Rangers here insist that J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge is a “refuge” not a park. That means that its primary mission is not to cater to visitors but to protect the abundant wildlife within its 6,400 acres, which are located on touristy Sanibel Island. Still, there’s plenty for humans to see and do, such as watching and reporting on the 245 species of birds that come through the pristine mangrove estuary each year. Inside Tip: The best bird activity is from January through April because of migratory populations wintering at the refuge. Many people also come to see American alligators year-round, as well as the dolphins and Florida manatees that can be observed during the summer months. Best Bet: To get the most out of your visit, download the free Discover Ding phone app for Apple iOS and Android devices. You can view real-time wildlife sightings, post pictures, and play a wildlife trivia game on the app.
When to Go: The refuge opens at 7 or 7:30 a.m. and closes between 5:30 and 8 p.m., depending on the time of year. Inside Tip: Plan to visit at low tide, which, as the ocean recedes, brings feeding animals closer to the four-mile, paved wildlife drive that runs through the refuge, making them easier to observe. Call +1 239 472 1100, ext. 2, for tide times. Winter months are better for seeing large populations of birds.
Must Dos: Get oriented to the refuge at the free visitor and education center, which includes information on the park’s namesake, cartoonist Jay Norwood "Ding" Darling. Walk, bike, or drive the paved four-mile wildlife drive ($5 per vehicle; $1 per pedestrian or bicyclist; closed Fridays). Along the way, stop at panels with QR codes for kids and adults that lead to ranger-narrated videos about flora and fauna (download a QR reader onto your phone or tablet before visiting). Walk one of the three trails off the wildlife drive, such as the Indigo Trail and the Wildlife Education Boardwalk (four miles round-trip). The boardwalk features educational scat, or “poop panels,” for tracking wildlife such as raccoons, marsh rabbits, and, off and on, otters and bobcats. Get out on the water in a kayak or canoe with Tarpon Bay Explorers, the refuge’s official concessionaire. Inside Tip: The refuge is now using eBird to capture data about bird observations from refuge volunteers and visiting birders.
Fun Fact: Those tall pink birds wading in the water at Ding Darling aren’t flamingos—they're roseate spoonbills, found at the refuge all year long.
Photograph by Carlton Ward, Jr., National Geographic Travel
Cayo Costa Island State Park
Cayo Costa Island State Park is on a barrier island said to be used as a bombing and gunnery range for Air Force training during World War II. Now, nature has mostly reclaimed its 2,426 acres. The park is only accessible by boat or ferry, provided by Captiva Cruises from points in Captiva Island, Punta Gorda, Boca Grande, and Pine Island (reservations are definitely recommended). The island’s nine miles of beaches are perfect for shelling, snorkeling, picnicking, and sunbathing. Nature trails throughout the area offer chances to hike and off-road bicycle. Look for populations of wildlife such as dolphins, manatees, and migrating birds. Best Bet: Stay overnight by heading to ReserveAmerica to book one of their 12 primitive cabins or 27 tent sites (some accessible and pet-friendly) up to 11 months in advance of your trip.
Photograph by Octavio Jones/Tampa Bay Times/ZUMAPRESS, Alamy
Just 18 miles long and two miles wide, Pine Island is a sleepy barrier island tucked between Sanibel and Captiva Islands and the mainland. More and more of the island is being preserved and left to nature thanks to the Calusa Land Trust, which has acquired about 20 parcels covering 2,000 acres, many of which are open to the public but undiscovered. In the Saint James Creek Preserve, walk the St. Jude Trail. This easy half-mile trek leads through mangroves and past a traditional Seminole "chickee" hut, a thatched-roof shelter built on an elevated wooden platform. For paddlers, the 325-acre Big Jim Creek Preserve on the northwest end of the island is open for respectful exploration. Reach the preserve via Fritts Park. Best Bet: To rent a watercraft (and have it delivered to the Big Jim put-in), contact Pine Island Paradise Paddling.