Hilton Head Island is one of the top family vacation destinations in South Carolina. It’s known for many things: It’s top-notch golf courses, diverse wildlife, delicious seafood … and, of course, its white sand beaches.
If you’re visiting for the first time — or the first time with a child — there are some things you should know before taking a trip to the beach:
Where to Park — Public Beach Access Points on Hilton Head:
Because Hilton Head is a top tourist destination, parking can fill up quickly near public beach access points. Even though the entire stretch of white sandy beach on Hilton Head Island is public, many beach access points are private or for residents/resort guests only.
The island has several “beach parks” that provide public access points and parking. A full list of beach parks and allocated parking spaces can be found here.
Here are the public beach access points:
- Coligny Beach Park is the most popular beach for tourists on Hilton Head. This beach is on the south end of the island, near Sea Pines Resort and several hotels. There is a large parking lot across the street from the beach with 390 free parking spaces. You can also park at the nearby USCB Hilton Head Island campus and take the free shuttle to Coligny Beach from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. on Fridays-Sundays (and holiday Mondays). This beach is also walking distance to a bunch of shops and restaurants in Coligny Beach Plaza, is staffed with lifeguards, has restrooms and showers, and has a beach mat to help you roll carts or wheelchairs onto the beach. This is also a beach with easy access to beach rentals from Shore Beach Service. Because it’s the most popular beach (with the most parking spots and the free shuttle), it’s also the most crowded beach on the island. So if your family is looking for less crowds, see the beaches below.
- Alder Lane is just south of Coligny Beach, but it has very limited parking. There are only 22 metered parking spots at this beach access point (and they only accept coins). The access point does have a boardwalk, beach matting, restrooms and outdoor showers.
- Burkes Beach offers another large parking lot with 246 free parking spaces. The parking lot is at nearby Chaplin Community Park, the island’s largest park. This park has restrooms and outdoor showers, picnic pavilions, sports areas, a playground, a dog park and trails. This beach access point offers the largest free parking lot on the northern end of the island. There’s also a beach mat for easy access, plus seasonal lifeguards and beach rentals at this access point.
- Driessen Beach Park is just north of Burkes Beach, and offers 168 metered parking spaces. The rest of the parking lot is reserved for residents with a parking pass. This park is great for kids, as there’s a playground for the little ones to burn off any excess energy before or after the beach day. If your family wants to spend the whole day here, there’s also a picnic pavilion and a grill, plus restrooms and outdoor showers.
- Folly Field Beach Park is the smallest public access point in this northern end stretch of beach. There are only 51 metered spaces here, so parking fills up pretty quickly. However, it also tends to be one of the least crowded areas of the beach on Hilton Head. This access point also has all of the standard amenities — restrooms, outdoor showers, beach matting, a boardwalk and lifeguards. If this parking lot is full, you can check a bit further north at Islanders Beach Park. This is one of the nicest beach access points on the island — the bulk of the parking is reserved for residents, so many people think you have to have a pass to park here. However, if you have some change with you, there are 25 coin-metered parking spots. Beyond the basic amenities, there’s also a playground at Islanders Beach Park.
- Fish Haul Beach Park is the best beach access point for nature lovers. The beach overlooks the Port Royal Sound rather than the open Atlantic, but it’s a lot quieter and more natural than some of the other beach areas and is great for bird watching. You can also walk on boardwalks through the marsh from this access point. There are 93 free parking spots here, plus basic amenities (restrooms, outdoor showers, beach matting). Lifeguards are not stationed in this area. If your family is interest in history, this beach is also located in Bay Gall, one of Hilton Head Island’s historic Gullah neighborhoods. Historic Mitchelville Freedom Park is also nearby, which was the first self-governed town of formerly enslaved people in the U.S.
What to bring to Hilton Head Island beaches:
Because many of the public beach access points require walks down long boardwalks or from the parking areas, we recommend families either invest in or rent a beach wagon! This makes getting all of your beach gear and toys to and from the beach so much easier; your back will thank you!
Here’s what we recommend bringing to the beach:
- Plenty of sunscreen (and bug spray if you’re on the northern end of the island!)
- Water bottles or a cooler if you’re spending the whole day
- Snacks or a picnic lunch (you can also check if the beach park you’re visiting has a grill!)
- Dry clothes for everyone to change into when leaving the beach (all beach access points have outdoor showers where you can rinse off, then change in the restrooms!)
- Beach towels
- A beach blanket or beach chairs
- Beach toys (no big shovels!)
Beach rentals on Hilton Head Island
If you’re just here for vacation or don’t think you’ll visit often enough to buy your own beach wagon, umbrella, etc., Shore Beach Services offers beach rentals. You can reserve your rentals in advance or find a rental location on the beach. This is the only service that will set rentals up for you. You can also check out this list of companies who have beach equipment rentals.
Local Hilton Head Island beach laws
Hilton Head Island is very passionate about its wildlife, so there are many local ordinances in place to help protect the animals — especially nesting sea turtles.
No large holes or shovels
If your little ones like to dig holes or sandcastles, remember to knock down the sandcastles before you leave and fill in any holes! Holes more than 12 inches deep are NOT permitted on the beach, and if you bring a shovel it needs to be a toy shovel — shovels must be “made of wood and/or plastic and less than 30 inches in length and 6 inches in width.” These rules are in place both for the safety of other humans and to protect sea turtles, which can fall into these holes and get stuck — and hatchlings can get blocked by a sandcastle and not make it into the ocean.
Local ordinance also calls for no lights on the beach after 10 p.m. This includes turning off any porch lights or visible lights from your beachfront vacation rental. The ordinance is known as “lights out for sea turtles,” and is another measure to help protect the endangered loggerheads.
Don’t take living creatures
Another big one to remember? Do NOT take any living creature off of the beach. While this may be a no-brainer to most people, there are a few creatures you may not know are living if you’re new to the beach: Sand dollars are the most common mix up.
While people think of sand dollars as shells to collect, they are actually living creatures. You can tell if a sand dollar is living by looking at a few different things:
- Check the color. If they’re brown, they’re probably still alive. The “shell” you collect is actually their exoskeleton, and it will become hard and bleached white by the sun.
- Are they soft? If they feel soft or “squishy,” they are probably alive.
- Flip them over. Do you see tiny “legs” along the bottom? If you look closely, you’ll see them move on live ones.
- Do they leave a stain? If you pick them up and notice a yellow stain on your hand, they are alive. Please place any live sand dollars you find back in the water!
Taking any live creature from the beach — including live sand dollars — can result in a $500 fine. Make sure you check any shells you collect for living creatures — like sea slugs — before you take them away from the water. Do NOT harass any living creatures either, including birds.
Dogs on Hilton Head beaches
While Hilton Head is generally pretty dog-friendly, dogs are not allowed on the beach between the hours of 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. during peak season — from the Friday before Memorial Day until Labor Day. If you’re visiting in the summer, you can bring your dog early in the morning or after 5 p.m. Dogs must be on leash or under voice control. It’s also illegal to let dogs harass the wildlife.
No alcohol or glass on Hilton Head beaches
While sipping a cold beer with your toes in the sand might sound like a great vacation, alcohol is prohibited on Hilton Head Island beaches. Coolers with nonalcoholic beverages are allowed — just don’t pack any beverages in glass bottles.