There are massive sectors of the tourism industry dedicated to wildlife viewing. The thrill of seeing new and exotic creatures can draw visitors from all over the world. We can see this in action from the savannas of Africa to the Outback of Australia. Of course, the United States also has certain areas that rely on their local wildlife to bring in tourists. Several regions, such as the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, market themselves as premier birdwatching areas. Many coastal states offer whale or dolphin watching tours, or perhaps coral reef dives. No matter what the type of animal on display, these opportunities to get close to nature are nearly always extremely popular.
Of course, for several towns, the excitement of seeing the local fauna up close just isn’t enough. For these quirky corners of the country the local animals are just too boring – because they’re too real. These three towns have instead dedicated themselves to the study of cryptozoology – the “science” of documenting mysterious creatures and proving their existence. From land to sea to air, each of these towns claims to be home to some sort of legendary, monstrous being. And instead of running away in terror, the residents have decided to embrace the weirdness and run with it. Let’s take a look.
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Willow Creek, CA – Bigfoot’s Lair
With a population of less than 2,000, Willow Creek (see map) is little more than a stopover town connecting the larger cities of Eureka and Redding. It lies in a fairly isolated area of eastern Humboldt County, accessed only by two-lane winding mountain roads. But it’s this very isolation that gives the town its claim to fame – the deep forest that surrounds Willow Creek is the ideal habitat for the USA’s most famous cryptozoological wonder. This otherwise small village has a big title – it’s the Bigfoot capital of the world.
In Willow Creek. Photo by Trisha Fawver on Flickr (cc)
Willow Creek began its life in the same manner as many others in this part of the Pacific Northwest: as a logging and mining town. The village was, by all accounts, unremarkable. While residents heard legends of Sasquatch – Native American stories tell of a ten-foot beast living in the area – the town didn’t seem to be any different than others in its general vicinity. This all changed in 1958, when loggers around town began to discover massive footprints around their camps. In one instance, a worker reported being chased by a massive, hairy, foul-smelling beast.
Willow Creek wasted no time in marketing its mysterious new inhabitant. By 1960, the town had organized a yearly Bigfoot Parade down its main street. Plaster casts of the footprints were produced and sold as souvenirs. More and more sightings were reported. Then, in 1967, Roger Patterson shot his infamous film near Willow Creek, sending the nation into Bigfoot mania. This video solidified the town’s claim as Bigfoot Central.
Today, you can’t walk more than a few blocks in Willow Creek without stumbling upon something Sasquatch-related. The town opened a Bigfoot Museum in 2000, complete with a two-story-tall wood-carved statue. Around town, you’ll find several more Sasquatch sculptures as well as a pair of murals dedicated to the hairy beast. If you’re tired or hungry, Bigfoot’s got you covered: you can stay at the Bigfoot Motel, dine at the Bigfoot Restaurant, or even find some reading material at the Bigfoot Bookstore!
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Burlington, VT – Champ Lurks Below
Burlington, the largest town in Vermont (see map), doesn’t have vast expanses of wilderness to hide its favorite creature. It does, however, have the beautiful and deep Lake Champlain. It is here that Burlington hosts America’s answer to the Loch Ness Monster: Champ.
The lore of Champ (named after the lake he calls home) goes back centuries. The first recorded sighting of the sea monster was by explorer Samuel de Champlain himself in 1609 – he describes a “20-foot serpent…with a body as thick as a keg” in his journal. Since then, reports of sightings have been regular, and several prominent photographs and videos have surfaced. The photos don’t appear to be doctored (some were even examined by FBI forensic specialists to determine authenticity), but, like all matters dealing with sea monsters, are too blurry to be conclusive.
What makes the story of Champ fascinating, however, is that there are other scientific findings that seem to confirm the existence of the monster. Sonar recordings of Lake Champlain have picked up signals similar to that of a dolphin or whale, but the freshwater environment of the lake makes the presence of these animals impossible. A massive search of the lake in 1993 yielded a sonar report showing a 20-foot object moving far below the surface. Most interestingly, unique reptiles have been found and documented along the shores of the lake. This leaves the door open for the (extremely unlikely) possibility that Champ is not a single beast, but rather an undiscovered, dinosaur-like species lurking in the deepest parts of the lake.
Champ, Mascot of the Vermont Lake Monsters. Via Wikimedia Commons.
Burlington has welcomed its serpentine son with open arms; they have erected a monument to Champ on a pier overlooking Lake Champlain, as well as a dragon-like shoreline statue. The creature is also the namesake and mascot of the local minor league baseball team, the Vermont Lake Monsters.
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Point Pleasant, WV – Mothman’s Roost
Point Pleasant (see map) lies on the banks of the Ohio River, nestled in the green hills of the Mountain State. This area of the country does not have the historical folklore that makes Champ and Bigfoot so legendary; Point Pleasant remained monsterless well into the 20th century. However, this town’s cryptozoological star didn’t need centuries of stories to permanently establish itself as a key part of the local identity. The Mothman may have only terrorized Point Pleasant for a couple of years in the 1960s, but he left an impression on the town that is evident to this day.
The origin of the Mothman can be traced back to an exact date: November 25, 1966. Late that night, a group of four friends encountered a flying humanoid with massive wings, which followed them as they attempted to flee in their car. The terrified group reported their findings to the local police, and news of the disturbing assailant spread quickly. The next morning, the newspaper published the headline “Couples See Man-Sized Bird…Creature…Something,” sparking hysteria throughout the town.
The Dreaded Mothman. Photo by Katherine Bowman on Flickr (cc)
Over the next year, sightings of the Mothman were frequent. It was rumored that the creature lived in an abandoned power plant just outside of town, coming out at night to terrorize residents. Local officials attempted to explain the monster away – the official excuse was that the Mothman was just a sandhill crane that had wandered out of its usual migration path – but no one bought it. At the same time, strange lights began to appear in the sky around Point Pleasant and UFO sightings became commonplace. It seemed that the Mothman had brought the apocalypse itself to this small Appalachian town. Sadly, the story of the Mothman ended in tragedy. On December 15, 1967, Point Pleasant’s Silver Bridge collapsed, killing 46 people. Whether people forgot about the Mothman in the wake of the catastrophe, or whether the monster had accomplished some evil mission, one thing is certain: he was never seen again.
The Mothman was pretty much forgotten until 2002, when the release of the movie The Mothman Prophecies brought national attention back to Point Pleasant. This time, the town cashed in. They organized a yearly Mothman Festival to be held each September, opened a museum dedicated to the Mothman (as well as the bridge collapse and subsequent movie), and erected a 12-foot metal statue of the monster in the center of town, complete with glowing red eyes. While recent sightings of the creature have surfaced, they have quickly been debunked. Still, the Mothman’s legacy lives on.
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Ochopee, FL: Skunk Ape HQ – The skunk ape is the South’s answer to Bigfoot – a seven-foot-tall, red-haired, foul-smelling humanoid. The tiny town of Ochopee (see map) – or, more specifically, longtime resident Dave Shealy – is home to the Skunk Ape Research Headquarters, where visitors can listen to Shealy’s stories of personal sightings and view a variety of skunk ape artifacts. While Shealy does have a video of a skunk ape “sighting,” this creature doesn’t have quite the same historical base as the previous three. It seems to be more of a one-man enterprise than a town devoted to cryptozoology.
Skunk Ape HQ. Photo by Lonny Paul on Flickr (cc)
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