If you’re looking for a family-friendly beach vacation, South Carolina’s Hilton Head Island just might be your perfect destination. Having been to several East Coast beaches, Hilton Head is our favorite destination and we come back each summer. This is because there are so many things to do in Hilton Head Island with children.
Whether you’re planning your first trip to Hilton Head Island or a repeat visitor, there is plenty to explore. I’ll share some of our favorite family activities and day trips you can do when you come.
As you will see, there is more to do than play in the water and build sandcastles.
Table of contents: ()
- The Best Place to Stay
- What to Do on Hilton Head Island
- Day Trips from Hilton Head
The Best Place to Stay
Don’t worry, choosing where to stay on Hilton Head Island isn’t quite like deciding between North Myrtle Beach and Myrtle Beach. The latter option is more likely to have a year-round “Spring Break” feel to it. You also won’t see as many tourist traps on Hilton Head as other large beach destinations like Myrtle, Daytona or Destin.
The Hilton Head developers have been intentional about keeping the island as close to its natural state as possible. Almost any major restaurant and retail store is on the island but you won’t see high-rise buildings.
There are hotels, resorts, and plantations (gated communities) along the island’s 13-mile stretch. The most central place to stay is at the south end of the island in the Forest Beach or Sea Pines Resort communities.
We almost always rent a house or villa in Sea Pines Resort. This is a private community with plenty of bike trails, beach access, and other child-friendly amenities. There are several other plantations like this. You will have the most success using a booking site like VRBO or Airbnb for these properties.
There are a few chain hotels on-island. We prefer the Holiday Inn Beach Club or Holiday Inn Express because you can walk to the beach. The Beach Club also happens to be Hilton Head’s only oceanfront hotel.
Regardless of where you stay, I highly recommend making sure you have access to a swimming pool. The Carolina Lowcountry summers are hot and humid. This is a fun way for the whole family to relax and stay cool in the afternoon or evening hours.
What to Do on Hilton Head Island
While this isn’t an exhaustive list of everything you can do on your visit, you should put these activities on your shortlist. You will quickly see this is a family-friendly destination. Life might move at a slower pace on-island but you won’t be bored.
Coligny Beach Park
If your lodging doesn’t offer private beach access, there are several public beaches across the island. Coligny Beach Park is the most popular because it is in the Forest Beach area. This park is probably the closest thing to a boardwalk that other beach towns have.
There are plenty of restrooms, changing areas, and outdoor showers. The beach area has plenty of sand but the area fills up fast in the afternoons. Your children may also enjoy the splash pad at the park entrance.
You can also visit the Coligny Shopping Center which is within walking distance to visit gift shops, grab a meal, or eat ice cream.
Driessen Beach Park and Folly Field Beach Park also offer public amenities. They are also a good option if they are closer to where you will be staying.
Over 60 miles of bike trails connect most of Hilton Head Island. You will find these trails in the public areas and on the private resorts. As vehicle parking can be hard to find at times, we usually try to bike to the beach and other areas.
If you don’t bring your own bikes, several companies will rent you cruisers for a reasonable price. You can also rent pull-behind carts and child carriers.
It’s not uncommon to see dolphins on at least one of your beach days. The locals say that Hilton Head is one of the best places in the U.S. for dolphin watching. You can get closer to them by taking a dolphin tour. There are several places across Hilton Head where you can hop on a well-rated cruise.
For more adventure, you can consider chartering a private fishing boat for some deep-sea fishing.
On Hilton Head Island’s “sound side” you can rent a kayak or canoe. This is a fun way to explore the salt marsh and lagoons to look for animals and birds. If you kayak in Calibogue Sound or Broad Creek, you may even see dolphins.
Pirates of Hilton Head Cruise
A pirate-themed cruise might be the trip highlight for your child. Pirates of Hilton Head is a 1 hour 15-minute interactive cruise launching from Harbour Town in the Sea Pines Resort. Children can dress and talk like a pirate.
There are different activities on the cruise, although the main objective is fighting off the enemy Stinky Pete. The custom pirate ship has water cannons to keep him from stealing the treasure.
Children between the ages of 2 and 10 can board. However, many parents agree that children at least 4 years old will enjoy the cruise more.
Coastal Discovery Museum
The Coastal Discovery Museum is a fun place to learn about Hilton Head’s natural environment. This museum is a Smithsonian affiliate. It is located on the northern end of Hilton Head Island. It offers a mixture of indoor and outdoor history and nature activities.
We enjoy coming here as there are several nature trails with self-guided tours. One trail lets you learn about the salt marsh. Another includes a butterfly house, local plants, and a replica shell ring.
Guided hands-on educational programs run several times during the week. Most programs are family-friendly.
There are three miniature golf courses on Hilton Head Island. This can be a fun outing when you need a break from the beach and shopping. Also, this is one of the few modern tourist attractions on Hilton Head.
Hilton Head doesn’t offer typical tourist traps like wax museums, amusement parks, or theater shows like other developed beach towns.
Adults also have plenty of options to play real golf across the island. There are 400 courses on-island you can play for some adults-only time.
The Sandbox Children’s Museum
Children will also like The Sandbox. This interactive children’s museum has 11 different exhibits. Some of the themes include an airplane cockpit, a saltwater aquarium, and building blocks. You might consider stopping by to escape the heat or on a rainy day.
In addition to being well-known for its beaches and golf courses, Hilton Head has made a name for itself in the tennis realm too. There are several places where you or your child can take tennis lessons on the island. One of the best options is the Palmetto Dunes Resort which Tennis Magazine ranks as one of the top 50 U.S. tennis resorts.
Sea Pines Resort
The next few activities are all inside the Sea Pines Resort. They are open to the general public, but you will need to purchase a vehicle pass to enter the resort. In 2019, you pay $8 per vehicle for a day pass or $22 for the week.
In the summer months, you can also ride the free Sea Pines Trolley from 4 pm until 10 pm. You can park at the Sea Pines Visitor Center and the trolley takes you to Harbour Town.
These various amenities are one reason why we usually try to stay inside Sea Pines when we visit. You can see several of these landmarks all in the same day.
There are several restaurants and shops you can visit including a toy store. There is also a fun playground for small and older children. If you like ice cream, Cinnamon Bear offers many flavors.
You can also walk around the harbor to admire the many boats anchored there. If you come in the evening hours, you can watch the sunset from the pier behind the lighthouse.
Harbour Town Lighthouse
You can climb to the top of the Harbour Town Lighthouse to enjoy a birds-eye view. There are 114 steps to climb and you can learn about the island’s history along the way.
Interestingly, this lighthouse was never in active service. It was built in 1969 as a tourist attraction and local landmark. It is also used a camera tower during the annual RBC Heritage PGA Tour event every spring.
There is an air-conditioned gift shop at the top, along with an open-air observation deck. The stairs don’t have air conditioning so you may want to avoid climbing during the heat of the day.
Each person does have to pay a $4.50 fee to climb to the top.
We usually like to visit Harbour Town in the evening hours as the children can have more fun. At 8 p.m on most summer weeknights, Gregg Russell has a children’s musical show that lasts until 9:15. It’s a fun experience and parents who used to watch the show as a child, now bring their own children. Gregg’s been at it for 43 years and counting.
If you don’t want to drive into Sea Pines, Shannon Tanner puts on a fun family show in the Shelter Cove Harbour which is easy to reach across the island.
Also inside the Sea Pines Resort is the Lawton Stables. You might stop by here on the day you go to Harbour Town. They offer one-hour trail rides several times a day for children at least 8 years old. Children ages seven and under can go on a pony ride.
The Stables also offer a free animal farm open to all visitors.
Sea Pines Forest Preserve
The Forest Preserve lets you imagine what Hilton Head looked like before it was developed. You can explore walking trails and biking trails. One notable landmark is the 4,000-year-old shell ring built by Native Americans.
You can also see a large wildflower field or go freshwater fishing.
Day Trips from Hilton Head
Take advantage of the location and the attractions in the surrounding areas. One tip for consideration is to use a travel rewards credit card to earn points and/or redeem points for free hotel nights, travel protection, and more. Rewards cards like the Chase Sapphire Preferred vs Capital One Venture can help you both earn and save money thanks to their flexibility.
These are some of the best day trips you can take from Hilton Head Island.
A small channel of water separates of Daufuskie Island from Hilton Head. No vehicles are allowed on Daufuskie which can make this a memorable trip.
In fact, the only way to reach the island is by taking a ferry as there isn’t a road bridge.
You can bring your bikes on the ferry to explore the beach and unpaved roads when you land. A more popular option is renting a golf cart so you can explore Daufuskie. The island has several artisan shops you can visit. And you can learn more about the island’s Native American and Gullah heritage.
A cherry cordial shake from Southern Sweets.
Credit: Josh Patoka (the author)
Beaufort is a small charming city on the Crystal Coast that offers a little something for everybody. You can explore historical Beaufort to reimagine life in the antebellum South. A trip to Beaufort isn’t complete without visiting the Monkey’s Uncle Toy Store. The retro-looking Southern Sweets Ice Cream and Market is also worth visiting for a treat.
There is plenty to see outside Beaufort. One option is the Parris Island Museum where you can learn about the Marine Corps Recruiting Depot which graduates a new crop of Marines weekly.
Another option is visiting the various Carolina “Sea Islands” like Hunting Island or St. Helena Island. Each island has its own landmarks that you might enjoy. For example, the Vietnam scenes from Forrest Gump were filmed on Hunting Island.
If you want a larger city to visit, Savannah is your nearest option. Savannah is about one hour away from Hilton Head. Take the time to walk along River Street to see the historic district. You can see where ships once docked and offloaded their goods.
Your children may also love visiting a historic fort. Old Fort Jackson is a 10-minute drive from historic Savannah and has guided tours with cannon firings. If you’re willing to drive 20 minutes, Fort Pulaski is larger and has more extensive ground to explore. Both forts are fun and you will need to decide which one is a better fit for your family.
If you love history, Charleston is another fun day trip. It is a two-hour drive from Hilton Head so plan on leaving early or coming back late. There is a lot of colonial and Civil War-era history to see.
Museum fans will love the “Museum Mile” which includes six museums, five historic houses, and four scenic parks all within a single mile. The Charleston Museum is the nation’s first museum and has Charleston and Lowcountry history.
Like Savannah, Charleston has several historic forts. Your children will probably like Fort Moultrie the most as there is more to explore. The child-friendly exhibits are an interactive timeline of the fort. You first start with the basic palmetto-tree fortifications and finish with seeing the fort’s World War II artillery battery and radar station.
You might come to Hilton Head Island for a family-friendly beach vacation. There is more to do on-island and nearby if you don’t want to spend your entire trip at the beach. Although Hilton Head is a popular destination, you may appreciate the relaxing and less-touristy atmosphere.