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5 Fun Things to Do While Sanibel Island RV Camping

| Updated Mar 12, 2021

Curious about Sanibel Island RV camping? Here's what to know…and what to see on this awesome island!

There is a lot to do in the greater Fort Myers area (where almost all of the campgrounds are located) but every time Jennifer and I are here, we spend the majority of our time out on Sanibel and Captiva Islands.

As soon as you cross the Sanibel Causeway ($6 toll road), you’ll understand that you’re in a special place.

There's only one campground on the island (more about in further down) but because of that causeway, the island is a great place for day camping and exploring.

We drive over in our motorhome and then head back to whichever mainland campground we're staying in at dusk.

About Sanibel Island

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Sanibel (and adjoining and tiny Captiva Island) is a barrier island sanctuary with a delicate ecosystem where over 67 percent of the lands on the island is protected through federal, municipal government, or private foundation ownership.

Sanibel and Captiva have unique biodiversity to them with the Gulf of Mexico on one side and San Carlos Bay on the other. Plus, they have the Sanibel River, Tarpon Bay, and plenty of wetlands.

Sanibel counts among a select few barrier islands in Florida with a freshwater river, which is why it attracts more wildlife (particularly alligators, river otters, and bobcats) than others.

When you get to Sanibel Island, your first stop should be the Sanibel Lighthouse and Lighthouse Beach Park.

There’s a great 4-mile nature trail at the SCCF Nature Center (due to wildlife, no pets allowed, unfortunately) and several preserves including the Periwinkle Preserve, Bob Wigley Preserve, Sanibel Gardens, and Bailey Homestead Preserve.

There's an excellent map that shows many of the great walking trails on Sanibel Island, including the ones mentioned above. You can download it here.

Sanibel Island RV Camping: 5 Things to Do

Sanibel Island RV camping lends itself to plenty of sunny relaxation, whether you are camped at that one island campground or visiting for the day and staying over near Ft. Myers.

The island offers some of the most spectacular beaches in Florida with mellow waves, near-shore sandbars, and amazing shelling along more than 15 miles of white-sand beachfront.

Parking at most beach accesses costs $5 an hour and they’re open 24 hours a day, but no overnight parking is allowed. Day camping is fine, though the parking fees sure can add up fast.  Always check current pricing before you go.

1. Shelling

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Shells photo by Phyllis Khare

While you’re on the beach, doing a bit of shelling is a must.

The islands rank number one on the continent for their beach shelling simply because of their geography. Sanibel Island bends into a curve at the bottom, rather than running parallel to the mainland like many other islands.

This acts like a glove that catches all the shells that would otherwise be swept out to sea. There’s a huge abundance and variety of seashells that end up here and you’ll find shell shops and the shell motif all over the island.

2. Lighthouse Beach Park

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Photo by Jesse Adair on Unsplash

When you get to Sanibel Island, your first stop should be the Sanibel Lighthouse and Lighthouse Beach Park.

The 98-foot lighthouse went into service in August 1884 at the insistence of cattle barons, who needed aid to navigate the tricky waters at Point Ybel.

When the U.S. Coast Guard decided to extinguish it in 1972, public protest kept it lit. It is still lit to this day. Today it marks a popular recreational area with the beach extending around the entire tip of the island and is one of the best places for shelling on the island.

3. Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum

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Shell Photo by Phyllis Khare

Further along the main road, you’ll come across the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum which is the only museum in the United States devoted solely to shells and mollusks (if you want to know what types of shells you’ve picked up, they have a handy shell guide on their website).

Here you can examine and learn about the role of shells in ecology, history, art, economics, medicine, religion, and other disciplines. They also hold daily interpretive beach walks with one of the scientists from the museum.

4. Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation Center

Almost right next to the shell museum, is the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation Center (SCCF).

The SCCF is dedicated to the conservation of coastal habitats and aquatic resources on Sanibel and Captiva and manages over 1,300 acres of land on the islands (and owns an additional 500 acres on nearby Pine Island).

They offer a wide array of educational programs for people of all ages, including beach walks, trail walks, boat tours, wading trips, and kayak tours plus classroom-based activities.


5. J.N. “Ding” Darling Wildlife Preserve

The crown jewel of Sanibel is the J.N. “Ding” Darling Wildlife Preserve.

This 6,354-acre wildlife refuge is named for Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist and pioneer environmentalist Jay Norwood Darling. It is home to 220 species of birds, more than 50 types of reptiles, and 32 different kinds of mammals.

It's one of the most popular places to explore for nature lovers while Sanibel Island RV camping.

The refuge features wonderful bird-watching spots, bike, and walking paths, winding canoe trails, and a 4-mile scenic drive. All of which are lush with seagrape, wax and salt myrtles, red mangrove, cabbage and sabal palms, and other native plants. It is known internationally as a birders’ mecca.

Check here before you show up so you can plan your visit and get the most out of this beautiful preserve. 

When you visit here, one of the best things to do is the Refuge’s 4-mile Wildlife Drive. The drive is open every day except Friday from 7:30 am to a half-hour before sunset.

You can drive, walk, or bike on this trail. Admission is $5 for vehicles or $1 to walk or bike. Your other option is to take a 90-minute guided tram tour scheduled through Tarpon Bay Explorers (reservations required at 239-472-8900).

There are also several nature trails throughout the preserve such as the 2-mile Indigo Trail which begins at the Visitor’s Center, the 1/3 mile Wulfert Keys Trail which leads out to the Pine Island Sound, and the 1/3 mile Shell Mound Trail. 

Currently, dogs are permitted on Wildlife Drive, Indigo Trail, and the Bailey Tract as long as they are kept on a leash no longer than 6 feet at all times. Click here for all rules and regulations of the Refuge.

Sanibel Island area RV Camping Sites are in high demand

As you might imagine, because of how densely populated this area is, there are quite a few campgrounds.

But they are all on the mainland, just across the causeway.

The only campground directly on the island is Periwinkle Park and Aviary. It is a special sort of bird sanctuary with many tropical birds (all were rescued). Perhaps because of that, no dogs are allowed on the premises. And because it is the only campground on Sanibel or the adjoining Captiva Island, it is extremely hard to find an opening.

We've tried for years and have yet to score s site! 

Fortunately, there are numerous other campgrounds just over the causeway on the mainland in and around Ft. Myers.

In our Florida's Gulf Coast Travel Guide, we list 10 campgrounds from Sarasota down to Bonita Springs beginning with cheaper state/county parks and then going into privately-owned campgrounds. We breakdown all the details from rates to amenities and more. 

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Sanibel Island area RV Camping Guide

Sanibel Island is just one of the 7 Gulf Coast destinations we cover in our Florida Gulf Coast Travel Guide.

We provide a suggested route and itinerary, links to multiple campgrounds and boondocking sites, and the best spots to see along the way.

You can hit everything in seven days, do a whirlwind weekend tour, or you can take your time and explore the area over a few weeks.

Get my Florida Gulf Coast Travel Guide

Mike Wendland

Published on 2021-03-12

Mike Wendland is a multiple Emmy-award-winning Journalist, Podcaster, YouTuber, and Blogger, who has traveled with his wife, Jennifer, all over North America in an RV, sharing adventures and reviewing RV, Camping, Outdoor, Travel and Tech Gear for the past 12 years. They are leading industry experts in RV living and have written 18 travel books.

2 Responses to “5 Fun Things to Do While Sanibel Island RV Camping”

March 12, 2021at5:53 pm, Kelly R said:

Wow!, have times changed. In 1973 we stopped by Sanibel on our way to the Keys, in our 1963 VW Westfalia. We just drove out there, drove around the island, walked the beaches, pulled off and parked for the night – not even a thought of reservations. Had a great time, but left because of the sand fleas. Ha! Camping and reservations just do not make sense to me. Yep, I’m getting old, I guess. Still camp as much as possible though.

March 12, 2021at1:28 pm, Jerry Harris said:

You’ll no doubt get tons of other suggestions for Sanibel. Chartering a boat to drop us off on Cayo Costa Island is one of our favorite activities. The island is 99% deserted and we have long stretches of the beach to ourselves.

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