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Insider’s Guide to an Outdoorsy Weekend in Hilton Head

paddleboarder at sunset

As the sun climbs toward the horizon on the South Carolina shore, and its first bright rays stretch across the rolling ocean, a wonderful alchemy begins to takes place on Hilton Head Island. The cool, steel blues and grays of pre-dawn transform to the golden tones of early sunrise. The waves, like most things here, are gentler in these parts: coming in not so much with a crash, but more of a melodic whoosh.

Sitting on your balcony, watching this scene unfold, it’s easy to imagine whiling away the morning with a second cup of coffee. But even here, where visitors and transplants immediately notice a slower pace of life, an abundance of outdoor adventure awaits. It’s not the strenuous, hike-up-a-mountain or battle-class-IV-rapids kind of excursion, but it can easily fill a long weekend. And it’s uniquely Hilton Head in its subtle style.

Here’s what to see, do, and eat—and more—for an active-minded weekend in Hilton Head

Sea Pines is a huge resort area and home development on the southern tip of Hilton Head Island. As an early innovator of building with a focus on preserving green space in the 1950’s, the Frasier’s—the original developers of Sea Pines—set aside several hundred acres of land that would become the Sea Pines Nature preserve. Accessing the resort and nature preserve requires passing through a gate and paying a small fee. Once through, Sea Pines opens up like a town unto itself. For some pre-adventure fuel, stop at the bustling Harbour Town Bakery and Cafe. The case at the front of the cozy coffee shop is crammed with the most decadent pastries imaginable. The pecan sticky buns are half the size of a dinner plate and topped with a gooey, caramel-y concoction.

Nature Preserve Boat and Bike Ride throughout the Sea Pines Forest Preserve, Spanish moss drips from gnarly hardwood trees, hiding huge osprey nests that can weigh hundreds of pounds. Towering pines and the ever-present palmetto tree, with its crown of pointy green leaves, huddle together in tight stands. A 6-foot alligator, a holdover from the time of the dinosaur, lounges on the shore of Lake Joe. Indeed, walking the trails of the preserve, you half-expect a T-Rex to poke its snout through the dense vegetation.

The best way to begin an exploration of the prehistoric looking preserve is with a boat tour of Lake Thomas. (Actually, this is the only way to see the preserve by water if you don’t own a house here, as use of watercraft is restricted to residents.) The guide will point out an elegant night crane, teach you about the alligators that call these lakes home, and help you get oriented for the rest of your time here.

Touring on land is best done on two wheels. (Rental shops abound around town, but one recommended outfitter is Outside Hilton Head, with two locations.) Some of the nature trails in the preserve are open to foot traffic only, but convenient racks make it easy to lock up your bike for these short strolls. Maps are easy to follow and lead you to the highlights of this distinctly beautiful place.

The lakes may appear to be a natural part of the terrain but were actually created during the first phases of modern development and provide a safe haven for the island’s animal inhabitants. Dating back to its antebellum agricultural days, the Old Lawton Rice Field is now an ideal spot to spy egrets and heron from a raised observation deck. Just south of the rice field, the Vanishing Swamps—whose fluctuating waters give the swamp its name— also harbors their share of avian inhabitants.

One of the island’s most visible signs of early human occupants, meanwhile, is the Shell Ring, a remarkable testament to the island’s inhabitants thousands of years ago. Accessible via an easy 0.4-mile walk through gnarly live oak and palmetto trees, the ring is a circular deposit of decaying shells, left by early Indians some 4,000 years ago.

Stand Up Paddle Boarding

It’s no surprise that much of the outdoor adventure available on a low-lying island happens on the water. What many first-time visitors find surprising, however, is that there is so much variety. Rivers, salt marshes, and, of course, an ocean all bring different elements to a fulfilling day of paddling.

A good way for beginners to get their feet wet in the local SUP scene is with a 90-minute beginner paddle boarding lesson from Outside Hilton Head. Launching from the Shelter Cove Marina on the Broad Creek, the classes cover the basics of paddle boarding—strokes, standing, and balance. But instructors leave ample time for exploring the grassy wetlands of the Harbor River, where swift gulls and graceful heron fly overhead, looking for snacks in nearby oyster beds. The shop also offers advanced classes and rentals, as well as a well-stocked retail space.


By: Rob Glover

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