely one of the best things I did on my visit to Sanibel Island. I hope you find this guide useful to plan your visit to Ding Darling Nature Reserve.

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History of Ding Darling

Jay Norwood “Ding” Darling was a renowned American conservationist, who was a passionate advocate for wildlife conservation and played a crucial role in the establishment of the National Wildlife Federation and the Duck Stamp program.

His tireless efforts to raise awareness about the importance of preserving natural habitats and wildlife led to the creation of several national wildlife refuges and a lasting legacy in the realm of environmental conservation. The J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge in Florida was named in his honor, serving as a testament to his dedication to the protection of America’s natural treasures.

Planning Your Visit to Ding Darling

How to Get There

The reserve is located on Sanibel Island.You can travel by car from Fort Myers on Interstate 75. Follow the directions to the Sanibel Island Causeway and the Toll Bridge Plaza. 

There is a $6US toll to cross the Causeway. If you do not have a transponder, then it will cost $9US. I suggest you make the most of your visit and plan to spend the day on Sanibel Island.

You can explore the island by public transit, taxi or uber/lyft. However, I highly recommend exploring by car. You will have all the freedom you want and it will make your visit so much easier. If you are flying into the area, then you of course will need to rent a car.

Sanibel Causeway

Where to Stay

Sanibel Island offers a range of accommodations to suit different budgets and preferences. Check out the many options and reviews for budget, mid-range, and luxury accommodations on Sanibel Island

I personally stayed off the island at the Residence Inn Fort Myers Sanibel. It was close to the causeway as well as the rest of the Fort Myers area, so we could explore all around. I highly recommend this hotel as the location, amenities, rooms and staff were fantastic!

If you want to explore other lodging options, you can check out more accommodation options in Fort Myers

You can also read my blog post on the best places to stay in the Fort Myers area for detailed descriptions of hotels and my recommendations.

Best Time to Visit

Winter (December to February): Many visitors prefer to come during the winter months when the weather in southwest Florida is mild and comfortable. During this time, you can see a wide variety of migratory birds, including wading birds, waterfowl, and shorebirds. It’s an excellent time for birdwatching and photography.

Spring (March to May): Spring is a transitional period at Ding Darling, with some migratory birds departing and others arriving. The weather is still pleasant, and you can see a mix of resident and migratory species. The park is also starting to bloom.

Summer (June to August): Summer can be hot and humid in Florida, but it’s a great time for viewing alligators and other reptiles. The bird activity may slow down during the hottest parts of the day, so early morning and late afternoon visits are your best option. I visited in June, early morning, and found that there were not many tourists and I was happy with the amount of birds (and alligators) that we saw. 

Fall (September to November): Fall can be a pleasant time to visit as temperatures start to cool down. It’s another transitional period for bird migrations, making it a good time to observe a mix of species. Mosquitoes can be more active during this season, so be prepared with insect repellent.

Hours of Operation

To make the most of your visit to Ding Darling, it’s essential to be aware of the wildlife refuge’s hours of operation for different activities. The refuge is open from sunrise to sunset, but closed on Fridays and all federal holidays, including walking the Indigo Trail.

The Wildlife Drive is open daily from 7 a.m. to 5:00 p.m , except for Fridays and federal holidays.

The Visitor Center is typically open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily, except for Fridays and federal holidays. Note, there are no food options available in the refuge except for water bottle filling stations.

The Bailey Tract is open from sunrise to sunset and is accessible year round. This is because the entrance off Tarpon Bay Road, not Wildlife Drive.

Entrance Fees

Fees are dependent on the activities you will be participating in.

$10 per vehicle for Wildlife Drive

$1 per pedestrian or cyclist for using Indigo Trail

Free to access via Bailey Tract

TIP: When I visited, we went the first day and did the walk on Indigo Trail. The next day we decided to go back and do the wildlife drive. We got there at around 4:30pm and we had minimal traffic and were able to see some great birds.


I was surprised to hear that dogs are allowed on the Wildlife Drive, Indigo Trail and the Bailey Tract. Ensure your dog is kept under control and on leash and ensure you respect the wildlife and reserve and pick up after your dog.

How Long Do You Need There?

The length of time you spend at Ding Darling will depend on what you plan to do. You could spend an hour or two walking the Wildlife Drive, or walking all over like I did. If you want to fully experience the reserve, I would plan for at least a half a day.

Top Things to do at Ding Darling


Ding Darling is designated as an “Important Bird Area” and is part of the Great Florida Birding Trail. You have a good chance to see ospreys, herons, egrets, and roseate spoonbills. 

Tri-color Heron at Ding Darling
Tri-color Heron

Our visit to the reserve yielded 30 species of birds between the Indigo Trail & Wildlife Drive. There are so many great reasons to start birdwatching, and if you enjoy nature, then you will definitely develop a passion for this great hobby.

If you want to know what birds you might get a chance to see, then check out the post on the Birds of Ding Darling.

White ibis
White Ibis

Wildlife Viewing

The refuge is home to a diverse array of animals, including alligators, manatees, and over 245 species of birds. You can explore the refuge on foot or by car, watching for wildlife at various points and trails throughout the reserve.

We were lucky enough to see one of the resident alligators.

Alligator - top things to do at Ding Darling

Wildlife Drive

This is a must-do activity to fully experience a different view of the refuge. The road is four miles from end to end, with a maximum speed limit of 15 miles per hour. It is open to pedestrians, bicyclists and cars.

I recommend doing the drive when it is low tide which is usually later in the afternoon around 4:30pm. I was determined to find roseate spoonbills and because the tide was out, we were able to see many shorebirds, including spoonbills.

Wildlife Drive

The other great sight we had along the drive were lots of Yellow-Crowned Night Herons. We actually thought they were following us because every corner we went around, we would see one beside the road. It was another highlight of the drive.

yellow crowned night heron

Yellow-crowned Night Heron

You can pull over along the drive, on the right side on the road to explore the trails, overlooks and go up the observation tower to get a view of the water and scenery.

Indigo Trail

This trail starts at the Visitor Center and continues through to the Wildlife Education Boardwalk and Tower. Currently, due to the damage that was incurred from the Hurricane in 2022, you cannot walk from the Visitor Center directly to the Boardwalk. You have to drive to the Fees booth, and start the walk from there. It is less than 0.3 miles to the Boardwalk. This is a must!

We probably spent an hour there watching all the herons and egrets and other birds. We were luckily enough to find an alligator and watched him, watching us! Depending on how much you want to walk, you can turn and head back to your vehicle, or you can continue on the Indigo Trail.

We continued on the Indigo trail, to Cross Dike trail, then ventured back to the parking lot along Wildlife Drive. The walking route was about 4 miles. If you choose to do this, ensure you have lots of water, especially if it is hot.

Map of Ding Darling

Bailey Tract

This trail is located off Tarpon Bay Road, which means you have to leave the main entrance to access this area.

This area has trails marked by different colored arrows to take you around ponds and wetland areas. Suggestion is to go early in the morning to get a variety of birds that visit this area.

Bailey Tract Map

Guided Tours

If you are interested in fishing, boating, kayaking through the reserve or taking a tram tour, then check out Tarpon Bay Explorers for tours that are offered in the wildlife refuge.

Educational Programs

The refuge offers various educational programs seasonally. These experiences allow you to learn about the refuge’s history, wildlife, and conservation efforts while exploring the area with experts.

Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge is a natural gem that enables every day people to connect with nature and the wonders of this vast area. There are endless things to do and discover at this remarkable refuge. This is just one of the great things to do when visiting Sanibel Island.

Whether you’re a nature enthusiast or simply looking for a peaceful retreat, there are many things to do at Ding Darling that will provide unforgettable memories of the beauty and diversity of the natural world.

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  1. Oooh amazing! The wildlife viewing, especially the bird watching is sooo good at Ding Darling. I would have loved to see the ibis and herons! I can see why you loved it. 🙂

  2. looks like a great place to go and investigate. Times like this are great for the family very exciting and nearly everyone learns something new

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