You can have an active vacation here any time of year; Hilton Head’s subtropical climate ranges in temperature from the 50s (teens Celsius) in winter to the mid-80s (around 30 Celsius) in the summer. And if you’ve had your fill of historic sights in Savannah or Charleston, don't worry—the attractions on Hilton Head mainly consist of nature preserves, beaches, and other places to play.
The Gullah Heritage of Hilton Head
Tours that take a journey back in time are offered through Gullah Heritage Trail Tours (www.gullaheritage.com). Arrangements can be made by calling tel. 843/681-7066. Gullah culture is a West African–based system of traditions, art forms, customs, and beliefs. A 2-hour narrated tour takes you through the hidden paths of Hilton Head, where you’ll meet fourth-generation Gullah family members, relating firsthand stories of their traditions and even speaking Gullah for you. The tour also takes you to ruins or remnants of Hilton Head of yesterday, including a visit to a one-room schoolhouse, plantation tabby ruins, and a historic marker of the First Freedom Village. Tours depart at 10am and 2pm Tuesday to Saturday and at noon on Sunday, costing $32 for adults and $15 for children 11 and under. Tours depart from the Coastal Discovery Museum at 70 Honey Horn Dr.
The Coastal Discovery Museum, 70 Honey Horn Dr. (tel. 843/689-6767; www.coastaldiscovery.org), provides a concentrated dose of information about the Lowcountry’s ecology, history, and sociology. In 1990, the Town of Hilton Head bought 68 acres of landlocked flatlands (“Honey Horn”), historically used to grow cash crops such as rice and indigo, as a means of protecting it from development as a shopping center. The museum site contains about a dozen historic buildings, a few of them from before the Civil War. Guided tours go along island beaches and salt marshes or stop at Native American sites and the ruins of old forts or long-gone plantations. Children can search for sharks’ teeth with an identification chart. The nature, beach, and history tours generally cost $10 for adults and $5 for children 4 to 12. The dolphin and nature cruise costs $19 per adult and $13 per child (1–12), and a kayak tour goes for $32 per adult and $28 per child (5–12). Museum hours are Monday to Saturday 9am to 4:30pm and Sunday 11am to 3pm.
Hilton Head’s beaches are consistently ranked among the most beautiful in the world. Hilton Head Island’s official beach season is April 1st through September 30th of each year. The sands are extremely firm, providing a sound surface for biking, hiking, jogging, and beach games. In the summer, watch for the endangered loggerhead turtles that lumber ashore at night to bury their eggs. All beaches on Hilton Head are public, but much of the land bordering the beaches (and therefore access to it), is private property. Most beaches are safe, although there’s sometimes an undertow at the northern end of the island. At only the major beaches, lifeguards are posted, concessions are available, and you can rent beach chairs, umbrellas, and watersports equipment.
Most frequently used are North and South Forest beaches, adjacent to Coligny Circle (enter from Pope Ave. across from Lagoon Rd.). You can park in the lot opposite the Holiday Inn; the daily parking fee is $4. The adjacent beach park has toilets and a changing area, as well as showers, vending machines, and phones. It’s a family favorite.
There are a number of public-access sites to popular beach areas. Coligny Beach Park at Coligny Circle at Pope Avenue and South Forest Beach Drive (free street parking) is the island’s busiest strip of sand with toilets, sand showers, a playground, and changing rooms. Alder Lane, entered along South Forest Beach Road at Alder Lane, offers parking and is less crowded (metered parking 25[ce] for 15 min.). Toilets are also found here. Off the William Hilton Parkway, Dreissen Beach Park (metered parking 25[ce] for 30 min.) at Bradley Beach Road has toilets, sand showers, and plenty of parking as well as a playground and picnic tables. Of the beaches on the island’s north, I prefer Folly Field Beach (metered parking 25[ce] for 15 min.). Toilets, changing facilities, and parking are available.
The Audubon-Newhall Preserve, Palmetto Bay Rd. (www.hiltonheadaudubon.org), is a 50-acre preserve on the south end of Hilton Head Island. Here you can walk along marked trails to observe wildlife in its native habitat. Guided tours are available when plants are in bloom. Except for a scattered handful of public toilets, there are no amenities. The preserve is open from sunrise to sunset; admission is free, and it’s likely that your entire time within these laissez-faire acres will be unsupervised.
Also on the south end of the island is Sea Pines Forest Preserve, at the Sea Pines Resort, 32 Greenwood Dr. (tel. 843/363-4530; www.seapines.com), a 605-acre public wilderness area with marked walking trails. Nearly all the birds and animals known to live on Hilton Head can be seen here. Yes, there are alligators, but there are also less fearsome creatures, such as egrets, herons, osprey, and white-tailed deer. All trails lead to public picnic areas in the center of the forest. The preserve is open from sunrise to sunset year-round. Maps and toilets are available.
A little further afield, Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge (tel. 912/652-4415; www.fws.gov/pinckneyisland) is protected land with 115 prehistoric and historic sites. French and Spanish settlers inhabited Pinckney Island in the 1500s, with the first permanent settlement formed in 1708. The island is named for General Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, a signer of the U.S. Constitution. By 1818, more than 200 slaves were used to harvest sea-island cotton here. In 1975, the refuge was donated to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Today, it comprises four islands, including Corn, Little Harry, Big Harry, and Pinckney, the latter the largest of the islands with 1,200 acres. The islands are riddled with hiking and biking trails, and are home to large concentrations of white ibis, herons, and egrets; you may even spot osprey nests. Two of the island’s freshwater ponds were ranked among the top-20 wading-bird colony sites of South Carolina’s coastal plain. Alligators are also a common sight. To get here, take I-95 to S.C. exit 8; go east on Hwy. 278 toward Hilton Head for 18 miles to the refuge entrance. From Hilton Head itself, exit the island via Hwy. 278 west. The refuge, which can be visited during daylight hours (free admission), will be on your right after a 30-minute drive.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.