J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge

J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge

J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge
4.5
About
Established in 1945, this wildlife refuge occupies one-third of Sanibel Island and is a prime spot for bird watching. Fees are required for Wildlife Drive, which is open everyday but is closed on Fridays, gate times vary. The best way to plan your visit is to stop in the informative FREE visitor center first which is open daily 9am-4pm. Then begin your adventure with many activities including the wildlife drive, tram tour, kayaking, fishing opportunities, picnic benches, and even a free scavenger hunt style game and wildlife spotting app (Discover Ding) if you prefer a self-guided tour.
Duration: More than 3 hours
Meets animal welfare guidelines
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  • FreeLogic
    38 contributions
    Hidden gem for nature lovers
    Gem of a place for nature lovers. Despite the devastating hurricane Ian. We started at the visitors center. Volunteers here can answer all your questions. The store is well equipped with books and souvenirs. Their washrooms are squeaky clean and, surprisingly, contain informative murals about local flora and fauna. 4 mile drive thru the refuge allows to see mangrove ecosystem from up close. 1.5 hours will get you covered . $10 admission is well worth the price.
    Visited April 2023
    Traveled as a couple
    Written April 13, 2023
  • Joann M
    Punta Gorda, Florida98 contributions
    Drive Day
    Rated a 4 because it is still recovering from IAN. Drove our car through & stopped a couple of times to look at the bodies of water. Not a good wildlife day. Saw a few Ibis & Osprey. It is still a beautiful peaceful place & hope to come back in the winter when hopefully the birds are back & another trail opens. It is $10 per car but if you are a senior holding a lifetime National park pass you get in for free. It will be back in shape soon & we will be back.
    Visited July 2023
    Traveled as a couple
    Written August 2, 2023
  • daisymae531
    Minnesota375 contributions
    Amazing!
    I first came here 37 years ago with my parents, now I took my son and it is just as amazing as I remember. The staff and rangers are awesome. My son completed the wildlife refuge activity and got all questions right and he received a badge and was sworn in as a jr. Ranger by a real ranger! Most amazing wildlife throughout park. Bald Eagles, Ibis, Herons, gators, crabs, snakes galore! A Sanibel Island and south Florida must! Do the wildlife drive and tour the museum.
    Visited October 2023
    Traveled with family
    Written October 19, 2023
  • LABDRB
    634 contributions
    More than just pretty beaches!
    There’s more to Sanibel Island than just a pretty face, I mean beach. Best to see it on bicycles (which we did) because the “no see ums” are killers… Plus if you walk in or ride a bike admission is only a dollar pp, (cars cost $10). J. N. “Ding” Darling was a cartoonist turned conservationist. He drew the first Federal Duck Stamp and began the nation’s primary funding program for waterfowl management. He was the first National Wildlife Federation President and in 1934 he was appointed Chief of the U.S. Biological Survey and basically formed what would become the US Fish & Wildlife Service. TY USFWS & SWFL ❤️
    Visited December 2023
    Traveled as a couple
    Written December 27, 2023
  • Jack H
    Bonita Springs, Florida370 contributions
    Great Tour
    Took the Tram tour this week. Great experience. Excellent tour guide. A lot of birds. Must make a reservation/buy tickets ahead to ensure your spot! Highly recommend this tour.
    Visited January 2024
    Traveled with family
    Written January 20, 2024
These reviews are the subjective opinion of Tripadvisor members and not of TripAdvisor LLC. Tripadvisor performs checks on reviews.

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Detailed Reviews: Reviews ordered by recency and descriptiveness of user-identified themes such as wait time, length of visit, general tips, and location information.

Popular mentions

4.5
6,303 reviews
Excellent
4,198
Very good
1,422
Average
511
Poor
125
Terrible
47

Rosie H
Biggleswade, UK433 contributions
Dec 2019
Had been to this area over 30 years ago, it has changed a lot and for the better. The only slight upset was that we first went on a Friday to find that the drive through the preserve is closed on that day - probably our fault as we hadn’t seen it on the website. However the welcome centre was open and had some amazing photos of animals.
We went back a few days later and did the 3-4 mile drive through the reserve. We made an effort to get there as early as possible so that it wouldn’t be too busy and having arrived just after 9am set off through the area. There are plenty of stopping points along the route and many areas where you can walk out on boardwalks to see the water and birds. We saw a huge variety of birds including pelican, herons, Ibis, gulls and a number of Ospreys sitting on nests.
There is a small fee to pay to drive through the reserve and you also have to take in to account the $10 fee to cross the bridge on to Sanibel Island. The island does get very busy so traffic is slow, go as early as you can, the reserve opens at sunrise and closes at sunset. It is about half way along the island so can take about 20 minutes from the end of the bridge on a good day but a lot longer in traffic.
Well worth a visit - you get some great photos.
Written January 11, 2020
This review is the subjective opinion of a Tripadvisor member and not of Tripadvisor LLC. Tripadvisor performs checks on reviews as part of our industry-leading trust & safety standards. Read our transparency report to learn more.

Gerry M
Richmond, VA24 contributions
Feb 2020 • Friends
In addition to a very nice (and free) museum with s great gift shop, there are daily presentations on a number of interesting subjects.

Afterwards, there is an amazing drive through the preserve where you can see lots of birds, and where you can stop as often as you like to take photographs, and stay as long as you like.

There is a $5 per vehicle charge for the drive, but admission is free with a National Parks pass, so make sure to have it with you.
Written February 11, 2020
This review is the subjective opinion of a Tripadvisor member and not of Tripadvisor LLC. Tripadvisor performs checks on reviews as part of our industry-leading trust & safety standards. Read our transparency report to learn more.

Wayne W
Stony Point, NY5 contributions
Feb 2020
We took a leisurely drive through the preserve. It only cost $5.00 per car and you pull over and get out for a closer look as often as you like. We saw many varieties of birds. We went back the next day for the Sunset Cruise in Tarpon Bay which had a very informative guide.
Written February 11, 2020
This review is the subjective opinion of a Tripadvisor member and not of Tripadvisor LLC. Tripadvisor performs checks on reviews as part of our industry-leading trust & safety standards. Read our transparency report to learn more.

Carla
Cape Coral, FL21 contributions
Mar 2020
The visitors center is great for adult and children. Many displays and local artists with their work is displayed. Also a fabulous giftshop! Worth the time to educate yourself about the wildlife on Sanibel. Wildlife drive is also great....it costs a small fee but worth it to see some of our fabulous birds!
Written March 17, 2020
This review is the subjective opinion of a Tripadvisor member and not of Tripadvisor LLC. Tripadvisor performs checks on reviews as part of our industry-leading trust & safety standards. Read our transparency report to learn more.

Nari K
Gainesville, VA371 contributions
Jan 2020
We were there on a Monday morning in January.We are glad we visited this place! Because it was MLK day, they did not have entrance fees also (otherwise it is $6 per car, I think!). The visitor's center itself is apleasure to visit! Very helpful docents and volunteers. Colorful maps of the refuge and trails. Visit the restrooms in the Visitors' center. The roof is decorated like the insides of a pond with ducks and alligators stuck on the ceiling as if you are at the bottom of the pond looking up! Very unique!! The 4 mile drive with many stops is very relaxing and nice. We stopped every 200 -300 feet to take pictures of birds who are everywhere! There si a very nice observation tower (see pictures) from which you can see a bird's eye view of two bodies of water on either side of the 4 mile drive! Very nice and we will be back again to this wonderful corner of Sanibel island!! Just watch out for backed up traffic in Sanibel Island. There is only one road in and out! Patience needed in spades.
Written January 24, 2020
This review is the subjective opinion of a Tripadvisor member and not of Tripadvisor LLC. Tripadvisor performs checks on reviews as part of our industry-leading trust & safety standards. Read our transparency report to learn more.

Linda Y
Frisco, TX5,665 contributions
Jun 2021
Our family always includes a visit to the refuge whenever we are in Sanibel. It never gets old, because no matter how many times you’ve been here, it’s a given you’ll see something new! And we have Jay Norwood Darling (“Ding”) to thank. His life story interestingly combines cartoons, politics, and conservation. Urged by Darling, President Harry Truman signed an Executive Order creating the Sanibel National Wildlife Refuge in 1945. The Refuge was renamed in 1967 to honor the conservationist that saved the land from development. The refuge consists of mangrove forest, submerged seagrass beds, cordgrass marshes, and West Indian hardwood hammocks. Approximately 2,800 acres of the 6,400-acre refuge are designated by Congress as a Federal Wilderness Area. Famous for spectacular migratory bird populations (especially in the winter months), over 245 species of birds have been spotted here. While the Visitor Center is currently open, the Education Center/Exhibits are still closed due to COVID-19 restrictions (being a national property the refuge follows federal and not state mandates). The staff was quite welcoming however and provided a variety of coloring and activity books for the kids to take. As other reviews have noted, remember to check out America’s best restroom. Our family elected to drive the 4-mile Wildlife Drive ($10 per vehicle), but you can also hike or bike for a nominal fee. Hang on to your receipt because it is good for 3 days! The kids were intent to see manatees, and our persistence paid off on the last day. You have a better chance to see these gentle giants during low tide. The manatees were so close to shore we heard them breathing and saw the barnacles on their back! I was also thrilled to get close views of a variety of birds that included roseate spoonbills, anhinga and snowy egrets. The refuge is a Sanibel must do!
Written June 27, 2021
This review is the subjective opinion of a Tripadvisor member and not of Tripadvisor LLC. Tripadvisor performs checks on reviews as part of our industry-leading trust & safety standards. Read our transparency report to learn more.

Brad W
London, UK58 contributions
Jan 2020
This drive allows you to see all of the islands wildlife. If you love wildlife, this is a must, but do go through at different times. I love to be there at sunset and watch the various birds fly over the road to their roost. Be aware, this is not a zoo and you'll get out what you put in in regard to wildlife spotting here, and on island in general.
Written February 1, 2020
This review is the subjective opinion of a Tripadvisor member and not of Tripadvisor LLC. Tripadvisor performs checks on reviews as part of our industry-leading trust & safety standards. Read our transparency report to learn more.

Al Makynen
Duluth, MN266 contributions
Feb 2020 • Couples
We have lifetime National Park passes.
However the $5 per car fee is cheap at twice the price - if you do not have a pass?

We drive rhrough the 4 miles of paved road and stop wherever we see multiple cameras pointed out over the water. They say low tide is best. That is true, but we have seen birds of all types at any time (high or low tide). The visitor center and gift shop are worth a stop too (and there is no fee to get here).
Written February 23, 2020
This review is the subjective opinion of a Tripadvisor member and not of Tripadvisor LLC. Tripadvisor performs checks on reviews as part of our industry-leading trust & safety standards. Read our transparency report to learn more.

K. Richard W
Sarasota, FL10 contributions
Feb 2020
This is a very well set up refuge that is easy to navigate even for those who are less fit. The refuge is beautiful and parking is good. Sanibel Island is often crowded and the traffic is often miserable but this refuge is quitye lovely.
Written February 16, 2020
This review is the subjective opinion of a Tripadvisor member and not of Tripadvisor LLC. Tripadvisor performs checks on reviews as part of our industry-leading trust & safety standards. Read our transparency report to learn more.

Realist
Boston, MA10 contributions
Apr 2021 • Family
Meh
This tour was 1/2 hour too long. Sure when it’s hot your thankful for a low energy activity- but not much to see here. Some interesting facts but not enough variance between mangroves to really inspire. The little over a handful of birds that were present I had seen in regular harbor/eatery travels but when spotted on tour (bc otherwise nothing burger) the group got excited like finding water in a desert. I had been on a mangrove kayak tour
and able to point out to guide some findings he neglected to mention. Had driven by several times wanting to stop- but after the reservation - I would not pick this if pressed for time.
Written April 24, 2021
This review is the subjective opinion of a Tripadvisor member and not of Tripadvisor LLC. Tripadvisor performs checks on reviews as part of our industry-leading trust & safety standards. Read our transparency report to learn more.

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J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge - All You Need to Know BEFORE You Go (with Photos)