Do you need a quick getaway that won’t break the bank? Maybe you’re vacationing to Hilton Head and want to explore more of what the Lowcountry has to offer. A day trip can be the perfect solution, a satisfying blend of adventure and comfort. All you have to worry about is having a good time and bringing what you need, nothing more. Here, three great outdoor day trips from Hilton Head.
1. Hunting Island State Park
Hunting Island is one of South Carolina’s most treasured state parks. The island’s beaches are subject to constant erosion from waves, and over the years the ocean has started to eat into the maritime forests that line the coast. This force of slow and steady destruction also happens to be the source of the island’s mysterious beauty.
As the waves lap at the soil surrounding the large pines of the forest, the trees eventually become unstable and fall on to the beach. The result is an odd hybrid of tree graveyard and jungle gym. At high tide, the sand beneath these wooden skeletons is covered by salty water, leaving trunks, limbs, and occasionally whole trees, reaching straight out of the water. At low tide you have an invitation to explore the upturned roots, climb the fallen trunks, and wander through the natural avenues formed by the horizontal trees.
The interior of the island is not to be missed either. There are eight miles of trails on the island, including two 2-milers that cut through prehistoric-like forest, as well as a two-mile boardwalk trail over a saltwater marsh. The trails are open to both foot and bike traffic, and it's easy to spend the better part of a day enjoying them. As if that wasn’t enough, the island is also home to a historic lighthouse, which is the only lighthouse in South Carolina that is open to the public.
The island is open from 6am to 6pm (9pm during daylight savings time) and is five dollars for adults and only three for children. It takes just over an hour to get there from Hilton Head, which means you can spend the majority of your time in outdoor bliss. An added bonus, if you decide you can’t bear to leave, the island also has a great campground. (Insider’s tip: campsites 45-55 are right on the beach and offer prime ocean views.)
2. Savannah National Wildlife Refuge (NWR)
The Savannah National Wildlife Refuge is maintained by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and is comprised of nearly 30,000 acres of undisturbed wetlands and forest that straddles the border of South Carolina and Georgia. It is possibly the best place in the area to encounter wildlife on your hike or bike, with the exception of Pinckney Island . Alligators are prevalent here and you are bound to see them patrolling the waterways or basking on the shore. Meanwhile long-legged waders and an incredible diversity of ducks navigate warily around the large reptiles. Bald eagles and many other birds of prey are frequent sights here as well; they feast on the abundance of fish and small mammals that inhabit the marshes and woodlands.
One of the most popular routes through the refuge is the Laurel Hill Wildlife Drive. This is a four-mile loop that can be traversed via car, bike, or on foot. Hiking on foot provides you with the most options. You can cut right into the heart of the marsh by following the old dikes that were built when the land was used for rice cultivation. There are four of these trails and they cut right across the loop that is formed by the Laurel Hill Drive. Taking the full loop around is a great day hike as well, car traffic is not frequent enough to be bothersome and there are informational plaques along the way to enhance your experience. If choosing this route, be sure to bring your camera. In the middle of the loop there is a photo blind that is open for use and gives you an incredible view of the refuge.
The highway that cuts through the refuge is known as Alligator Alley. The Laurel Hill Wildlife Drive and its associated trails are located on one side of this highway. On the opposite side, there are more remote trails that are open to foot traffic only. If you want to completely immerse yourself in the surroundings, this is your best bet. These trails are often less maintained than the ones across the road and thus provide an unbridled natural experience complete with tall grass and dense brush. Thrill seekers will enjoy these trails. Be sure to bring plenty of water and sunscreen—these trails are long and there are big stretches exposed to open sunlight. It is also a good idea to wear boots, high socks, and bring plenty of bug spray. Mosquitos and flies can be a nuisance, depending on the season, and snakes are always a possibility in the tall grass.
Savannah National Wildlife Refuge is only 45 minutes from Hilton Head Island, free to the public, and can easily provide a full day of hiking, biking, and outdoor exploration.
3. A Day Outdoors in Bluffton
If you’re looking for variety a little closer to home, Bluffton is in many ways an untapped outdoor gem. Its waterways and trails can scratch your outdoor travel itch just by crossing the bridge to the mainland. The Bluffton you see on Hwy 278 while traveling to Hilton Head is the new Bluffton. With shopping malls and box stores, it is easy to write the town off as a convenient way station on the way to Hilton Head’s sandy beaches. Unbeknownst to many, however, this “any place” veneer is hiding one of the most colorful and exciting towns in South Carolina.
Old Town Bluffton is situated along Hwy 46 and the May River, and is overflowing with small town charm and a sense of ease that can only be found in the Lowcountry. The May River is one of the best places to kayak in the Lowcountry, a direct competitor with some of the best spots on Hilton Head. A good place to start your paddle is the landing at the Bluffton Oyster Factory. The Bluffton Oyster Factory is a cultural landmark directly in the heart of Old Town Bluffton and it has a small beach covered in old oyster shells, and it's perfect for launching kayaks and stand-up paddleboards. The May River is in reality not a river at all, but rather an immense tidal creek. However, due to its size, it has garnered the title of river. This should give you an idea of the unparalleled opportunities for exploration along this vast waterway.
If you are more interested in a hike, there are great places for that as well. On the outskirts of Bluffton is the recently opened New River Linear Trail. The Linear Trail is a long straight trail that runs the route of an old railway and ends when it runs into the New River. This is a great trail for biking or trail running because its straight trajectory allows a lot of room for speed, but it is also perfect for those looking for a more leisurely hike. This trail can take as long as you’d like it to take, depending on your speed. If you get done and you’re craving more, head over to Buckwalter Place’s Greenway Trail and take in another mile or so of natural Lowcountry beauty.
Once you’ve gotten your dose of the outdoors, be sure to head to the heart of Old Town Bluffton for some great food, cold drinks, and an unbeatable atmosphere at one of the towns many restaurants—The Old Town Dispensary is a favorite, as is Vineyard 55.