Outer Banks vs. Hilton Head

There are some similarities between Hilton Head and the Outer Banks. There are differences as well, but there are some striking similarities.

Environmental Stewardship

The most striking similarity is the emphasis on preserving and experiencing nature in as primitive a state as possible. Hilton Head has a well-deserved reputation for environmental stewardship that dates back to its creation as a resort in 1956.

Aerial view of Hilton Head
Aerial view of Hilton Head

The ecological preserves on the island are smaller than the protected maritime forests that comprise the Outer Banks preserves. The trails around them are designed for easy walking or bike riding.

The Outer Banks maritime forest preserves offer a far greater range of environments to explore. Some of that is the nature of the environment in which they exist. Hilton Head is a true island and although it does have dunes and sand hills, they are not as extensive or as high as the dunes of Jockey’s Ridge State Park or Sandy Run Nature Preserve.

Vernal Pool Jockeys Ridge
Jockey’s Ridge on the Outer Banks

There are some very easy paths to experience in Outer Banks preserves, especially at Nags Head Woods, Pine Island or Currituck Estuarine Reserve. There are also, though, some surprisingly rugged trails that include elevation gains that almost seem mountain like in Nags Head Woods and Buxton Woods.

Pinkney Island National Wildlife Refuge is immediately adjacent to Hilton Head Island. Because Hilton Head is a relatively large island it’s difficult to say how long the trip would be. It could be ten minutes away or 45, depending on the starting point on the island. The distance is about the same as the drive to Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge from the Outer Banks, although Pinkney Island is not nearly as larges as Alligator River.

Hilton Head Beaches

The beaches are another area where there are some similarities between the Outer Banks and Hilton Head although there are also significant differences.

Both locations boast extensive beaches, although the Outer Banks with 100 miles for oceanfront has much more beach than the 12 miles of Hilton Head Island.

Bodie Island Beach and Lighthouse
Outer Banks beaches

The type of sand is different though. Although some of the Hilton Head beaches do have the soft sand that beachgoers look for, other beaches are a harder, packed sand. Hard enough that a bike can be ridden on them. A bike can also be ridden on some Outer Banks beaches, but really wide tires and strong legs will be needed for that.

Although there is some free parking available for Hilton Head Beaches, much of the access to the beaches is controlled either with parking meters or longterm parking permits.

Beach Biking On Hilton Head
Biking on Hilton Head Island beach

Like the Outer Banks—and North Carolina in general—Hilton Head beaches are in the public domain, meaning anyone can enjoy them while on the beach. Access, however, is not a public right. In North Carolina many local governments have agreements with the North Carolina Division of Coastal Management to create free beach access. The CAMA sign stands for Coastal Area Management Act that created the Division of Coastal Management.

Surfing and Wind Sports

One area that Hilton Head doesn’t quite measure up to the Outer Banks is in surf conditions.

The manner in which Hilton Head is configured to the Atlantic Ocean and the distance from the Gulf Stream creates significantly calmer surf conditions.

Zac Coyle Surfing OBX
Outer Banks Surfing

The offshore geology of the Outer Banks is also part of the formula for some great waves. As an example, Wimble Shoals focuses the energy of the waves at the S Curves just north of Rodanthe, creating some of the best surf conditions on the East Coast.

There are other factors as well that create fantastic conditions for surfers.

The offshore transport of sand along the Outer Banks is one of the largest in the world. Because of that, temporary reefs and sandbars are constantly being created, producing ever changing conditions.

Also working in the Outer Banks favor is the length and shape of the barrier islands. Frequently when there’s not much action on the northern beaches, the southeast facing beaches of Buxton and Hatteras have some great conditions.

Hilton Head Island Surf
Hilton Head Surf

With the entrance to Port Royal Sound on the north end of Hilton Head, there’s lots of open water for kitesurfing and wind sports. The area is not as extensive as the Outer Banks sounds offer, nor is Port Royal Sound as shallow as either Pamlico Sound or Roanoke Sound. Nonetheless, Hilton Head is a substantial center of wind sport activity.

Lodging

Hilton Head Island was originally developed with the idea of being an exclusive resort, one that would cater to a more affluent clientele.

It has moved way beyond that now, but the effects of that original concept influences the availability of rental homes.

Hotels dominate the lodging picture on the island, unlike the Outer Banks where most of our visitors opt to stay in houses.

Southern Shores NC Beachfront
Vacation Homes on the Outer Banks

Some of the hotels are their own miniature resort and much of the best beachfront lodging is found in the hotels. However, because Hilton Head is an island — 69 square miles — there are different areas to stay that are considered quite nice, although they are not close to the ocean.

Golfing

There is one area that Hilton Head Island completely dominates the Outer Banks and that’s golfing and golf courses.

There are 16 golf courses on the island and two more in close proximity in Bluffton, a small mainland town a few miles away.

Golf Course on Hilton Head
Golf Course on Hilton Head

The Outer Banks simply doesn’t have the room for that many courses, although there is some good challenging golf to be played here. Nags Head Links, as an example, with the back nine exposed to winds coming off Roanoke Sound can test even the best golfers, but even stretching the geographic reach of the Outer Banks to Grandy on the mainland, there are still only seven courses.

The Noticeable Differences

Hilton is classified as having a humid subtropical type of climate. In the summer it can be oppressively hot with high humidity. The Outer Banks also experiences some pretty hot days and sometime it’s humid.

However, the winds that brought the Wright Brothers to Kitty Hawk are still a regular feature of local life. They don’t chase the heat and humidity away, but a 10mph breeze certainly makes things much more tolerable.

wright brothers aerial KFFA
Wright Brothers Monument on the Outer Banks

There are also noticeable differences in summertime water temperatures.

Summertime ocean water temperature on the Outer Banks hover around the mid 70s. That’s a very comfortable temperature—cool enough to refresh, but warm enough to not shock the system.

Hilton Head water temperatures average ten degrees warmer in the summer. That’s still cooler than typical daytime temperatures, but noticeably warmer than the Outer Banks.

There is an airport on Hilton Head Island with regularly scheduled flights—something the Outer Banks does not have.

Hilton Head Island also sits in the middle of a fairly heavily populated area, unlike the Outer Banks that has no large population centers in close proximity. Beaufort County, where the resort is located, has a population well over 160,000. Savannah, Georgia is only 31 miles away.