Finding great places to go biking in Southwest Florida can be a challenge. Most tourist hotspots are built around motor vehicles, not pedal power. With that said, there are more options than you might think. Sanibel Island is one of the most popular places in Southwest Florida for biking enthusiasts. But what makes Sanibel Island such a haven for cycling fanatics? On Sanibel, for instance, the authorities have constructed several impressive trails that cut across the island, providing excellent access to its sites and attractions, without the need to ride on the road.
Biking on Sanibel Island is popular among visitors and locals for a number of reasons. This includes the breathtaking views that can be seen while biking, as well as over 20 miles of bike trails to choose from. Riders also have numerous bike shops in the area to rent equipment from.
If you’re planning a trip to Sanibel Island and plan on doing some biking, our comprehensive guide below will provide you with essential information to make your trip a success.
If you’re somebody who has an active mindset, you’ll love Sanibel Island. Twenty-two miles of paved bike-specific trails crisscross the island, making it perfect for anyone who loves getting outdoors and going for an adventure. What’s more, because the island is relatively flat, you can enjoy the trails no matter what your level of fitness. There’s some undulation, but not much, making it the perfect place for a spot of riding on a leisurely afternoon.
So what are the best bike paths to enjoy while you’re on Sanibel Island?
The trail to Bowman’s beach is probably the most popular among people who know the area well. It snakes its way towards the coast through some of the quieter quarters until you eventually meet the sea. Here you’ll find the quiet Bowman’s Beach - a clean and pristine enclave where you can collect seashells, enjoy the sand, or simply lounge in the sun for a little while.
Another popular trail is the one that follows Periwinkle Way. This route takes cyclists past the very best that the island has to offer in terms of attractions, with plenty of shops and restaurants along the way. Furthermore, the route is physically separated from the street, meaning that you don’t have to contend with traffic. It is ideal for families and children who want to explore Sanibel but stay safe at the same time.
The most popular trail on the island runs through the J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge. This reservation that runs along most of the north of the island is a combination of marsh and water inlets and is famous for its native bird species population. If you want to cycle through the area, you can go on the Wildlife Drive Loop which is just over four miles. There is a fee of $1 per cycle, which you pay on entry.
Sanibel is an island packed to the rafters with sights for tourists to visit. But interestingly, you don’t have to travel to these by car - many are right on the island’s many bike trails.
Take the Middle Gulf Cemetery, for instance. This resting place is of great historical significance to the area, with some of the original Sanibel settlers buried here. Interestingly, the Middle Gulf Cemetery is quite remote and only accessible from the bike trails that run past it. You can get there on foot, but it is a long walk from the near parking lot.
Another popular trail leads to Sanibel’s iconic lighthouse. The original purpose of the tower was to warn ships traveling up the west coast of Florida of the many rocks and outcrops that line the Sanibel Coast. Today it is still in use and a popular tourist attraction - a place you can walk right up to if you want. Bike trails on Sanibel Island provide excellent views of the lighthouse and offer a great way to view the incredible site without having to worry about parking or traffic congestion.
Many cyclists also like to ride on the Sanibel Causeway - a three-mile-long crossing that connects the island with the mainland. While you can cycle it, many tourist cyclists prefer to avoid traffic and admire it from afar. It’s worth noting that the causeway has a steady incline and decline that may be a hefty challenge for inexperienced riders, so caution should be exercisd.
The causeway is quite spectacular when viewed in person and rises more than seventy feet out of the water. On either end of the bridge is the Causeway Islands Park, a recreational area where you can stop off for a rest break or a spot of paddling. It’s also a fun place to do a bit of people-watching, especially the kite surfers out in the bay, sailing through the choppy aquamarine waters.
The J.N. Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge takes up an enormous chunk of the north of the island and is by far the most significant attraction in the area. The refuge has its origins in the aftermath of WWII. Developers wanted to build in the area following the expansion of Fort Myers, but local Jay Norwood Darling wasn't happy with their plans. He saw the ecological significance of the region and petitioned then-president Harry S. Truman directly to block construction. Surprisingly, Truman agreed and signed an executive order in 1945, bringing the Sanibel Wildlife Refuge into being.
The refuge is the largest undeveloped mangrove ecosystem anywhere in the US and is famous for its migratory birds. It occupies some 2,800 acres and is now a designated Federal Wilderness area, giving it special protection.
As discussed above, there is a four-mile bike trail that passes through the area, allowing cyclists to take in the breathtaking natural beauty and do a spot of bird watching. If you plan on viewing the Sanibel Island wildlife, don’t forget to bring your binoculars - most birds make their nests far away from the coast, out on the limbs of land that stretch into the water.
For cyclists who like botany, the area offers particular interest. J.N. Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge offers submerged seagrass beds, cordgrass marshes, and, of course, beautiful mangrove forests that stretch partially into the water. The nature reserve is pristine and home to some of the rarest and most endangered species in North America, including an array of predatory birds. In total, experts believe that the refuge is home to more than 245 bird species - the highest diversity of anywhere in the whole of Florida.
While cycling is a fun activity, safety is always a concern. Many visitors traveling to the region worry that riding their bicycles will put them at a high risk of an accident.
The local authorities, however, have invested heavily in making cycling through Sanibel as safe as possible - at least for those who stick to the bike-specific trails.
As discussed earlier, Sanibel is home to over twenty miles of winding, paved cycling trails that take you past all of the most important sites on the island. Most of the routes are well away from the road and give you a scenic tour that you wouldn’t get if you were stuck in the car. Paths that run close to the street are separated from the traffic like a regular sidewalk.
As for the trails themselves, they’re wide and smooth, making them ideal for children and families alike. You don’t need to be an expert touring biker to traverse them - they’re suitable for everyone.
The Sanibel local authorities offer a range of helpful amenities for cyclists along all their bike-specific routes, so you don’t have to worry about things like bike storage if you stop for something to eat. Just chain your bike to the bicycle racks and off you go. The trails also have water fountains along the way, helping you avoid dehydration.
The Sanibel bike trails aren’t any old trail you might find in your home town. The League of American Bicyclists officially recognizes them through its Bicycle Friendly America program. The organization awarded the trails silver medal in 2014, something only four towns in Florida have achieved.
In summary, cycling through Sanibel Island is safe. The authorities have separated the trails from the rest of the road system and provided amenities along the way to prevent you from getting dehydrated on hot days, just in case you forget your water bottle.
The short answer is “no” - you’re not allowed to ride your bicycle on the beach in Sanibel. With that said, you probably wouldn’t want to. Many of the beaches on Sanibel Island are covered with loads of shells that would make for a challenging ride.
You can, however, park your bike up next to the beach using one of the many racks provided and then go for a lounge while you recover from all that exercise.
Here are some of the beaches that you might want to stop off at on your travels through beautiful Sanibel:
Thus, while you can’t ride your bike on the beaches in Sanibel, you can cycle to them easily and store your bicycle on the racks provided for simple beach access. The island is only 12 miles long, so the current cycle paths offer excellent coverage, giving you quick access to practically all the beaches in the area.
Many people see the majestic structure of the Sanibel Causeway and immediately want to hop on their bikes and make the crossing. But are you allowed to ride across it?
The answer is yes and, what’s more, it’s free. If you’re traveling from the Fort Myers direction, you don’t have to pay the regular $6 bridge toll.
The causeway is three separate bridges that connect small islands along the route. Each of these islands is manmade and transformed into popular parks. For cyclists keen on exploring the area, they’re a great place to stop, take in the views, and enjoy some of the attractions that Sanibel has to offer.
The causeway itself is an impressive piece of engineering, and one of the highest points for a long way. Cycling across it, therefore, provides you with fabulous views of the J.N. Ding Darling Nature Refuge, Fort Myers and the Gulf of Mexico. On a clear day, you can see for miles, allowing you to get your bearings and think about where you want to explore next.
The Sanibel Causeway is three miles long and runs between Punta Rassa on the mainland to Sanibel Lighthouse on Sanibel. The current tolls for island-bound vehicles are $6 for cars (and an additional $3 per axle) and $2 for motorcycles. As mentioned above, cyclists can cross for free in either direction. When the bridge opened in 1963, it was one of the longest causeways in America, and is still an impressive structure to this day. It is made of concrete girders in three separate sections, which look a little bit like stilts sticking out of the ocean.
Sanibel is part of the same chain of islands as Captiva - one of the most popular destinations in the Fort Myers area. Many tourists, therefore, want to know whether they can cycle to Captiva from Sanibel and, if so, how.
Captiva Island sits just off the northwest coast of Sanibel and is the smaller of the two. If you continue traveling along the main road that runs through the center of Sanibel, you’ll eventually reach a small bridge that leads to Captiva. While the bridge isn’t as impressive as the Sanibel Causeway, it gets the job done. You can cycle across the bridge free of charge, and then you’re right in the middle of the action on Captiva island.
Just be warned, the official bike trail ends when you reach Blind Pass. There is no bike-only route on the bridge itself, so you’ll have to rejoin the main traffic. On the other side, however, the bike trails start again. Captiva offers its own network, separated from the roadway.
Here are some of the locations you can visit in Captiva by bicycle:
Biking from Sanibel to Captiva is a little more difficult than cycling through Sanibel alone. If you make an effort, though, you can enjoy some of the most peaceful scenery in the area. Don’t forget to check out some of Captiva’s unique and exciting restaurants, like the Bubble Room, if you make the trip.
Most visitors like to go biking in Sanibel Island during the winter and early spring, from roughly the start of December to the end of April. Because Sanibel has a tropical climate, the weather remains mild at this time of year, providing ideal conditions for riding. Chilly weather and frosts are rare, but it is not too hot to make cycling in the sun unbearable. If you’re from a temperate region, expect similar conditions to what you might have on a regular, sunny spring day.
Hotel rates, however, tend to be highest during this season, making it a challenge to find affordable accommodation options. For this reason, some tourists decide to travel later in the year, between May and June. During the late spring and early summer, temperatures are much higher, but often still manageable. If you do decide to go cycling at this time of year, we’d recommend taking plenty of sunscreen and water and avoiding cycling in the middle of the day.
Sanibel and the surrounding islands are less busy during the fall season. Hotel prices are much lower at this time of year, but if you book a holiday, you risk it being canceled due to adverse weather conditions. September to November are particularly dangerous in the Gulf of Mexico. It isn’t always possible to predict when and where a storm will land or how severe it will be.
The modern cycle market is incredibly varied. At one end, you have pure road racing bikes, with their skinny wheels, narrow tires, and wide gear range. At the other end, you have big, burly downhill mountain bikes with thick tires designed to soak up the biggest hits on the trail.
Cycling in Sanibel is very tame, so you shouldn’t need a specialty bike. Touring or hybrid bikes will suit most people the best. They offer wide tires, smooth steering, and come with storage options, like panniers, if you want to take picnic items with you. A regular store-bought mountain or road bike will suffice too since there are very few undulations, and the trails that run across the island are paved. You don’t need to go off the beaten track.
Many people choose to tour Sanibel on electric bikes - pedal cycles with batteries built into the frame that provide additional forward thrust when you engage the crank. With this type of bicycle, you can cover vast distances quickly and almost effortlessly, thanks to the battery cell assistance.
Fortunately, you don’t have to buy a bike before you go to Sanibel or go the hassle of loading one onto a plane. There are plenty of places where you can rent one for the day.
Here are some of your bike rental options in and around Sanibel:
As you can see, there are several places where you can rent a bike in Sanibel. What’s more, not all shops offer just the standard fare - some offer novel forms of pedal transport, like tricycles, which can be a lot of fun if you’re cruising around.
What if you already have a bike that you love and you want to bring it to Sanibel to experience the bike trails? It turns out that you have several options.
If you’re driving, put your bike on a bike carrier or take it apart and store it in the trunk. Tow bar bike racks that fit at the rear of your vehicle are the best. Roof-mounted versions are okay, but you need to be careful when entering height-restricted areas - don’t forget they’re there! Strap on carriers are the least desirable, but will still do the job.
The second option is to fly your bike. If you decide on this option, you’ll need a bike transport case. Many companies offer these, including Thule, Evoc, and Scicon. Most bags are made of soft material with a little padding, but there are also some rigid versions too for extra protection if you own an expensive model. Just be warned that if you decide to use this method, you’ll have to pay more for luggage.
The final option is to send your bike to Sanibel via courier. Sometimes you don’t want to fool around with a giant box at the train station or the airport and would just prefer a regular shipping service to deliver your bike to the island for you. Fortunately, many carriers, including UPS and FedEx, offer specialized services for shipping your bike and provide pickup points. For one-off trips, shipping is probably the best all-round option. Here you avoid spending money on car bike racks and carry cases (which can both cost more than $300).
If you’re planning on going on a Sanibel Island bike adventure, it pays to go prepared.
First and foremost, you’ll need a water bottle or a backpack with a water bladder. The days on Sanibel Island can be long and hot, even in the colder months of the year. You need about eight ounces of fluid for every fifteen minutes you spend cycling in the sun.
Second, you’ll want to ensure that you’re wearing the right clothes for the occasion. If you hop on a bike clothing website, you’ll find that the majority of items for sale feature “four-way stretch” material. This material is a combination of polyester and latex, which allows it to move in any direction, unlike regular cotton clothing. It is way more comfortable if you plan on spending the entire day in the saddle. You can get both shorts and leggings made of this material.
Third, you’ll want to wear head, knee, and elbow protection, just in case you crash. If possible, also wear gloves. These will stop your hands from getting sore gripping the handlebars, and prevent grazes on the palms of your hand if you have to put them down to break your fall.
Next, you’ll want to consider some of the non-essentials that you might want to bring with you, such as food and binoculars, if you’re going on a tour of the nature reserve. Don’t forget to use sunscreen if you’re riding with exposed skin.
Is biking not your speed? Check out the following walking trails in Sanibel Island:
In addition to the walking trails mentioned above, there are also plenty of other things to do in Sanibel Island. Shelling on Sanibel Island is a local and visitor favorite thanks to the wide variety of shells that can be found. If you plan on going shelling during your visit to the island, check out our shelling tips that will help you have a successful shelling experience. Visiting one of Sanibel's waterfront restaurants is also a great way to bookend your day.
Are you planning on going cycling in Sanibel Island? If so, then you’ve made the right call. Not only are the trails well maintained and award-winning, but there is some lovely scenery to see on the way. You can cycle from the Causeway in the east that connects the island to Fort Myers through to North Captiva, allowing you to explore everything along the way.
Biking in Sanibel Island is a favorite activity among visitors, which is why so many people choose to stay in vacation rentals in the area. This is where Royal Shell can help you. We've been specializing in Sanibel Island vacation rentals for over 20 years. Looking for a quaint Sanibel Island cottage rental for a romantic getaway? We've got plenty for you to choose from. Bringing your whole family and need more room? We can find a Sanibel Island beach house rental that's perfect for your entire family.
When you're ready to find the perfect vacation rental for your Sanibel Island vacation, check our availability or contact us and one of our vacation specialists will assist you.
Note: Sanibel Island has a 7-day to 30-day minimum stay requirement which varies by property.