The J. N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge is known for its abundant bird life. The best months to visit for birding are December through March. The best time to view wildlife is during low tide when the birds are feeding on the exposed mud flats. Many events happen throughout the year on the refuge, which can make a visit that much more enjoyable.
Free Visitor/Education Center
The refuge's visitor/education center, features interactive exhibits on refuge ecosystems, the work of "Ding" Darling, migratory flyways, the National Wildlife Refuge System, and a hands-on area for children. The Center is open daily except most federal holidays. The Center hours are January - April from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and May - December from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. The Center is located two miles west of Tarpon Bay Rd. on Sanibel Captiva Rd.
The Bookstore is located in the Education Center and is operated by the "Ding" Darling Wildlife Society. Visitors can find numerous field guides, nature books, children's books, shirts, postcards, and many other items. Revenues from the bookstore help to fund many programs at the refuge.
The Wildlife Drive
Open Saturday through Thursday. The Drive is closed every Friday to all public access. This is to give the wildlife an opportunity to feed along the Drive with no human disturbance. It also gives refuge staff the opportunity to do maintenance along the road without endangering the public and allows biologists to do surveys and other research without human interference. The Wildlife Drive is open on all federal holidays unless those holidays fall on a Friday. Dogs are allowed on the Drive as long as they are kept on a leash no longer than 6 ft. at all times.
Visitors may tour the Wildlife Drive and most of the trails by bicycle. All bicyclists must obey the one-way rule of the road. From the Education Center, it is an 8 mile loop along Wildlife Drive returning along the main bike path along Sanibel-Captiva Rd., or a 4 mile loop along Wildlife Drive returning along the Indigo Trail.
Indigo Trail. Credit: Cindy Anderson, USFWS
$5 per vehicle
$1 per hiker or biker (under 15 free)
Federal Passes accepted for entry and available for purchase at the fee booth:
America the Beautiful – Access Pass - Free.
America the Beautiful – Senior Pass. - Cost $10.
America the Beautiful – Annual Pass - Cost $80.
Current Federal Duck Stamp - Cost $15. (available at the fee booth or education/visitor center)
Would you like to know which bird species have been seen recently throughout the refuge? We are now using eBird to track the weekly bird observations by Refuge volunteers, as well as, visiting birders who enter their observation data into eBird. Click here to view our recent sightings.
There are three trails that can be accessed from Wildlife Drive. The 4 mile, round-trip Indigo Trail leaves from the Education Center parking lot and ends at the cross-dike, which extends from the Drive. Along the trail, visitors often spot wildlife such as alligators, night herons, and white ibis. The Wulfert Keys Trail off the Drive is a 1/4 mile trail leading to a view of Pine Island Sound. The Shell Mound Trail is a 1/4 mile, universally accessible, interpretive boardwalk. The vegetation along the trail sustained a lot of damage in 2004 from Hurricane Charley, but visitors can still learn about the ancient Calusa Indian and the native vegetation while reading interpretive panels along the boardwalk.
The Bailey Tract is located off Tarpon Bay Rd. This 100 acre parcel is a unique area of the refuge with its interior wetland where freshwater plants and wildlife dominate. The trails can be accessed by walking or biking at any time. Click here to view a map.
Other recreational opportunities include fishing, boating, kayak/canoeing, bicycling, nature photography, and bird watching.
Salt water fishing is popular along the Wildlife Drive, in Tarpon Bay, and in the backwaters of the refuge. Commonly caught fish include sheepshead, snook, redfish, and spotted sea trout. All Florida state fishing laws apply. Boating is allowed in the refuge in designated areas; however, the refuge has over 2,800 acres of designated Wilderness Area that is a non-motorized zone. Be sure to consult the refuge Fishing and Boating brochure for closed areas and non-motorized zones.
There are two designated kayak/canoe launch sites along the Wildlife Drive. Guided kayak and canoe tours are offered from Canoe Adventures along the Drive ((239) 472-5218) and in Tarpon Bay with Tarpon Bay Explorers. There is also kayaking/canoeing around Buck Key off of Captiva Island.
Tours are offered through the refuge's concessionaire, Tarpon Bay Explorers. They run the guided tram tours along the Wildlife Drive leaving from the Education Center parking lot. At the Tarpon Bay Recreation Area, Tarpon Bay Explorers provide kayak/canoe and sealife interpretive tours, and visitors can view refuge marine life up close. Visitors may also rent bicycles, kayaks, canoes, pontoon boats, and fishing equipmnet; purchase bait and fishing licenses; or book a charter fishing trip.