By Frank Babel, Contributor
When visitors first arrive at Hilton Head Island, generally they are amazed at the number of bicycles zipping around the island. They see pathways teeming with people of all ages, sizes and shapes. Why? Well in part, Hilton Head Island is a nationally recognized bicycle friendly community, the highest ranked in the southeast. How did it get there and what does this mean to island residents and guests?
Back in the 1960’s, a visionary developer named Charles Fraser set the tone for what has become this beautiful community. When he developed the Sea Pines Plantation, he foresaw the need for a resort oriented community with a ton of amenities, open spaces, natural beauty, lush trees and vegetation, a beautiful beach, golf courses and new, cutting edge leisure trails. This concept was very successful and then was expanded to other island plantations.
Fast forward into the mid 1980’s, the town of Hilton Head Island was rapidly growing through tourism, it incorporated and with a tax base and funding, started building multi use leisure trails (mostly to get people off streets). Eventually, about 50 miles of multi – use pathways were built on town land to complement another 50 miles in private gated communities.
About ten years ago, local biking advocates started collaborating with the town to improve bike safety and friendliness. New pathways were built filling in holes in the bikeways system, pathways were upgraded and safety features like signalized crossings and crosswalks were added. 30 map kiosks were installed, signs and maps became available. The community embraced and supported these improvements and the public responded. Soon, Hilton Head’s pathways system became a recognized town amenity along with beaches, golf, tennis, shopping and dining. The bike rental business also boomed with nearly 25,000 bikes available for rental from dozens of rental shops giving consumers a variety of choices.
In 2011, recognizing the uniqueness of this bikeways system, the town applied for and received the League of American Bicyclists silver level Bike Friendly Community award, the highest such recognized in South Carolina. With continued improvements during the next four year, in 2015, the town reapplied and was awarded the gold designation making it the highest ranked in the Southeast, and one of only two such ranked on the east coast.
The “So what” of all this is that the town now has a nationally recognized, ubiquitous network of safe bike trails connecting virtually all parts of the island. It is unlike any other resort oriented community in this country. Visitors once checked in can ride bikes to the beach, restaurants, events, and most places they chose to go. They can go as individuals even though it’s not unusual for folks to get on a bike here for the first time in 20 or 30 years (yes, it does come back quickly). They can ride as singles, couples but especially in family groups; kids love to be on bikes and didn’t we all when we were that age? They can leave their motor vehicles parked at their rental homes, hotels or timeshares, and not worry about traffic or finding a parking place. At low tide and with the wind at their back, they can ride on the islands’ twelve miles of bikeable beaches, one of the real treats of riding in Hilton Head. On the beach, cyclists can look for dolphins offshore, watch the pelicans fly in formation, do some great people watching and just take in the beauty of the ocean, sand and shore. A real treat is to get up early one day and ride to the beach and watch the sun peek up and then rise over the Atlantic Ocean. Or find a special place to picnic and enjoy a spectacular sunset.
Getting lost?? Not a problem. It is an island and eventually you will come back to where you started. To assist, there are 30 kiosks strategically located at key pathways points. All contain suggested bike routes for riders of different abilities. Island maps are available just about everywhere, or online at the town’s website http://www.hiltonheadislandsc.gov/ourisland/pathways.cfm?menuheader=4 or the local chamber of commerce website http://www.hiltonheadisland.org/see-and-do/biking/ . And there are a group of readily identified volunteer biking ambassadors who patrol the island and help visitors find their way around. They also give recommendations about what to do and where to eat and shop. Or download into your smartphone the chamber’s free Compass APP to help navigate around the island, and find out about events, deals, places to go and things to do; http://www.hiltonheadisland.org/island-compass/ .
The town has about a dozen parks, some overlooking beautiful marshes or the sea, others featuring historic elements of Hilton Head’s past such as Mitchelville, Ft. Howell, the Zion Cemetery and Baynard Mausoleum to name a few. The Heritage Library offers Heritage and History guided bike tours. The Coastal Discovery Museum on the island’s north end is a Smithsonian affiliate and has many interesting exhibits in an incredibly beautiful historic setting. All these are accessible by bikes with plenty of bike parking available. Information on these are on the websites listed above.
What is most fun is to take the attitude that you have no preconceived destination. Just get on the pathways, feel your way around, and explore. Go visit restaurants. Go to the beach, go with the wind at low tide and see where it carries you. Instead of riding against the wind coming back, go to one of eleven beach entry points and ride the pathways back home.
Safety? There is safety in numbers. Just about every place you go there will be people there to help if you get lost or disoriented. But following a few pathways safety tips can help;
- Ride on the right, pass on the left.
- Announce your intention with a friendly “passing on your left.”
- Slow down if pathway is congested and always yield to pedestrians.
- Be careful at intersections with crossing pathways. If there is a waiting or approaching motor vehicle, always make eye contact with the driver to establish who will cross the intersection first.
- Motor vehicles have the right of way in South Carolina. They will not stop for waiting bicyclists or pedestrians. But if bikers or pedestrians are in the crosswalks, vehicles must yield to them.
- Kids under 12 should wear helmets, all bike shops have helmets for rent, some provide them free of charge.
Last but not least, Trip Advisor visitors rate riding Hilton Head Island’s bike trails the #1 thing to do while on the island. In a nutshell, posts say the following; “great bike trails, go everywhere, safe, flat, wide, well maintained, great maps and kiosks, improving every year, it’s why I come back.” Go to Trip Advisor, check out the postings and discover even more things to do. Here are a few representative postings;
One of our favorite things to do in Hilton Head Island is to ride the bike trails. We love to ride around town, down the beach, to restaurants and enjoy all the sights. The trails are wide, extremely well kept, the terrain is flat in most places, and great for cruising. There are a ton of places to rent bikes,..
This is our first time to Hilton Head and we absolutely love the biking trails! We are an active family and the trails provide safe and shaded access to almost anywhere you want to go.
Hilton [Head] has done a great job for cyclists. You can ride for miles safely and it’s hard to get lost. There are maps you can pick up almost anywhere, kiosks on major corners so you can check out where you are, and Bike Ambassadors in bright dayglow green shirts to help you with whatever you might need – directions, first aid, suggestions.
This island has an incredible bike trail system that is shady and very well maintained. I have never seen a bike trail system at a resort this well designed and maintained.
Park your car. You won’t need it!
I mean it. We have been to Hilton Head before and notice during all of the bicycle traffic so this time we brought our bikes with us. Once we arrived and got unloaded, we did not start our car until we got ready to leave. We were able to ride the bikes everywhere. We were in the Coligny Beach area and had everything within a few minutes ride. There are paths that go everywhere so an extended ride to explore was enjoyed as well. All of the businesses and amenities have bike racks so we were able to secure our rides at every stop.
You are in a very special place. Open spaces, beautiful trees, lagoons and views, a great bikeable beach, lots to do, see and enjoy. So rent that bike, get on these nationally ranked trails, ride safely, and enjoy your vacation.