Take your bike, slow down and enjoy a day on beautiful Sanibel Island.
Visit the mangroves at Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge and see flocks of shorebirds in their natural environment and maybe some reptiles too. The island’s other wildlife preserves also welcome visitors.
Visit the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum then try your hand at shelling on Sanibel’s beaches, the best shelling on the continent.
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Sanibel Island One-Day Itinerary
Explore these places on a day trip to Sanibel Island:
- J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge
- Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum
- Sanibel Wildlife Reserves
- Sanibel Beaches
This itinerary can easily be done by car, but another great way to see the natural beauty of Sanibel Island is on a bike.
Ditch the car. Bring your bike or rent one. Cycling the island is a great way to cover the island’s must-sees.
Best Bike Route of Sanibel Island
Begin your day at the “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, the jewel of Sanibel Island. Start at the Visitor Center and then walk the Education Boardwalk. Get back on your bike and cycle the Wildlife Drive, stopping at the many wilderness pull offs. After “Ding” Darling, escape the midday heat and head indoors to view the shells at the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum.
Refreshed and ready to experience more birds and wildlife, continue on to one of the many other wildlife refuges on the island.
If you still have the legs, cycle to the western side of the island. With less traffic and fewer people, the cycling is relaxing. Explore the beautiful beaches on the west coast. End your day by watching a perfect sunset at Bowman Beach.
Here are the Best Things To Do on Sanibel Island.
J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge
“Ding” Darling is definitely at the top of the list of best things to do on Sanibel Island. With over 6,400 acres, it is one of the largest protected areas of wetlands and mangroves in Florida. Visitors come here for the beauty of the preserve and the many bird watching opportunities. Check the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge website for operating hours.
Visitor Education Center
The various educational displays at the visitor center provide a great introduction to Sanibel Island’s natural environment. There are 90-minute naturalist-led guided tram tours available.
Wildlife Education Boardwalk
Just outside the visitor center, take the Indigo Trail to the Wildlife Education Boardwalk. There’s a two-story observation pavilion and interpretive signs to learn more about Sanibel Island’s birds.
This is a 4-mile one-way road starting at the visitor center. It is both car and bike friendly with many pull-offs, allowing a slow journey with stops for wildlife and photos.
From the Drive, walk through the delicate mangrove ecosystem to the Mangrove Overlook. See lots of wading birds that utilize these mangroves as roosting and nesting sites. As I was leaving the mangroves, I was startled (but not surprised) to see a snake among the mangrove roots.
Try kayaking through these mangroves. Ding Darling has two designated kayak/canoe launch sites, located off of Wildlife Drive. Paddling a kayak is another great way to experience the mangrove ecosystem up close.
The observation tower is the best place to see the flocks of birds that either live or stop here on their migratory path. A large variety of waterbirds and shorebirds enjoy the shoreline and wetlands of Ding Darling. 245 species of birds have been classified as either visitors or residents of these wetlands. Winter is the best time to see lots of birds.
Wulfert Keys Trail
This worthwhile side trail offers the chance to see more birds, such as the White Ibis. The Wulfert Keys Trail ends at Pine Island Sound, where I was lucky enough to spot a pair of dolphins just off the shore.
Calusa Shell Mound Trail
This is an educational trail telling the story of the Calusa shell mounds. These ancient mounds contain the shells and fish bones discarded by the local Calusa tribe. The mounds are difficult to see today, as they have become overgrown with trees and shrubs over time. This area has intentionally been left undisturbed to return to nature. The boardwalk includes interpretive signs that describe the former village, the Kesson site, and the Calusa Indian way of life.
Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum
UPDATE January 9, 2024: Hurricane Ian devastated Sanibel Island in late September 2022. It caused extensive damage to many areas of the island. The Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum remains closed to the public for rebuilding. We recommend checking their official website below before visiting.
The museum houses an immense collection of seashells, including a display of some world-record sized shells. Learn about the cycle of shells. Exhibits explain their creation, the animals that live in the sea and how the shells end up on Sanibel Island. Learn how the local Calusa Indians utilized shells as tools in their day-to-day lives. Check the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum website for operating hours.
Sanibel Wildlife Reserves
More than half of Sanibel Island is made up of wildlife reserves. Ding Darling is by far the largest. There are several other reserves worth a visit scattered across the island.
Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation (SCCF) Preserves
The Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation and the citizens of Sanibel had the foresight and diligence to protect the island’s interior freshwater wetlands. In the 1970’s they bought back properties that were originally zoned for housing development. These areas are the natural preserves found today.
The SCCF Nature Center, on Saniblel-Captiva Road, is a great place to visit. As well as seeing the center’s exhibits, hike the Sanibel Slough Trails located directly behind the building. (Bikes are not allowed on this trail.) These short trails lead to an observation tower and a view the Sanibel River.
On my visit to Sanibel, I toured the Sanibel Garden Preserve. Biking was allowed on these trails.
Another great wildlife refuge to visit, Bailey Tract’s 100-acre inland reserve is dominated by freshwater plants and wildlife (which differs from “Ding” Darling’s mainly saltwater reserve).
Walking along the 1.75 miles of man-made dikes and trails, a first impression might be that Bailey isn’t as eye-catching as “Ding” Darling. However, this tract serves a very important purpose.
The man-made dikes and freshwater lakes were built to attract waterfowl. The hope is that over time, nature will return this tract to its original marsh state dominated by spartina grass.
This tract is rarely visited. I visited during high tourist season and had the whole place to myself. It was very peaceful so I saw lots of waterfowl, herons and egrets. And yes, there are alligators too.
The Beaches of Sanibel Island
Sanibel is known as one of the best shelling areas in North America.
What is Shelling?
Very simply, shelling is the search for seashells. With more than 400 species of multi-colored shells, you can spend hours in your quest. Watch out for a sore back from doing the ‘Sanibel Stoop’ all day.
Bowman’s Beach and Blind Pass are considered the best beaches. Located on the western side, and being further away from the hotels/resorts, these beaches are much quieter. Parking at all beaches is limited. Get there early. There are lots of places to park your bike.
Here’s a ranking of Sanibel’s best beaches.
- Bowman’s Beach
This pristine white sand beach is considered one of the best beaches in the Fort Myers – Sanibel area. With wide expanses and plenty of area to spread out, this beach is great for families with kids.
- Blind Pass Beach Park
Find great fishing and shelling at Blind Pass. The Mad Hatter restaurant, with its innovative cuisine, is located nearby.
- Sanibel Island Lighthouse Beach Park
This beach and fishing pier can get very busy during high season. The local landmark, the Sanibel lighthouse, is here too. Sorry you can’t climb the lighthouse.
- Sanibel Causeway Beaches
The causeway beaches are another good option when the main island beaches are too busy. The pull-offs are fine spots for fishing and a picnic. They’re also a good spot for water sports such as paddle boarding and windsurfing.
- Gulfside City Park (Algiers Beach)
- Tarpon Bay Beach
There are also two nice beaches located on neighboring Captiva Island that are worth a visit.
- Captiva Beach
This beach is located near the Captiva restaurants, such as the Mucky Duck. Captiva Beach is perfect for couples. Enjoy your dinner and then head to the beach for a romantic sunset. When Captive Beach gets busy during high season, a better option is Turner Beach to the south.
- Turner Beach
This wide beach is also one of the best places to view the sunset.
Best Things to Do for Families
For families, collecting shells and relaxing at the beach is a great way to spend your day on Sanibel Island. These are several interesting places for families to enjoy.
- Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum
This is a great place for kids to learn all about shells.
- Sanibel Sea School
This education center has activities and programs that teach visitors about Sanibel’s unique barrier island marine biosphere.
- Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife (CROW)
This clinic provides medical care for injured, sick and orphaned wildlife. Its goal is to rehabilitate and return these animals to their natural habitat. Although the clinic is not open to the public, CROW has a Visitor Education Center with interactive exhibits that demonstrate how they rescue these animals.
- Sanibel Island Farmer’s Market
Pick up some fresh baked goods and cheese before heading out for the day on the beach. The market is at City Hall on Sundays.
- Sanibel Historical Museum and Village
This historical village includes Bailey’s General Store, and several original homes and buildings from the early 20th century.
Know Before You Go
What is the Best Time to visit Sanibel Island?
The weather is great any time of year. The best time to see the migratory birds in the nature preserves is the winter months.
Directions to Sanibel Island?
Driving times: From Miami to Sanibel Island is 3 hours. From Tampa to Sanibel Island is 3 hours.
Flights: There are no flights to Sanibel Island. You can fly into Southwest Florida International Airport in Fort Myers.
Is there a toll for the Sanibel Island bridge?
Yes. When taking the causeway to the island, there is a vehicle toll. You do not pay the toll when exiting the island.
Are there Bike rentals in Sanibel Island?
Does Sanibel Island have Bike Trails?
Yes, the main roads (Sanibel-Captiva Road and Periwinkle Way) have either bike lanes on the roadways or paved bike paths alongside the road.
Is there Camping in Sanibel Island?
There is one RV park on Sanibel Island called Periwinkle Park. However, they have limited sites. A better option is to stay in nearby Fort Myers and drive to the island for the day. Nearby Koreshan State Park is a great option.
Is there shopping on Sanibel Island?
The main shopping and commercial district runs along Periwinkle Way. Find independently owned, boutiques, galleries and cafes along this street. Periwinkle Place is a top shopping destination for visitors. This beautifully landscaped area, with flowers and fountains, is a nice area to walk around and relax with many shopping and dining options as well.
Sanibel Island Attractions Map
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