20 Cheap & Free Things to do in Hilton Head, SC
March 1st 2021
Hilton Head, South Carolina, is known far and wide for its world-class golfing and beaches, and regularly ranks among the top vacation destinations in the country! There are so many incredible things to do here, making Hilton Head ideal for family vacations, romantic getaways, bachelor parties, or those just looking to explore a wonderful new city. The best part of all, a trip here doesn’t have to break the bank!
Hilton Head, SC, can be just as affordable as it is fun. From renting a bicycle and riding down the many winding and whimsical nature trails, to exploring local farmers’ markets for fresh food and small treasures and trinkets, there are plenty of awesome, and affordable, attractions, activities, and things to do in this picturesque slice of paradise! Keep reading and discover 20 Cheap & Free Things to do in Hilton Head, SC, for a memorable and money-saving vacation!
Table of Contents
- Sea Pines
- Bicycle Rentals
- Coastal Discovery Museum
- The Sandbox Children’s Museum
- Coligny Theatre Hilton Head Island
- Dolphin Cruises
- Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge
- Audubon Newhall Preserve
- Catch a Sunset
- Mitchelville Freedom Park
- Hilton Head Range Rear Lighthouse
- Shelter Cove
- Day Trips and Excursions
- Old Town Bluffton
- Fort Howell
- Fort Mitchel
- Eco Tours
- Farmers’ Markets
Pictured above are the beautiful beaches of Hilton Head Island
When it comes to free things to do in Hilton Head, SC, it’s probably no surprise that a trip to one of the area’s beautiful beaches tops the list! Consistently recognized as one of the best family beaches in the country, Hilton Head Island’s 12 miles of scenic shoreline has something to offer everyone. Aside from swimming and soaking up the sun and scenic views, other popular beach activities to enjoy include walking the flat sand banks, searching for hermit crabs and other wildlife, and wonderful watersports such as:
- Surfing the waves of the Atlantic Ocean
- Fishing for redfish and bluefish from the shore
- Riding bicycles on the beach’s hard-packed sand
- Kayaking, shelling, beach volleyball, and MORE!
However you decide to spend your time at the beautiful beaches of Hilton Head Island, you’re in for a relaxing, refreshing, and fun experience! When it comes to a perfect day at the beach, however, it’s important to be prepared. Don’t forget to pack the essentials like sunscreen, sunglasses, towels, and water to stay hydrated.
Another important thing to prepare for is beach access. While many resorts and condos in the area will typically have some sort of private beach access for their guests, some do not. If your vacation rental falls under this category, you will want to visit one of the area’s picturesque public beaches, instead:
Image of the Harbour Town Lighthouse by Scott Oves via Flickr
Sea Pines is a massive gated community located on the southern end of the island, and is known for its luxurious resort, stunning scenic views, and for having tons of incredible things to do! For only $9.00, visitors can enter this amazing neighborhood, and enjoy all of the wonders it has to offer. The top activities and attractions in the Sea Pines neighborhood include:
- Enjoying their five-mile stretch of scenic oceanfront
- Meandering through nature on horseback at Lawton Stables
- Exploring the great outdoors at the Sea Pines Forest Preserve
- Discovering the age-old Sea Pines Shell Ring, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places
- Taking a guided wildlife boat tour or a Sea Pines history tour
- Visiting Harbour Town for some of the best shopping, dining, and entertainment on the island
- And MORE!
Harbour Town is definitely a must when exploring the famous Sea Pines neighborhood. Situated on a picturesque and massive marina, Harbour Town is known for its wonderful water activities like dolphin cruises, charter fishing, and dinner cruises, just to name a few. This is also a great place for spectacular shopping and delicious dining, as well as exciting events and live entertainment.
The Harbour Town Lighthouse Museum is located here, as well, and not only helps guide ships back to the basin, but is also a local landmark that is both educational, and fun to visit. Guests will be able to check out a variety of centuries-old artifacts, discover the rich history of Hilton Head Island, and climb the 114 steps to the top of the lighthouse for unmatched panoramic views! Speaking of views, click here to check out their webcam, which is located at the top of the lighthouse.
Biking is a must when in Hilton Head, as it is just one of 21 communities in the country to achieve the Gold Level Bicycle Friendly Community Award from the League of American Bicyclists
With over 60 miles of trails and paths on the island, bicycling is one of the best cheap things to do in Hilton Head, SC. From taking a scenic spin down the beach, to historic rides that take you to sites listed on the National Register of Historic Places, there’s so much to see and do from two wheels on the island. In fact, you can practically explore the entire island from the comfort of your own bicycle seat! With that being said, below are a few of the top places to hit the pavement and start pedaling:
- Fish Haul Creek Park
- Greens Shell Community Park
- Baker Field Observation Deck
- Sea Pines Forest Preserve
- Shelter Cove
- Pinckney Island Nature Preserve
- Coligny Beach Park
As you can see, adventure awaits in beautiful Hilton Head, SC, and renting a bicycle is the perfect means of transportation to start exploring. Whether you’re in search of a fun and unique date idea, or are looking for a way to have some family-fun in the great outdoors, a Hilton Head bicycle rental will definitely get you there!
Coastal Discovery Museum
Image courtesy of https://www.coastaldiscovery.org/us/
There is no cost of admission at the Coastal Discovery Museum, making it one of the top free things to do in Hilton Head, SC! This 68-acre, centuries-old property showcases the area’s luscious natural environment, as well as the local history, culture, and art. The top experiences you’ll encounter at this amazing property include the following:
- South Carolina’s largest Southern Red Cedar tree, which dates back to 1595
- Salt Marsh Discovery Walk
- Guided tours through the Karen Wertheimer Butterfly Enclosure
- Bird watching at Jarvis Creek
- View over 100 varieties of camellias, and more, at the Lowcountry Heritage Garden
- Children’s Discovery Zone with local wildlife, exhibits, videos, and books
- And MORE!
The Sandbox Children’s Museum
Little ones enjoying an exhibit at the Sandbox Children’s Museum
When it comes to the top cheap and free things to do in Hilton Head, SC, for kids, a trip to the Sandbox Children’s Museum definitely makes the cut. This interactive museum combines learning and fun with hands-on activities, family-oriented play centers and programs, exceptional events, exhibits, and more! Some of the top exhibits include the following:
- No Fishing Aquarium
- Charlie’s Perfect Playplace
- Rhythm and Hues Room
- Loggerhead Sandcastle
- Learner’s Loft
Another unique feature of this museum is that it is designed for children to take the lead, and create their own experience, at their own pace. This is not only a great way for parents and their children to bond, but also promotes creativity while cultivating cognitive, social, and physical skills. Hosting hundreds of thousands of visitors throughout the years, the Sandbox is surely the place to be for creating lasting and memorable moments with your little ones.
Coligny Theatre Hilton Head Island
Image courtesy of the Coligny Theatre
The Coligny Theatre opened its doors in 1972 as Hilton Head’s original movie theatre, and remained their only one for many years. This single-screen venue was renovated in 2001 as an “art house,” attracting an upscale clientele, and showing independent works. With tickets as low as $10.00 a person, catching a show at Coligny Theatre is a great and affordable way to appreciate the arts, and the local history!
One visitor in a recent TripShock Traveler Story states they saw at least 50 dolphins on their Hilton Head dolphin cruise
With ticket prices starting at only $33.00, a Hilton Head dolphin cruise is the perfect way to have a blast while on a budget. All ages and interests will love searching for Flipper on a family-friendly cruise, and it’s the perfect activity for any occasion, from bachelor parties, to date night! Dolphin cruises are a fun way to enjoy the sights and sounds of the city from a whole new perspective, as well, yielding incredible views of the following:
- Harbour Town
- South Beach
- Daufuskie Island
- Tybee Lighthouse
- Haig Point Lighthouse
- And MORE!
Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge
Image of wading birds at Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge by Jeff Gunn via Flickr
One of the best free things to do in Hilton Head, SC, a trip to Pinckney Island Wildlife Refuge is sure to entertain and excite the outdoor adventurer and wildlife enthusiast! This prehistoric refuge encompasses over 4,000 acres of land between Beaufort and Hilton Head, and serves as a natural sanctuary for native flora and fauna. In fact, almost 70% of the refuge is comprised of tidal creeks and salt marshes, which not only provides spectacular scenic views, but yields a wide variety of animals such as:
- Yellow-crowned night herons
- Painted buntings
- White ibis, herons, and egrets
- American alligators
- Bald eagles, ospreys, and wood storks
- And MORE!
Aside from observing the wildlife, there are tons of other ways to enjoy this stunning slice of untouched natural beauty. Wildlife photography, fishing, hunting, biking, hiking, and guided programs and tours, are just a few of the other wonderful ways to experience Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge. Not only that, over 100 prehistoric and historic sites have been discovered within the refuge, providing a unique insight into the area’s history and culture.
Audubon Newhall Preserve
Pictured above is a painted bunting, a bird you will likely encounter at the Audubon Newhall Preserve. Image by Dan Pancamo via Flickr
One of the best free things to do in Hilton Head, SC, for nature lovers and fitness aficionados, is taking a stroll through the Audubon Newhall Preserve. A two-mile trail, which is open to the public, guides visitors through this fabulous, 50-acre nature preserve filled with woodlands, wildlife, and wonderful views. The most notable features of this preserve include a rare pocosin, which is the Indian word for bog, and an uncommon South Carolina plant community known as Pine/Saw Palmetto Flatwoods, which features four species of pine, saw palmetto, fetterbush, and bracken fern.
Catch a Sunset
Gorgeous sunset paints the sky over the beaches of Hilton Head Island
By far, one of the best free things to do in Hilton Head, SC, is to sit back, relax, and take in one of the island’s stunning and serene sunsets. Hilton Head sunsets are some of the most breathtaking along the East Coast, and are a whimsical way to end a magical day on the island. Luckily, there are plenty of picturesque places to catch the sunset in Hilton Head, including the following:
- Harbour Town Lighthouse
- Skull Creek Marina
- On a sunset boat tour with Vagabond Cruise
- Sea Pines Forest Preserve
- Pinckney Island National Wildlife Reserve
Mitchelville Freedom Park
Image of the observation pier at Mitchelville Freedom Park courtesy of the town of Hilton Head Island
Historic Mitchelville Freedom Park was created to educate and preserve the history of the Mitchelville settlement, which was America’s first pre-Civil War settlement for slaves who escaped neighboring plantations. Tours, exhibits, and programs are available, and are a great way to dive even deeper into the local history and culture. Mitchelville Freedom Park is known for its natural beauty, as well, and is a great place for wildlife photography, bird watching, and taking a stroll down the beach.
Hilton Head Range Rear Lighthouse
Image of the Rear Lighthouse of Hilton Head Range Light Station, also known as Leamington Lighthouse, from Wikipedia
The 92-foot-tall Hilton Head Range Rear Lighthouse was built between 1879 and 1880 to assist in guiding ships to Port Royal Sound. While this lighthouse may not be as recognized as the Harbour Town Lighthouse, it is the island’s last true lighthouse. In fact, it is one of only a handful of surviving lighthouses in the state, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and the Inventory of Historic Light Stations.
There is no cost of admission to see this historic structure, making it one of the top free things to do in Hilton Head, SC! Another unique draw to visiting this age-old lighthouse is its next-door neighbor, the Leamington Live Oak. This massive tree stands about 70-feet tall, and has a canopy that spans 150 feet. With an estimated age of nearly 450 years old, it is one of the area’s oldest living trees.
Friends shopping at Shelter Cove in Hilton Head, SC
Shelter Cove is the place to be for entertainment on Hilton Head Island! This massive complex boasts a wide variety of shops, delicious dining options, a marina, parks, an outdoor entertainment center, and tons of unforgettable things to do. From people watching while having a picnic at the park, to paddling through the waterways on a kayak or paddleboard, there’s so much to do in this beloved community, accommodating all interests, as well as budgets!
Day Trips and Excursions
Image of a shell structure found on Daufuskie Island from Wikimedia
While there are plenty of cheap and free things to do in Hilton Head to fill up an entire vacation itinerary, sometimes it’s nice to do some exploring just outside of the city limits! Luckily, Hilton Head is in close proximity to some spectacular destinations that are perfect for a quick and quality day trip or excursion. Awesome day trips from Hilton Head Island include the following:
- Daufuskie Island: Daufuskie Island is located just less than 10 miles away from Hilton Head Island, and even though it is only accessible by boat, it is definitely worth the trek. The island is mostly undeveloped, has unpaved roads, beautiful beaches, a rich history and culture, and will make you feel as if you’ve been transported back in time. In fact, their historic district is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and some of the artifacts that have been found on the island date back as far as 7000 BCE!
- Historic Savannah: Savannah, GA, is about 30 miles away from Hilton Head Island, and is known for its vibrant history and architecture, appreciation of the arts, and for having tons of terrific things to do! From enjoying a picnic in the gorgeous and historic Forsyth Park, to searching for spirits on a spooky ghost tour, Savannah has something for everyone.
- Charleston: Charleston consistently ranks among the top cities in the country to visit, as visitors love the area’s cobblestone streets, historic sites, beautiful beaches, and world-class dining. There are also so many things to do here, from visiting the gorgeous gardens at Middleton Place National Historic Landmark, to trotting through downtown on a carriage tour. Charleston is as charming as it gets, and at just under two hours away from Hilton Head, makes for an amazing day trip!
Old Town Bluffton
Image of downtown Bluffton courtesy of https://www.bluffton.com/
Bluffton is located just under 10 miles away from Hilton Head Island, and visiting this historic area is both fun, and affordable! Nestled along the banks of the beautiful May River, Bluffton is a great place for hiking, biking, and enjoying the great outdoors.
Appreciation for the arts is apparent here, as well, as Bluffton boasts a variety of galleries, performing arts venues, art festivals, and events. However you decide to spend your time in Bluffton, rest assured, you’re in for a fun and budget-friendly time!
Informational kiosk at Fort Howell. Image from Wikipedia
Fort Howell was the last of four forts built on Hilton Head Island during the Civil War, and was the site of a battle between Union and Confederate soldiers in 1861. When the battle was over, the Confederate troops retreated, and the Union soldiers freed all of the slaves on Hilton Head Island, making its local residents the first slaves to be freed during the Civil War.
While the fort itself is no longer standing, the mounds that created the exterior walls can still be seen when taking a stroll down the area’s beaten path. Fort Howell is open to the public and free to visit, and while it may not still be standing in all of its original glory, its role in history makes it a noteworthy sight to be seen!
Fort Mitchel cannon emplacement by Amy Stanton
Fort Mitchel was created during the Civil War as a coastal earthworks defense battery to protect the Port Royal Sound from invaders. Cannons were strategically placed along the water’s edge, and massive mounds were built in front of these cannons to absorb any direct hits from the opposition.
Now, a paved pathway runs through the remains, parallel to these historic mounds, as well as several cannons and historical markers. This fort was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2017, and with tickets starting as low as $10.00 per person, it is an affordable way to learn about the local history.
Eco tours are the perfect way to explore the luscious landscapes of Hilton Head Island, like the one pictured above
Hilton Head’s scenic beauty and luscious landscapes are ideal for outdoor adventurers, and provide a plethora of things to do to reconnect with nature. Eco tours are an affordable way for travelers to experience the area’s natural setting, in a way that’s safe for guests, as well as the environment. These tours come in all shapes and sizes, like paddleboard and kayak tours, for example, and showcase Hilton Head’s natural wonders at their finest!
Nearshore fishing off the coast of Hilton Head, SC
Fishing in Hilton Head, SC, is truly off the hook! With access to the Calibogue Sound, Intracoastal Waterway, Port Royal Sound, and the Atlantic Ocean, as well as other fishing spots on the island itself, Hilton Head is the apex of angling along the East Coast. While private deep sea fishing charters can cost a pretty penny, there are still plenty of other affordable options to get you out on the water, and telling fish tales in no time!
Party boat fishing is an affordable option for anglers in Hilton Head, SC. This is when multiple parties will come together aboard the same boat for a shared fishing trip. These boats will typically be between 50 and 75-feet long, and will usually accommodate anywhere between 40-100 guests. Popular species of fish to target on a party boat fishing trip, depending on the season, include the following:
- Black Sea Bass
- Spanish Mackerel
- Sea Trout
- And MORE!
Another affordable way to catch keepers in Hilton Head is to cast a line at one of the many fishing spots located on the island itself. This is ideal for those who already have their own fishing gear. No pole? No problem! There are a variety of places nearby to rent equipment. If this sounds like more your pace, check out these popular Hilton Head Island fishing spots:
- Jarvis Creek Park
- Charles C. Haigh Jr. Fishing Pier
- Palmetto Dunes and The Sea Pines Resort Lagoons
Customer purchasing fresh, local produce at a farmers’ market in Hilton Head
Another fun and cheap thing to do in Hilton Head, SC, is to visit one of the many area farmers’ markets! It can be as affordable, or as lavish, as you’d like it to be! Whether you simply stroll through the market to discover the local flavor and culture, or set out to shop for the perfect souvenir, there’s so much to see and do. Below are a few of the top Hilton Head farmers’ markets for a fun-filled, family-friendly day:
- Coastal Discovery Museum Farmers’ Market: Taking place every Tuesday morning at the Coastal Discovery Museum, the Coastal Discovery Museum Farmers’ Market yields fresh, local produce and other delicious eats. Another interesting point is that guests can even have their knives sharpened while shopping here!
- Wexford Outdoor Farmers’ Market: Every Wednesday from May to October, the Village at Wexford is transformed into a fantastic farmers’ market! This open-air market features a wide variety of local products, and is a great way to spend the day and enjoy Hilton Head’s wonderful weather.
- The Farmers’ Market at the Shops at Sea Pines Center: This farmers’ market has it all! Spend the day perusing through local produce, gourmet cheeses, crafts, art, and so much more.
As you can see, this coastal city has everything you need for a fun-filled vacation. With so many cheap and free things to do in Hilton Head, SC, a trip to this bustling beach town is sure to be both magical, and affordable! From witnessing a wonderful sunset on the beach, to spotting dolphins on an unforgettable dolphin cruise, there are so many budget-friendly ways to create lifelong memories in Hilton Head. Learn even more about this gorgeous area with our TripShock Hilton Head Visitors Guide.
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