A Day (Not) at the Beach on Hilton Head Island

We all know Hilton Head Island has an abundance of amazing beaches. Now let's explore the other fun activities you can dive into on family vacation.

By: Carrie Hamblin

Photo By: GettyImages/ideabug

Photo By: GettyImages/Rayanne Piraino for EyeEm

Photo By: Courtesy of the Hilton Head Island Visitor & Convention Bureau

Photo By: Courtesy of the Hilton Head Island Visitor & Convention Bureau

Photo By: Courtesy of the Hilton Head Island Visitor & Convention Bureau

Photo By: Amanda Major

Photo By: Jeff Gale / Island Skiff Adventure Tours

Photo By: Courtesy of Palmetto Dunes Oceanfront Resort

Photo By: Courtesy of Pirates of Hilton Head

Photo By: Courtesy of Palmetto Dunes Oceanfront Resort

Photo By: Courtesy of the Hilton Head Island Visitor & Convention Bureau

Photo By: Courtesy of Palmetto Dunes Oceanfront Resort

Make Some Nature Discoveries

Hilton Head is literally dripping with nature. You saw the Spanish Moss adorning the oak trees, right? You’ll want to visit the 69-acre Coastal Discovery Museum to interact with all the island ecosystems. This Smithsonian affiliate has trails and gardens and low country animals galore — like frogs and lizards, an American alligator named Lawrence, a couple of resident horses and a seasonal butterfly enclosure. It also has a popular Kids Zone with toys, games and costumes. Thursday's Discovery Night at the Museum is an opportunity for some hands-on education — taking a stab at a local craft or learning about a particular animal. Portions of the museum are open only certain days or times so call in advance or check the website for the schedule of what's on.

Hike Around a Wildlife Refuge

Throw on the backpack and spend a few hours hiking around Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge. Just a few minutes' drive from HGTV Dream Home 2020, this 4,000-acre preserve features 14 miles of wilderness trails. You'll share your serenity with white-tailed deer, red fox, bald eagles — probably some bobcat, definitely American alligators — but, ooh, wait, is that a painted bunting? Ok, let's just focus on the 250 bird species found here! The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service offers eight suggested walks, ranging in length from the short jaunt to Ibis Pond (1.2 miles round-trip) to the longer excursion across the refuge to White Point (7.8 miles round-trip). The first is a paradise for wildlife photographers and a doable trek for kids. The second offers wild isolation with views of neighboring islands from a small beach. Make your own way around the refuge or take one of the Coastal Discovery Museum's weekly tours. Note: There are no concessions or restrooms, so this activity is especially great for families with older kids and good walkers.

Bike the Island

Hilton Head consistently tops lists as one of the most bike-friendly cities in the U.S. Playground, park, restaurant, shop or beach — its 60+ miles of dedicated bike lanes and multiuse pathways lead to all the popular island destinations. Biking will wind up being your preferred way to get around in general, but why not first take one of the self-guided tours on the city's website to get a sense of all Hilton Head is and has to offer. The 10-mile Island History Pathway Route takes you from Fish Haul Beach Park to Mitchelville Freedom Park, past hundreds of years of island history. There's also a 7-mile Beach Route, where you can preview the potential spots to stake your umbrella later. Bikes are welcome in the Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge too. (And they'll certainly make that trek to White Point feel a little shorter!) Bring your own wheels or rent them on the island and brush up on the rules of the road before you head out.

Take a Wildlife Tour in a Kayak

If you prefer paddles to pedals, rent a couple of kayaks and take the family out on the water to see Hilton Head from the water bird perspective. Depending on the time of year and the route you explore, you'll find something (or someone!) different. Broad Creek is a great place to spot egrets and herons. Visit Calibogue Sound to encounter bottlenose dolphins and manatees. Jarvis Creek is a wonderful place for kids to learn the basics and for you to find your paddle arms! Guide yourself or hire one of the many island guides to show you the secret spots. Between the creeks and marshes, lagoons and marinas, there is no shortage of water for exploration. And from loggerhead sea turtles to otters — you never know who will join you on your journey.

A Day on Daufuskie Island

Daufuskie is an eclectic little barrier island south of Hilton Head, accessible only by boat and adored by everyone who discovers it: art lovers, history buffs, golfers, beachcombers and wildlife enthusiasts of all stripes. Hop on the ferry departing the closest Hilton Head marina, rent golf carts or bikes at the ferry landing in Daufuskie and then spend the day exploring. Visit the local shops and studios of the island's many artisans. Take a self-guided tour of Daufuskie Community Farm. The goats are especially popular with the young ones. Enjoy the local produce and fresh seafood at the island's restaurants. Get schooled in Daufuskie's American Indian, Gullah and Civil War history through a guided tour. Daufuskie Trail Rides offers historic tours of the island on horseback for those ages 10 and over, customized to interest. And — get that camera ready — it also offers oceanfront rides along the gorgeous Daufuskie beach. Azure skies above, soft white sand below, the gentle lapping of the Atlantic and dolphins playing offshore. Book your ferry and transportation on the island in advance and your private horseback rides a week in advance (groups limited to six people).

Spend Some Time in Sea Pines

Sea Pines is a resort community on the southern half of Hilton Head Island with a wealth of opportunity for family recreation. Pay the gate fee for visitors and start your afternoon adventure at Lawton Stables. A family trail ride through the Sea Pines Forest Preserve is on order for ages 8 and up and a pony ride around the grounds for younger visitors. All ages will love feeding and visiting with the goats, ponies, chickens and donkeys at the small-animal farm. Tip: Bring a little container to hold Lawton Stables' 25-cent feed. When you're ready for your own feed, head over to Harbour Town, the Sea Pines village center, so to speak. While you're waiting for your table at one of the area restaurants, there's shopping for some family members and a popular playground for others. Face-painting, magic tricks and live music animate the evenings. Climb the iconic Harbour Town Lighthouse for a bird's-eye panorama of the island and a little history tour via photos and artifacts on the way up. End your day with ice cream cones from Cups & Cones and stake out a place on Harbour Town Pier for one of the best sunset vantage points on the island.

Say Hi to the Dolphins

They're playful, they're personable and they're everywhere around Hilton Head. No, not folks from Ohio — bottlenose dolphins! Want to get up close and personal? Take a dolphin excursion. Island Skiff Adventure Tours offers fantastic 2-hour tours following a guide through the Hilton Head salt marshes, creeks and waterways in your own skiff or mini speedboat. You travel 25-30 miles, stopping for dolphin and other wildlife and learn about the history of the area as you go. And these guys know where to go. In late spring and early summer you'll see baby dolphins, and on low tide tours you may glimpse a strand feed! Tours are available to everyone ages 5 and up, but you need to be 18 to drive — sorry, kids. Plan to get wet and, by the way, that cooler on the boat is there for your snacks.

A Reel Family Adventure

How about a Hilton Head family fishing trip? Being surrounded by water means there is certainly no shortage of opportunity to cast a line, from land or from boat. Warm up on the pier in Jarvis Creek Park and then stake your spot in a creek or along the shore. Or hop aboard one of the island's many private fishing charters. The experienced charters know how to organize your adventure around the ages of family members, keeping younger kids entertained with easy catches and older kids challenged with larger game. Professional guides are also knowledgeable about what is in season, where to find it and size and catch limits. Shelter Cove Marina has a private charter for any group size and skill level. Don't forget your South Carolina fishing license, required for ages 16 and up.

A Treasure-Trove of Fun

Everyone's onboard for an adventure at sea! Take your young pirates to Pirates of Hilton Head for a real-life treasure hunt aboard the Black Dagger ship, complete with a smelly nemesis, Stinky Pete. All young swashbucklers get dressed up, tattooed and pick pirate names, so you'll want to arrive early for this adventure. If junior is more Ariel than Jack Sparrow, reserve a spot on the Mermaid Encounter Boat Tour through Mermaid of Hilton Head. On this adventure, Pinky Plankton and Sailor Scruffy take your family around Hilton Head waters to find Mermaid Nina. She needs your protection from the evil Professor Al G, who wants to capture her and put her into a tank. Mermaid of Hilton Head also offers mermaid swim classes to learn to use and care for that gorgeous tail! These specialty boat tours are a blast for younger kids and memorable for everyone.

Tee Up With the Family

Millions of visitors flock to Hilton Head Island each year for world-class golfing. It is a 33-course island, after all, with seven courses nationally ranked. If you have even one family member who enjoys the sport, everyone should take the opportunity to learn. Palmetto Dunes Oceanfront Resort offers a variety of programs designed by former PGA Tour Professional Doug Weaver. Go to school as a family, with one-day and three-day private instruction for up to five people, customized to the group members' skill levels and requirements. Or take clinics focused on the fundamentals and tailored to particular ages, like Little Swingers for ages 3-7 and Junior for ages 6-18. Parents Night Out classes get kids up to speed with two hours of instruction while you get time for a quiet meal and a cocktail.

See the Island From Above

We've played in the ocean and we've explored on land, and now it's time to take to the skies. You've never seen Hilton Head like this before! For ages 10 and older, professional guides offer families an eagle-eye view of the island on an exciting zipline tour. For families with younger kids (ages 5 and up), take an Arial Adventure Challenge on one of the sky playground courses. You create your own route on this one, and at your own pace, but you are safely harnessed and hooked in and rangers are nearby to assist. Book on Zipline Hilton Head's website in advance and don't forget a strap for that camera or phone!

A Bevy of Water Sports

Does it qualify as beach time if it’s just the sand in your suit? Have the coolest family experience ever with a private group surf lesson through Hilton Head Outfitters. A professional certified instructor teaches surfing fundamentals, ocean safety and surfing history while you're having an unforgettable time as a family. Group lessons are available for ages 7 and up, with individual instruction for ages 5 and 6. If surfing isn't your chosen board sport, Outside Hilton Head offers instruction on other water sports. Or spend an entire morning or afternoon on a family ski trip with a Coast Guard licensed captain showing how to ski, tube, wakeboard and kneeboard. Appropriate for all ages; limited to six people.