Are you wondering, “What is there to do in Hilton Head with a baby?”
For the uninitiated, Hilton Head is very low-key and doesn't draw out all the Spring Break shenanigans you might expect to see at Myrtle Beach, SC, or Panama City, FL.
Single people can enjoy this island, but it's more to relax than party.
Hilton Head has most major restaurants and stores “on-island” and it gets packed in the summertime (as with any beach) but doesn't have all the tourist traps like Ripley's Believe It or Not, wax museums, etc.
The whole island is well-kept, beautifully landscaped, and classy.
Hilton Head Island is also very family-friendly.
I first wrote this post in 2018, and it receives periodic updates, the most recent being in October 2021. We usually go to Hilton Head once a year and try different things around the island. We currently have three children below the age of 10.
Where to Stay on Hilton Head
Hilton Head Island is a fairly big place. Most of the activities are at the bottom of the island in the Coligny/Forest Beach public area or the gated Sea Pines Resort (where the Harbourtown Lighthouse is).
The only way to drive onto the island is Highway 278.
If you're camping, you'll stay near the entrance. Personally, we drive to the bottom of the island which is about 15 minutes if you take the Cross-Island Parkway (it's no longer a tollway but doesn't have commercial businesses on it) or 30-45 minutes if you stay on the business route (US Hwy 278).
Sea Pines Resort
At Hilton Head, our family normally rents a house in the Sea Pines Resort (i.e., a gated community) by booking on VRBO.
It's possible to rent a single-family home or a complex villa, depending on availability and budget limits.
There may be an Airbnb option, too but the platform doesn't have as many listings as VRBO.
We compare listings and prices for our travel dates and choose the cheaper and/or better option.
Sea Pines offers more privacy, private beach access, and plenty of bike trails. (Bikes for rent are available for about $70 per bike per week.)
Unfortunately, a day pass is $9, and a 7-day pass is $20 (if your host doesn't give you a parking pass). In the past few years, we've had to pay out of pocket instead of getting a pass from the visitors center.
Visit the official Sea Pines website here to get the latest travel details.
There are several other gated resorts to consider. We have friends that stay at the Sonesta Shipyard. Hilton Head Plantation is also worth a look.
One downside of most Hilton Head lodgings, gated communities or hotel options, is that oceanfront and oceanview properties are very expensive. We usually have to find something about 10 minutes away by bike or foot to stay within our budget of $150 per night or less.
Tip: You might be able to get cash back on VRBO bookings by first going through TopCashback. My wife and I use this shopping rewards portal almost weekly to save up to 10% on most online purchases.
Forest Beach and Coligny Plaza
We sometimes stay in the Forest Beach and Coligny Plaza area, which is the last public beach area before you have to pay to get into Sea Pines.
There are several resorts and hotels near Coligny Plaza (we sometimes stay at the Holiday Inn Express-Hilton Head Island which is a 10-minute walk to the beach, plus the property is safe, quiet, and clean) and use the public Coligny Beach Park access.
If you want oceanfront and have an IHG loyalty account, the Holiday Inn Beachhouse is right at the Coligny beach access and across the street from the Holiday Inn Express.
Things to Do in Hilton Head with Children
These are the activities we try to do with our children during vacation.
1 . Visit the Beach
Of course, the main reason to go to Hilton Head is the beach. If you haven't been to a South Carolina beach, they are not for thrillseekers but are perfect for small children.
On a good day, an elementary school child can be a boogie board champion. Otherwise, stick with playing in the waves and skimboarding the tide.
Our children love jumping in the waves and playing in the sand.
In the summertime or September, the water temp is normally in the mid-80s and has very calm waves. You might think you were on one of the Great Lakes.
You might not see any surfers, but there is plenty of beach to build sand castles, etc. As the waves are gentle and an adult can walk out a good distance with only waist-deep water, this is an optimal way for your child to enjoy the surf without getting pummeled.
My favorite beach activity is boogie boarding and bodysurfing. Most days, the waves are too small for an adult to boogie board but are great for body surfing. Skimboarding is also a good idea.
Are Hilton Head beaches safe?
Yes, the beaches are pretty safe for children.
In May and June, you will need to watch out for jellyfish which usually wash ashore as the summer warmth approaches.
There's a good chance you will see dolphins at least once during a weeklong trip.
However, this part of the Atlantic has calm waves, and there is seldom much of a riptide.
The water is browner at Sea Pines and Coligny as the waves are stronger and mix up the sand more. However, they are still really calm, and your child will love leaping through them. (Ours sure do!)
We also went to a public beach on the upper part of the island named Driessen Beach. The water was especially calm and almost blue, like lake water. We honestly didn't think it was the ocean.
Are there sharks in Hilton Head Island?
Honestly, the only sharks I've seen are the ones that shore fisherman reel in after kayaking way out deep to place the bait. This also occured around sunset, when I'm told sharks are more likely to feed and come nearer the shore.
You will usually see dolphins near the shore, which usually means sharks are less likely to be present.
But I'm sure if you do some online research, you may find periodic shark events.
Personally, I'm more concerned about the jellyfish in the ocean, stepping on a horseshoe crab shell, as well as alligators in the inland lagoons.
As one of our favorite local celebrities says, the sharks go to Myrtle Beach since they can't afford Hilton Head. It's clearly a joke, but I don't necessarily disagree, especially if you're only getting waist-deep in the water.
Note: I'm not a shark expert – these are mere amateur observations.
2. Bike Trails
One of our favorite activities is biking. We bring our own bikes, but you can also rent some Island Cruiser bikes for about $75 each for the week with a mounted infant carrier. Bike trailers are available too.
Bike rentals are very cheap at Hilton Head.
There are public bike trails to get across the island on US 278 and Forest Beach Drive (Coligny). Or, you can go on the beach during low tide (it's rather tricky dodging people in high tide and still finding firm sand).
Our personal preference is biking within Sea Pines (or another gated community like Shipyard) because there's less traffic and it's how we get to the pool and beach.
It's normally a 10-minute bike ride to the beach and a couple minutes longer to the pool. Plus, the paths also lead to Harbour Town & South Beach (places to shop and eat). We might easily bike 20 miles in one day, but it's really easy since the ground is flat and the trails are paved.
Note: Now that we have children with training wheels, we might only bike a few miles each day. But if we have a relative coming along to be a babysitter or can ditch the small bike, you might go on a long ride to see the various neighborhoods.
- Visit Harbour Town (Sea Pines Resort)
One of the reasons to visit Sea Pines is a complex called Harbour Town. There are various gift shops and fancy stores such as Tommy Bahama and a place to get ice cream (Cinnamon Bear is my favorite!)
There is also a nice playground here. Also, in the evenings from Memorial Day to Labor Day, local folk celebrity singer Gregg Russell entertains children of all ages there.
He's been performing at Harbour Town for over 43 years, so many parents saw him as a child and have the opportunity to bring their own children to the show now.
Another neat activity is climbing the Harbour Town lighthouse. It is only there as a tourist attraction and not an official lighthouse.
It costs about $6 per person but you can get a birds-eye view of the harbor. It's also pretty cool if you want to get a history lesson. The climb isn't air-conditioned so it might be a little hot during the dog days of summer.
What to Do in Harbour Town with small children:
- Play at the Gregg Russell Playground
- Get ice cream at the Cinnamon Bear
- Walk the pier (it's free and a short walk)
- Climb the lighthouse
- Look at the boats in the harbor
- Eat At Salty Dog (South Beach in Sea Pines)
Another cult classic of Hilton Head is the Salty Dog restaurant. Perhaps you have seen the t-shirts. The original shop is at South Beach, which is in the Sea Pines plantation, a couple of minutes drive further down the road from Harbour Town.
Personally, I have never eaten at Salty Dog but I'm told they have good hamburgers and hot dogs.
I will verify that they have good ice cream. We've sampled almost every flavor, and most of them are pretty good. Personally, we didn't care for the bubble gum flavor. Somehow, it reminded us of the dentist's office.
As a heads-up, one single scoop of ice cream will be $4 almost anywhere on Hilton Head Island. We normally get ice cream once and go to the grocery store to buy some cartons for the remainder of the week to eat at the rental house.
Tip: Save money and every grocery store visit with the Ibotta app. And get a $10 cash bonus with your first visit.
5. Visit A Museum
There are two museums you can also visit on Hilton Head Island for a change of scenery.
Museum #1: The Sandbox
The first option is a children's museum called The Sandbox. Here you can escape the heat (or rain), and children of all ages can have fun at hands-on exhibits. The museum is reasonably priced at $10 per adult and child.
It is located in the hoppin' part of Hilton Head, just a few blocks away from Sea Pines and the Coligny Plaza beach.
We finally went for the first time in 2021 on a rainy day. Due to the pandemic, you will need to book in advance as you get a 3-hour time slot.
My wife and I describe this place as being closer to an indoor playground than a children's museum. There are several areas that give them a chance to really use their imagination.
Our children had a whale of a time for 2.5 hours and want to go back again.
Some of the activities include:
- Kinetic sand
- Arts and crafts
- Pine derby car racing
- Shrimp boat
- Lego wall
- Grocery store
- Tower and slide
There is also a small area for kids aged two and under to have some fun while their older siblings or cousins and do the other activities.
Note: the staff are friendly but ask that you don't bring strollers into the Sandbox.
Museum #2: Coastal Discovery Museum
If you like island history and enjoying the outdoors, you will enjoy the Smithsonian affiliate Coastal Discovery Museum. This location is more enjoyable for parents and grade-school children, but, it's easily navigable with a stroller.
We like coming here every so often to enjoy the outdoor walking trails.
The museum is mostly outdoors, although, it has some indoor exhibits regarding island history and the history of the former Honey Horn Plantation (where the museum is located) that adults will appreciate. There is also a live terrapin turtle exhibit in the main house that the kids will enjoy, along with some other hands-on activities.
Outdoors, you can walk on their “Around the Horn” trail, This educational nature trail includes a Butterfly House and the opportunity to walk through an awesome stand of Live Oak trees with Spanish Moss growing on them.
The suggested donation is $5 per person. It is located on the north side of the island. This can be a great way to fill an afternoon when you need a break from the water.
Things to do at the Coastal Discovery Museum:
- Outdoor walking trail
- Butterfly garden
- Indoor museum about the island history
- Interactive indoor displays for children
We've discovered that wherever we go, playgrounds are our children's favorite thing. Thankfully, there are a few playgrounds across the island.
These are three that we go to:
- Shelter Cove (behind the Kroger and Whole Foods). This area has a nice playground. There's also a pavilion where summer concerts and children's shows happen. It's free and is good if you don't want to drive all the way to Coligny.
- Discovery Park (Coligny/Forest Beach). Next to the Coligny Center and The Sandbox Children's Center is Discovery Park. It opened in late 2021 and is free. Older children will like the pirate ship playground to climb and slide. There is also a decent-sized sand area and a splash pool. You might bring a swimsuit as there are several places to get wet and have fun.
- Jarvis Creek (go here if you're staying on the top side of the island). This place also has some walking trails and a pond. It's free.
- Harbour Town (Sea Pines Resort). This is our favorite playground since we stay in Sea Pines. Budget some time for it if you're going to see the lighthouse or do one of the cruises from this location.
- South Beach (Sea Pines). Honestly, you're not missing anything here. It's a small slide and play fort that's good if you're going to the Salty Dog. Also come to it if you use the South Beach community pool or are staying in the South Beach area and need some fresh air.
- Pinckney Wildlife Refuge
Right before you cross the bridge to get onto Hilton Head Island, you'll pass by the Pinckney Island Wildlife Refuge. This nature preserve is nice and can help you fill a day if you also want to check out Bluffton for shopping.
It's on the right if you're leaving the island and going toward Bluffton.
It's free and has a nice gravel biking/walking trail. There are several stops and observation areas you can visit.
We recommend taking your bikes (if possible) to cover more ground.
Unfortunately, there are no bathrooms. So, we bring a travel potty for the little ones.
One final option is to take a daytrip to Charleston, SC (two hours) or Savannah, GA (45 minutes). Both cities are very similar although I prefer Savannah. It is a little bit smaller and easier to navigate, plus parking is cheaper.
If you go to Charleston, my favorite location is Ft. Moultrie. It is a decommissioned military post located at the mouth of the Charleston Harbor and now belongs to the National Park Service.
They have set up the fort to be an interactive time capsule beginning with the original structure from the colonial days constructed with Palmetto logs to walking through the World War II bunkers. It's awesome historical fun, and the kids love it.
There is also the aquarium, Ft. Sumter (obviously historically significant but somewhat underwhelming to visit), and shopping at the Market.
If you just want to walk the streets, you can see lots of old, charming Southern homes and churches. Although most churches only have their graveyards open for the public to tour.
You can also shop in Savannah, and they have their own version of Ft. Moultrie (Ft. James Jackson), plus, they have a plethora of streets to walk and discover historic homes and public squares.
The movie Forrest Gump was filmed in a Savannah square (when he was sitting on the bench).
You can also visit Beaufort. We've gone once and like the quaintness of the town. Beaufort has the historic charm of Charleston or Savannah, but it's smaller. Instead of walking by 20 or 30 historic houses, you might pass by 10 houses instead.
All the city blocks are very close together and there's plenty of parking, so you don't have to walk far.
Since I'm not a big shopper, I also like that it doesn't have as many shops! But, it still has its fair share.
Going to the beach is a great option for any family, and, there are a plethora of things to do in Hilton Head with a baby.
Our typical day consists of going to the beach in the morning (before it gets hot and crowded), return to the rental house for naptime, go to the pool for the afternoon and do something outside once it cools off.
For a change of scenery, we will take a day to go to a museum, shop, or go on a road trip.
Plus, it's a relatively cheap trip!
If you have any questions about Hilton Head Island (and Sea Pines resort) my wife will be glad to answer!
Have you ever vacationed at Hilton Head before? What are your favorite beach activities?
Josh founded Money Buffalo in 2015 to help people get out of debt and make smart financial decisions. He is currently a full-time personal finance writer with work featured in Forbes Advisor, Fox Business, and Credible.