In 2020 the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island celebrated its 75th anniversary. Jay Norwood Darling created it as the Sanibel National Wildlife Refuge in 1945, and it was rechristened in 1967 in his honor, following his death in 1962. It was the first national wildlife refuge named for a person.
The Refuge Complex encompasses 7,682 acres comprising the main campus on Sanibel-Captiva Road, Tarpon Bay Recreation Area, Bailey Tract, Perry Tract, and the Lee Anne Tauck Conservation Tract on Sanibel Island, plus three other offshore refuges not accessible to the public.
The refuge is home to about 250 species of birds, 18 species of mammals, 102 species of fish, and 60 species of reptiles and amphibians. Fourteen of its resident species are federally listed including manatees, loggerhead sea turtles, wood storks, and smalltooth sawfish.
The “Ding” Darling Visitor & Education Center is open free to the public daily 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. (currently closed until further notice due to pandemic). It holds the Refuge Nature Store, hands-on exhibits, and interpretive restrooms, recipient of the 2018 America’s Best Restroom Award.
Refuge activities include driving, bicycling, and hiking along 4-mile Wildlife Drive; trails; kayaking; canoeing; stand-up paddleboarding; nature boat and paddling tours; fishing; and wildlife photography. Tarpon Bay Explorers, the refuge’s recreation concession, rents equipment and conducts tours, including a narrated tram tour of Wildlife Drive (not currently available).
Wildlife Drive welcomes nearly a million visitors each year. It opens dawn to dusk. Admission fees are $10 per vehicle, $1 per cyclist and hiker. Annual passes are available. For more refuge information, please visit fws.gov/refuge/JN_Ding_Darling or dingdarlingsociety.org.