Hilton Head Island is the unpolished gem of the South Carolina coast. While other popular destinations like Charleston and Myrtle Beach draw visitors with colonial architecture and eye-catching attractions, this unassuming island has stayed remarkably “natural.” It’s a place to revel in the power of the ocean, and relax in the natural beauty and charm of a minimally developed sea island.
Hilton Head owes the preservation of its natural assets to the visionary stewardship of its earliest developers and the passionate dedication of those who loved the outdoors and fought for the preservation of the island as it grew. Caroline “Beany” Newhall, the namesake of the Audubon Newhall Preserve, and the nationally-known environmentalist Todd Ballantine, were among those who fought for Hilton Head’s preservation and set the precedent of conservation.
In 1987, the long history of eco-consciousness was solidified with the founding of the Hilton Head Island Land Trust. For 28 years the non-profit has fought to preserve what makes Hilton Head special, its maritime forests, swamps, and marshes. These are the places that make Hilton Head a great place to hike, bike, and kayak; these are the places that define Hilton Head’s identity. The land trust has preserved nearly 300 acres all over the Lowcountry, from small half-acre parcels to sprawling 137-acre preserves.
Hilton Head Island Land Trust’s major properties are all located on the island’s northern end. They include the Whooping Crane Pond Conservancy, the 51-acre Cypress Conservancy, the 64-acre Northridge Tract, and the 5-acre Civil War earthen Fort Howell. The Whooping Crane Pond and Cypress Conservancies are both beautiful for hiking and biking. A mixture of boardwalks over wetlands and trails through maritime forest in both make for dynamic hikes, something that can be lacking on an island known for its lack of elevation.
The Cypress Conservancy is the only place left on Hilton Head where you can find the native Bald Cypress tree–a picturesque tree that grows out of water and is known for its bald “knees” or roots, that rise up from the water for oxygen. Due to development most of these trees have been erased from the island. The conservancy offers a unique opportunity to see the island as it was before it became a popular resort destination. The only obstacle is that both the Whooping Crane and Cypress Conservancies are located within the Hilton Head Plantation Community; this means that you’ll need a pass to enter. If you know someone who lives there, have them call in a pass.
The Northridge Tract is completely undeveloped and does not even have trails running through it. This makes it an incredible wildlife sanctuary in Hilton Head, and is one of the reasons the island is such a great place to encounter nature. You can see this land at its border with William Hilton Parkway, but that’s the limit of the exploration.
If you’re looking for a double dose of outdoor exploration and historical scholarship, head over to one of the Trust’s most recent preservations, Fort Howell. Union soldiers built the fort in 1864 to protect historic Mitchellville (the namesake of Mitchellville Beach), a community of freed slaves that lived on Hilton Head.
While the Land Trust has managed the property for many years, it gained recognition as a National Historic Site in 2011 and has recently been updated with plaques and information regarding the fort and Mitchellville. There are trails surrounding the fort and an observation deck overlooking the Fish Haul Creek wetlands. The trail terminates at Mitchelville Beach. Fort Howell is a great way to get a mix of Hilton Head’s hiking, history and beautiful beaches all at once.
Without the conservation of early developers and the Hilton Head Island Land Trust, the small island could look very different—think the Jersey Shore or Myrtle Beach. You would be hard pressed to find an outdoor lover on Hilton Head who doesn’t have a profound appreciation for at least one of the tracts of land protected by the Hilton Head Land Trust.
The next time you are outdoors in Hilton Head don’t take for granted the effort and dedication that goes into keeping Hilton Head as it was. With your help, the Land Trust can continue to protect Hilton Head’s beauty and keep it a place where being outdoors is a joy, for generations to come.