The best family-friendly places to view wildlife near Fort Myers
I wasn’t prepared to fall in love with Southwest Florida, but I fell hard! One of the reasons we love the Fort Myers area? Our kids love seeing animals. When researching things to do in the Fort Myers and Sanibel area, I found so many nature walks and sightseeing opportunities. The list was actually too long. Here are 4 family-friendly places to view wildlife in Southwest Florida near Fort Myers.
J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge
Everywhere you look around Sanibel Island, you’ll hear praise for the J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge. Within the refuge are trails, a lookout tower, and a driving tour. We tasted all three – and while we didn’t spot an alligator, we did see enough birds, fish, and crabs to reconcile that loss.
The J.N. “Ding: Darling Wildlife Refuge is 6,400 acres, which explains how it took us roughly two hours to explore, even though we traveled by car. If you’re staying on Sanibel Island, this would be a great area to ride bikes with your family! We walked the Shellmound Trail (more like a boardwalk than a trail- great for kids AND a stroller) and hoped to spot a bobcat but I’m fairly certain our three rowdy kids scared them all away.
Families should stop at the Visitor Center before taking the Driving Tour. The Visitor Center offers interactive exhibits that will engage even the youngest travelers. Also, the restrooms were voted the BEST in America, so that has to mean something!
Go here if: You are a bird lover or enjoy fishing. Consult the visitor center for fishing/boating rules.
Everglades Airboat Tour
Truth: The airboat tours you take in the Everglades aren’t really IN the Everglades- they are not allowed within the parameters of the National Park. Nonetheless, getting out on the water will allow you to see things you may not see from an observation deck- i.e. GATORS! Here’s a full recap of our airboat tour, but we also saw lots of fish and plenty of water birds like this egret. There are numerous tour operators throughout southwest Florida- from just south of Naples all the way to Everglades City.
Go here if: You need a little more adventure.
Lovers Key State Park
While Lovers Key State Park is located between Bonita Beach and Fort Myers Beach, once you’re inside the park, it feels as though you are miles away from civilization. On our first visit, we took the tram from the main parking lot just to access the south beach. This area is great for shelling and sunbathing.
On our second visit to Lovers Key, we hiked the Eagle Trail and walked along Lovers Key Beach next to the San Carlos Pass Bridge. It was here that we found many starfish near the shore (don’t remove them)! We were hoping to see some manatees, but this time we didn’t have any luck. However, the park is known for its bird and manatee populations. The best time for viewing manatees is December to February.
Go here if: You’d like to combine a trip to the beach with some wildlife viewing.
Manatee Park – Fort Myers
Manatee Park is an awesome place to view manatees in a non-captive environment. This water stays warmer than the Gulf thanks to a nearby power plant, so when the Gulf cools below 68 degrees, the manatees head here. The best time to see Manatees is December-February, but the Lee County Website gives current information as to the probability of seeing a manatee.
We visited in early January and saw at least 20 manatees. Unfortunately, the manatees stay underwater for 3-5 minutes at a time and only come up briefly, so they are difficult to capture on camera!
One of the experiences we hope to utilize in the future is using the park’s kayak launch! On our recent trip, we didn’t have room in the van for our inflatable kayak.
The park has many volunteers willing to assist you with information about the manatees. There are also many interpretive structures throughout the park. Restrooms, a gift shop, and a playground are also on site. The Manatee Park is located close to I-75, so it makes for a quick stop on your way to or from the airport.
Visting Fort Myers for the first time? Here’s my guide to Fort Myers, Florida!
Before you go: Southwest Florida is known for hot and humid weather! Make sure you wear breathable clothing and pack plenty of sunscreens (our favorite sunscreen!!). Don’t forget your water bottle, too!
Want someone else to handle your adventure? What about a private safari cruise to spot manatees, alligators, and dolphins? Click here for the cruise.
That’s our round-up of the best places to view wildlife near Fort Myers, Florida. Would you add any places to our list? What’s your family’s favorite part of southwest Florida?
Before you go: the Ultimate Florida Packing List