When people think of Hilton Head Island off the coast of South Carolina, they tend to think of golfing. This tiny island that’s a mere 12 miles by five miles wide has some pretty fantastic courses, with Golf Digest readers ranking Hilton Head as the #10 golf resort destinations in the world, and the magazine itself once ranked Harbour Town Golf Links the 13th best public course in the entire country.
What else do people think of when they imagine this tiny little shoe-shaped islet? If we were being really honest, we’d have to say rich folks. There are plenty on the island, as it’s become something of a Boca North for retirees, with gated manse communities outfitted with personal docks on the backs of their palatial estates. That’s not to say one can’t find a good and inexpensive plate of seafood to eat and a fairly budget conscious-friendly bungalow to vacation at, but, as the years have passed it would be silly not to mention how it has become an island of expensive resorts, prestigious zip codes, expensive villa rentals, and fancy restaurants. This is what happens when you have beautiful beaches, really warm ocean water, and golfing. And tennis. Oh, and alligators. Not that the rich love alligators, but they can’t be avoided, really, as the island’s got plenty due to the surfeit of lagoons, and although attacks have been rare, they do occur on occassion, so visitors are always reminded that, for a short distance, alligators can outrun horses. At least according to this Hilton Head vacation site. Nature is nothing if not ceaselessly surprising.
There’s something else to Hilton Head Island, however, beyond the surface beauty, the pristine golf courses, the beaches and boats and freakishly fast-for-a-limited-time alligators. There is history. A rich, wild, ancient history that is preserved in, well a Preserve. The Sea Pines Forest Preserve to be exact. The sand ridges and wetlands of Sea Pine Forest Preserve span a 605-acre area, including wildflower fields, bogs, the “Vanishing Swamp” which rises and disappears throughout the seasons, rookeries, lakes, old rice fields, and ample trails for hiking, bird watching and horseback riding. There’s a heritage farm in the northwestern corner where farmers produce about 5,o00 pounds of food a year, all of which is donated to the Deep Well Project.
The real gem of the preserve, however, is a trace of ancient life left behind by the nomadic Native Americans who called Hilton Head home some 10,000 years ago. The Sea Pines Indian Shell Ring, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is an ovoid shaped mound of shells and other materials that is only one of 20 in existence. At 150-feet in diameter, the ring once contained Native American families who lived within its circle. There were two other shell rings on the island, but they were destroyed when the shells were removed and used to make tabby, a type of concrete made from lime, shells, gravel and stones, to build roads and buildings.
In the 18th century, the Sea Pines area was used to grow rice, indigo and cotton, as a hunting ground and a timber supply. In early 1950s, when Charles Fraser started to develop Sea Pines, he and his family set aside a tract of 572-acres for the Preserve, and eventually filed legal convenants that held 605 total acres for outdoor recreation and a wildlife habitat.
Today, as thousands of people flock to the island every year to get a tan and some quality scorecard cheating in during their golf outings (we kid, no one ever lies about their golf score), it’s nice to know there’s still a part of the old Hilton Head Island that remains, and all you need is a sturdy pair of hiking boots and the desire to see some wildlife, some ancient artifacts, and maybe even hop on a horse.
Here’s some info if you’re ever on Hilton Head:
Sea Pines Forest Preserve
Sea Pines Recreation Department, 175 Greenwood Drive, Hilton Head Island, SC