Those who visit Hilton Head Island tend to value the tranquil atmosphere and natural beauty more than the bright lights and towering buildings of other popular destinations. A trip to the island is a breath of fresh air for those looking for an escape to wind down or have some quality time with friends and family. Having fun isn’t the exception, however, since the island is teeming with activities appealing to all ages that allow visitors to spend full days outdoors in the Carolina sunshine.
And sometimes that’s the goal: to explore the outdoors as much as you can!
Days at the beach, long bike rides exploring the winding public pathways, mornings spent paddling through the spartina grass or aboard a boat keeping an eye out for playful dolphins. That’s just the beginning of it!
For those planning a trip to Hilton Head and looking for something new to discover, why not plan on exploring a state park, wildlife refuge, or preserve during your next vacation? A great way to discover more of the region, we’ve collected a list of places that are just an easy drive away from the island. We recommend having a car to access these locations.
Hunting Island State Park
The most popular state park in South Carolina, Hunting Island is one of the six barrier islands surrounding Beaufort. Only a short drive from Beaufort’s downtown, it’ll take you anywhere from an hour to an hour and a half from Hilton Head, depending on the time of day and other traffic delays. Known to be a great place for camping, you’ll have the luxury of spending the day exploring this state park knowing you’ll have a comfortable bed back at your hotel or resort when it’s time to hit the hay.
Hunting Island’s five miles of beaches feel wilder than those on Hilton Head. With no hotels interrupting the tree line and an area filled with fallen trees known as the maritime graveyard, you’ll feel as though a pirate crew will show up at any moment to bury their treasure. We’re not the only ones who think the island is very cinematic, as many crews have filmed on and around Hunting Island, the most recent being the Netflix series, Outer Banks.
Which brings us to Hunting Island’s popular landmark that attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors every year: the Hunting Island Lighthouse. Built in 1859, and again in 1875 after its destruction during the Civil War, the current lighthouse was designed to be dismantled and moved. A very good design feature, since it did have to be relocated due to the threat of beach erosion. While repairs are being made, visitors aren’t currently able to climb the lighthouse, but that doesn’t mean it won’t make for a good photo to remember your trip by.
Other activities in the park include exploring the many nature trails, watching wildlife at the saltwater lagoon, taking a tour of nearby St. Phillips Island, going on a dolphin-watching cruise, and following the Penny Treasure Map to find four of the penny presses throughout the park. Hunting Island State Park also has a Nature Center where you can see exhibits with live animals and attend public programs throughout the week. To learn more, visit their website.
Skidaway Island State Park
Approx. 46 miles from Hilton Head
52 Diamond Causeway, Savannah, GA 31411
Located along the Skidaway River, a tidal river within Georgia’s Intracoastal Waterway, this state park is southeast of historic Savannah. An easy day trip to make, expect the drive to be anywhere from an hour and fifteen minutes, to an hour and a half (you’ll pass over the Talmadge Memorial Bridge that looks over River Street at the hour point if traffic is light).
Bring your walking shoes, as there are six miles of trails to explore. If you’d rather, rental bikes are available for your group to peruse the area at ease. Geocaching is a fun activity for groups in the park, and if you’d like to learn more—or find out what geocaching even is—click this link.
Another popular activity for visitors to Skidaway Island State Park is birding. The park is just one of the seventeen sites on the Colonial Coast Birding Trail along coastal Georgia. Shorebirds, songbirds, and wading birds can be seen year-round, with waterfowl making their appearance in the winter season. To learn more, click this link.
Fort McAllister State Historic Park
Approx. 62 miles from Hilton Head
3894 Fort McAllister Rd, Richmond Hill, GA 31324
Situated between the Ogeechee River and Redbird Creek, history buffs will love a visit to Fort McAllister State Park. Just off of I-95, getting to this park is an easy hour-and-a-half drive from Hilton Head Island. You won’t need to cut through downtown Savannah at all. Additional admission to enter the historic site will be required.
So, what is Fort McAllister? It’s the best-preserved Confederate earthwork fort that can be seen today. What seems like mounds of dirt, this fortification was designed to absorb naval attacks from the Union, and what was damaged could be repaired by using dirt and mud from the marsh. This fort was attacked seven times but stood strong until General Sherman’s “March to the Sea” in 1864. Today you can explore the historic grounds and learn more inside the onsite Civil War Museum.
Other activities include hiking, biking, boating, fishing, and even paddling. Rental equipment is available. Children will love taking a break on the playground inside the picnic area. This state park is also a stop on the Colonial Coast Birding Trail, and geocaching is also offered.
Pinckney Island Wildlife Refuge
Less than a mile from Hilton Head
Pinckney Wildlife Refuge, Bluffton, SC 29910
Pinckney Island Wildlife Refuge is so easily accessed from Hilton Head Island, that it’s impossible for you to leave the island without passing right by its entrance. Unless of course, you booked a flight out of Hilton Head Island Airport. Pinckney Island’s entrance is right smack dab in the middle of the two bridges it takes to get from mainland Bluffton to Hilton Head Island. And if you’re thinking, “well that’s close enough for me to walk/bike,” please don’t. We recommend reaching Pinckney by car for your safety. And speaking of safety, you should also leave your dog at home.
This island has gone through many different transformations over time. Its name comes from the Revolutionary War veteran, Major General Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, who owned a plantation on the land that grew the highly sought-after Sea Island Cotton. The plantation operated until the Civil War, and then was eventually sold to a couple who used the island as a hunting preserve. It was this pair who replanted trees and turned the plantation back into the natural oasis that can be seen today. The lands were then donated to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1975, allowing the land to be used as a wildlife refuge. The refuge actually includes multiple islands, but visitors are welcome on Pinckney Island.
Pinckney Island receives upwards of a quarter of a million visitors every year, with hiking, biking, and observing some of the local wildlife as the most popular activities. Those who want to bring their fishing rod will be pleased to find that saltwater fishing is permitted in the waters surrounding the island, but just stay away from any freshwater pond you find as you explore the refuge.
Savannah National Wildlife Refuge
Approx. 30 miles from Hilton Head
694 Beech Hill Lane, Hardeeville, SC 29927
About a forty-five minute drive from Hilton Head Island, the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge actually spreads across South Carolina and Georgia. It’s an easy drive, but you might want to skip it if you don’t have your own car. Apparently phone service isn’t too great on the property, and those who take a rideshare service out to the refuge, hardly ever find one to get back. This wildlife refuge also doesn’t permit dogs.
Well since you have your car with you–we can’t stress this enough–you’ll be able to enjoy driving the scenic Laurel Hill Wildlife Drive, a one-way loop that is named after a rice plantation that had once previously operated on the grounds. Please note that it is not a paved road, but a well-maintained gravel road, and you’ll be able to spot alligators along the way! Tune into AM 1610 for an audio tour that accompanies you on your journey.
Open year-round from sunrise to sunset, you’ll be able to also stop inside the Visitor Center from Monday to Friday, unless it’s a holiday. Visitors will love exploring the beautiful trails by foot or bike, and don’t forget your camera as you’ll want to snap a few pictures as you go! Fishing and hunting are also available on the refuge, and if you’d like to learn more, visit their website. Geocaching is also available.
Nature Preserves on Hilton Head Island
Sea Pines Forest Preserve
Within the Sea Pines property, passes are available to purchase at either gate
Tucked inside the popular resort community on the south end of Hilton Head Island, this forest preserve is just over six hundred acres of protected land that encourages guests to explore the outdoors while appreciating the natural beauty of the island. The first trails were created in the 1970s, and since then, the preserve has developed into a beautiful web of connected paths, docks, and boardwalks. Visitors are welcome to explore the area on their own or take a guided boat, wagon, or horseback riding tour through the grounds. Fishing expeditions are also available.
The Sea Pines Forest Preserve is open from sunrise to sunset, and all that is asked of visitors is that they stay on the trails at all times and do not swim in any waterways. Alligators are known to live in the preserve, and just like everywhere on the island, visitors are asked to leave them be and that feeding or harassing these animals is illegal. Another thing to keep in mind is that even though Hilton Head is very bike-friendly, the trails within the forest preserve are better by foot.
Audubon Newhall Preserve
55 Palmetto Bay Rd, Hilton Head Island, SC 29928
Hidden in plain sight along Palmetto Bay Road, is the fifty-acre nature preserve. Often mistakenly included with the Sea Pines property, this preserve is outside the resort community’s gates and is free to explore–although, donations are quite welcome! Operated by the Hilton Head Island Audubon Society, the preserve is kept as a native forest ecosystem for its diverse wildlife that includes over 140 bird species. Open every day from sunrise to sunset, visitors can join in on the free guided tours that are held every Tuesday morning at 8:30am.
Whether you’re interested in bird watching or not, the Audubon Newhall Preserve is a great space for those wanting to take a beautiful walk in a peaceful setting. There are about a mile’s worth of trails available to explore, and if you’d like to bring your dog along, the preserve only asks that you keep it on a leash. Something else to keep in mind is to refrain from picking flowers or collecting pine cones.