Sanibel Island is located off the west coast of Florida near Fort Myers. The 15 by 5 mile island is best known for its seashells and the “Sanibel Stoop” (bent at the waist collecting shells).
Sanibel offers all the modern conveniences without all the modern high rises. Buildings may only be as tall as the highest tree, approximately three stories.
By car, the island is accessed via the Sanibel Causeway for a $6 toll. The road extends through Sanibel to Captiva Island.
Given the Captiva Island beaches are not dog friendly and Annie, my Doberman, is my sidekick, I didn’t make it to Captiva, though I had plenty to do for a day in Sanibel.
Enjoy a Beach
Due to traffic congestion and limited parking, especially on a holiday weekend, I recommend arriving to Sanibel Island early. I actually got a late start but found plenty of parking at the less popular beach, Gulfside City Park Beach, around 9am. I paid the $5 parking/hr, took advantage of the restroom facilities and planned on a two hour stay.
Some may wonder why I’d pick Gulfside City Park Beach over the most popular on the island, Bowman’s Beach. Well, I wanted a quiet one. And for the most part, especially with the foggy morning weather, I got my wish.
Annie and I strolled along the sandy shore as kids frolicked in the lapping waves and shell searchers scooped up their beloved prizes. The expert shellers stood in ankle deep water and used their shell scoopers to pick out their favorites.
Gulfside City Park Beach is on the same side of Sanibel Island as Bowman’s Beach, thus both offer sandy shores and shelling opportunities. As a result, it is a nice alternative for less crowds, if you can do without the kayak launch, trails, and fitness station amenities found at Bowman’s Beach.
Stroll Through JN Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge.
After our two hours at Gulfside City Park Beach, we popped down the road to JN Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge. This refuge may be visited by car, bike or on foot. Though the parking is free, driving through the refuge costs $10 while bicyclists and pedestrians must pay $1.
I parked near the nice, air-conditioned education center, picked up a map, and walked to the short path to the entrance. I gained entry for free with my national parks card and followed the Indigo Trail made of crushed shell through Florida’s natural habitat.
Along the way, I detoured onto the boardwalk and watchtower. Don’t miss this area loaded with birds including anhinga, ducks, ibis, and the roseate spoonbill. There was also an alligator!
We carried onto the end where walkers may turn right and walk along the road against traffic for a 4.4 mile loop or return along the same path for 3.8 miles. While normally I’d pick the loop, I didn’t want to walk alongside the road, so I retraced my steps and afterward, I just drove the road where I saw more birds.
TIP: Had I been without a dog, I would have parked here for free and ridden my bike through the preserve and to one of the beaches.
Go for a Bike Ride
Speaking of riding bikes, Sanibel Island features 25 miles of bike paths and bike riding might be the most popular thing to do here behind shelling. Bikes are extremely handy for the limited parking and the spread out shopping. There isn’t a distinct downtown as the restaurants and shops are scattered alongside the main road which the main bike path follows. I highly recommend this mode of transportation!
Visit Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum
Another free place to park is at the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum. Despite it being national, it is not part of the National Parks system, and $23.95 was too rich for me since I’m not a shell person. It is, however, affiliated with many other not-for-profit organizations and provides many discounts for which I didn’t qualify.
The museum was started by a local shell collector in 1984 with a $10,000 bequest. After organizing a board, teaming up with a malacologist, and ultimately being deeded 8 acres of land by the Matthews, permitting and building began on Sanibel Island.
Eleven years later, the museum opened as the only museum devoted solely to shells and mollusks in the USA. It continues to be the only museum devoted to shells and mollusks and as a result has “national” in its name.
Had I realized the museum included aquariums, I might have been more inclined to visit since I love SCUBA diving, but I didn’t want to leave Annie in VANgo in such warm temperatures, despite having a fan. The museum is kid friendly and air-conditioned, so it is a good option for a hot afternoon on Sanibel Island. And if you can’t make it, you may at least check out their octocam!
Visit the Sanibel Island Lighthouse
From the shell museum, I backtracked to see the Sanibel Island Lighthouse. The lighthouse is located in Lighthouse Beach Park on the eastern tip of the island. In addition to the lighthouse, the park includes picnic tables, restrooms, a fishing pier, and of course another beach for shelling. It is a very popular area, so arrive early or late to get a $5/hr parking space.
The Sanibel Lighthouse was constructed in 1884. It is 98 feet tall and has 127 steps. The lighthouse was automated in 1949, and later, in 1971, the coast guard proposed its closure. Instead, people of Sanibel lived there for free in exchange for its upkeep. In 2004, the coast guard finally gave the lighthouse to Sanibel Island.
Watch the Sunset
I visited it near sunset time, so after a brief stroll around the light, I walked out to the fishing pier to take in the sun falling below the opposite side of the island.
PS. It is my understanding that Bowman’s Beach also affords a lovely sunset view.
Stop for the Gopher Tortoise
Before I left Sanibel Island, I couldn’t help but snap a photo of the “Gopher Tortoise Crossing” sign. It intrigued me enough to do some googling. Be sure to stop for the Gopher Tortoise! Due to the conflict between human development and the tortoises’ upland habitat requirement, the species population has declined 80% and is considered threatened.
Gopher tortoises are considered “keystone species” as their burrows provide homes for more than 350 species native to Florida, including the State-threatened eastern indigo snake. Consequently, Sanibel Island is actively protecting its sizable population. Wish I would have seen one!
Anyway, Annie and I enjoyed a great day on Sanibel Island, and I could easily see visiting for a long weekend, like so many were doing the President’s Day Weekend. In fact, I almost considered staying an extra day and boondocking in the large shell museum parking lot, but from what I have read, Sanibel is well patrolled and doesn’t want campers on the island. As a result, I found a Cracker Barrel near Fort Myers for the night and planned on exploring around Pine Island and Cape Coral in the morning. ETB