I have been itching to go to "Ding" Darling for many years and we finally had the opportunity to on our way to the cruise. Not only do I love National Wildlife Refuges, but I also have been obsessed with their Facebook page. (If you do not follow them, go do it, it's a fantastic page.)
Anyways, we stayed overnight in nearby Fort Myers, which has more affordable hotels and a handful of breweries--we even found one that serves food (Big Blue Brewing). The next day we got up early and headed straight to Ding. The Wildlife Drive opens early, so we did that first rather than waiting for the Visitor's Center to open.
Fortunately we had our Duck Stamps (purchased from the ABA), so we didn't pay the entrance fee and slowly started into the park. The Wildlife Drive includes a little bit of all the habitat types, including freshwater marsh, seagrass beds, mangrove forest, open water, and tropical hardwood hammock. As we drove through we saw the regular suspects: herons, egret, and anhingas. Unfortunately at the time we visited, there was a red tide and tons of dead fish. TMI...but I may have thrown up because it smelled so bad.
The Wildlife Drive is definitely a great place to check out, probably would be better in any other season than summer. There are a few trails along it that lead out to piers or towers, but the majority is a paved path that is perfect for driving, biking, or a long walk.
After we got our fill of that, we headed to the Visitor's Center to check out the amazing bathrooms! I am an interpretive naturalist, I appreciate some good interpretive panels and the bathroom had some of the best. There was a beautiful mural made with some recycled materials of a manatee, alligator, and pelicans! The Visitor's Center was equally magnificent! There are tons of displays on the refuge, J. N. "Ding" Darling, duck stamps and more. There are also lots of cool displays for kids--definitely worth the visit. I even picked up some sweet Piping Plover earrings in the gift store.
All in all, it is a great birding refuge and I would love to visit again in a different season.
Here are the bird checklists from our visit: https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47663202.
Here is the refuge website: https://www.fws.gov/refuge/jn_ding_darling/.