Aerial view of the harbor at Hilton Head Island. Editorial credit: Helioscribe /

Hilton Head Island, South Carolina

Hilton Head Island is located in the low country of South Carolina, on a barrier island in Beaufort County. The Island has roughly 19 km of beachfront coast on the Atlantic Ocean and is a popular vacation destination for locals and travelers from abroad. The population of Hilton Head Island is approximately 37,000, though in popular peak seasons (usually the summer months), the population can jump up to around 150,000. According to estimates, some 2.2 million people visit the area each year, pumping roughly $1.5 billion into the region's economy. 

Geography Of Hilton Head Island

Hilton Head Island beach
Aerial view over Coligny beach on Hilton Head island. 

The island sits roughly 32 km northeast of Savannah, Georgia, on the east coast of the United States, and around 150 km from Charleston. The island itself is considered to be 'shoe-shaped and has an area of around 179 square kilometers. Of this, 107 km2 is land, with the remaining 72 km2 being water.

Hilton Head is a half-barrier island. The northern portion of the island is what is known as a sea island. The south end of the island is technically a barrier island, and it is separated from the northern portion by the land-locked tidal marsh called Broad Creek.

A barrier island generally has a headland, which is part of how Hilton Head got its name and a beach, surf, and sand spit. Hilton Head also has offshore sand bars, grassy dunes, shifting beaches, inland maritime forests, and wetlands. The coast often has tidal marshes on its leeward side, in contrast to the opposite sandy coast.

History Of Hilton Head Island

A Union soldier stands with African Americans on the plantation Thomas F. Drayton, Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, 1862. Photo by Henry P. Moore, May 1862.

The island was named for Captain William Hilton, who first discovered the headland in 1663 while exploring the Port Royal Sound. The area was referred to as Hilton's Headland. Before this time, the indigenous people occupied the area on a seasonal basis.

During the American Civil War, the region was an important Union blockade for the southern ports. The island was eventually taken by Union troops and then became a popular destination for ex-slaves seeking refuge. These people were known as the Gullah and are one of the founding people of modern-day Hilton Head, some of whose descendants still live in the area.

The town of Hilton Head was incorporated in 1983. From that point forward, the island was developed under strict guidelines to remain eco-friendly. Thus, much of the island's natural growth has been maintained, and even the developed areas have large trees dispersed among newer buildings and homes.

Wildlife Of Hilton Head Island

Blue Heron hunting in a pond in Hilton Head Island.

Hilton Head Island has a variety of animals, both marine and land-living. Like much of South Carolina, alligators are common here and live among the marshes and wetlands. Similarly, the leeward coast harbors manatees, and both dolphins and loggerhead sea turtles can be found off the eastern coast.

The Coastal Discovery Museum patrols the beaches and runs a Sea Turtle Protection Project, which aims to protect and document the presence of sea turtles and their nests up and down the beach areas. Nighttime lights are regulated, and must be either shielded or turned off on the beach during the summer months. These lights can be distracting and confusing to turtles because they use the moon's reflection on the water to find their way back to sea after laying a nest. Their eyesight is poor, and they are often very tired after laying dozens of eggs, so it is easy for them to become disoriented with artificial lights. The project takes this very seriously as the loggerheads are an endangered species, so they run various educational programs to enlighten visitors and residents about their presence in Hilton Head. 

Alligator in Hilton Head
An alligator in Hilton Head Island.

Stingrays are also common off the coast and frequent the shallow waters there. Several fish species can also be found both offshore and in the saltmarsh estuaries. Species include small menhaden, mullet, red drum, sea trout, sheepshead, cobia, tarpon, and sharks. Shrimp and oysters can also be found in the muddy tidal pools. Land animals include deer, wild boar, the occasional bobcat, and a wide variety of both resident and migratory birds.

Visiting Hilton Head Island

Harbor town pier in Hilton Head
Harbor Town pier in Hilton Head Island.

Hilton Head Island has a variety of activities and attractions to enjoy. Beach activities are the most common, and though many of the beaches are private, there are numerous publicly accessible beaches to enjoy. Sportfishing is also common, and anglers can take fishing boat excursions out into the open ocean or fish casually from the island itself. Water and boat-related activities are popular with tourists, from kayaks to tours. One of the area's more unique experiences includes the first Mermaid Encounter Boat Tour.

Other activities and cultural events include the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina, which features the Hilton Head Choral Society, and the Hilton Head Symphony Orchestra. Local festivals such a wine tasting events and markets also occur throughout the year.

The RBC Heritage PGA Tour takes place in the Harbour Town Golf Links at the local Sea Pines Resort, and there are various other tennis courts, sports arenas and community parks on the island as well.Famed for its resort living, many destinations and hotels on the island have all-inclusive, or at least extremely inclusive experiences available, so visitors can get nearly everything they need in one spot while enjoying the beach and sea views.

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