Looking for a trip to the coast before Spring melts into Summer? If you've never taken the opportunity to visit Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, you should, and there's no time like the present. HHI offers a bit of everything for the coastal traveler, especially those who enjoy taking in the sights and sounds of the wildlife. Located just a few hours' drive from several southeastern population centers, like Atlanta, it's easy to get to and you'll be glad you did. Now that I've got your attention, let's look at some specific activities to round out your trip.
Hilton Head is an island, after all, so it's surrounded by water. A lot of that water is found on rivers and marshes, which provide a refuge for many types of birds and other animals. One that you'll see while paddling areas such as the Harbor River is the bottle-nosed dolphin. The dolphin cruise the waters in pods, looking for small fish to feed on along the way. Since they're mammals, they breathe air just like you and I do, so they regularly surface to take a breath. When you're low to the water in a kayak, with dolphins swimming in close proximity, it's an amazing experience. It's usually quite enough, since you're away from road traffic and other noisy elements, that you can locate the dolphin by listening for their distinctive exhales. If you're looking to snap pictures like the one above, you'll need to be patient, as well as a master of your camera's settings. While their movements are somewhat rhythmic, it's hard to anticipate exactly where they'll surface, and that means you'll be scanning the surface quite a bit. A camera with burst mode and a long lens will help a lot, as will controlling the settings manually. If you're a novice, you can still capture some good shots, even if just using a smart phone, you'll just need to be more persistent.
And when it comes to spotting sea birds, you'll have no shortage of opportunities. Sea gulls, egrets, great blue
herons, and various cranes call the area home. When paddling, ease yourself into a marshy cut or up to an exposed oyster bed and relax. If you scan the marsh grass, you'll see a lot going on, and once the birds have seen that you're not a fast-moving threat, they'll often buzz you, providing great angles for pictures.
If wildlife viewing from the water isn't your cup of tea, no worries, there's land-based options as well. One such option is the Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge, which is adjacent to Hilton Head Island. It was established in 1975 and encompasses 4,053 acres, providing a haven for all types of wildlife, including wading birds, white-tailed deer, bobcats, and American alligators. It's easily accessible via U.S. Highway 278. Be sure to pack water and insect repellant, as the salt marshes and ponds are breeding grounds for mosquitos and other nagging insects. Also, I recommend hiking in shoes...not sandals, as there are also ants that pack a nasty punch, if you happen to step into their realm (and you likely will).
Hey, I'm a photographer, so the sky fascinates me - nearly all the time. One of the benefits to visiting a place like Hilton Head is that you have many opportunities to capture beautiful sunrises and sunsets. Head down to the beach and snag yourself a golden sunrise. For the best photo results, try to pick a morning with some light to moderate clouds in the sky, but with enough breaks for the sun to show through. Or, find yourself a spot along the Harbor River looking west for a fiery sunset. If you want to mix in some dinner and drinks, I highly recommend the Skull Creek Boathouse. The food is excellent, with the "Sunset Supper" being the perfect pairing for scenery at hand.
Yes...shark fishing. The Harbor River offers anglers several varieties of shark that will score you an exciting fight when you hook one up. In addition to being a photographer, I'm an avid fisherman, so it's another activity that I plan for when visiting HHI. There's several places you can fish from shore to land a shark or two, or you can get adventurous and try reeling one in from a kayak (it's fun). Just before you make it out onto Hilton Head, you can turn left onto Sawmill Creek Road and head for the H.E. Trask, Sr. Boat Landing. It's public, and gives you great access to the Harbor River. You can also fish from the pier, if you aren't able to make it out onto the water. There's a bulletin board off to the right, just before you reach the boat ramp, which has a nice display of the various shark species you can find here. Be sure that you obtain a South Carolina Salt Water Fishing permit before you cast your line. They do have game wardens that check the area frequently, so make sure you're in compliance. You should be able to pick up a non-resident, temporary permit at a number of locations in the area (click here for info).
These are just some of the activities you can look forward to when visiting Hilton Head Island. There's much more to do, but these rank high on my list. Your mileage may vary. It's a beautiful place, the food is good, and the wildlife is waiting. The question is, why are you?