Why you should care
Because if you’re not watching the trees, you won’t see a skunk ape.
Alligators, crocodiles … and skunk apes? Legends loom large along Florida’s Tamiami Trail, aka U.S. 41, which bisects the southern reaches of the state from east to west through the Everglades and Big Cypress National Preserve. And it’s home to one of the most unusual “research headquarters” imaginable.
They’re not studying the scientifically confirmed water-borne denizens of the Everglades (aka, gators) in the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it outpost of Ochopee — which also happens to be home to the smallest U.S. post office. At the Skunk Ape Research Headquarters, open since 1994, the subject of study is a Sasquatch-like creature that can grow to a reported 350 pounds.
“The best way to describe a skunk ape is like a hairy man,” says Dave Shealy, founder of the center, which doubles as a gift shop and animal exhibit and is also the gathering point for pole boat tours down the nearby Turner River. Shealy claims to have seen the creature as a child, in 1974, near his home in what’s now Big Cypress National Preserve. Tall — “6 or 7 feet would be a large one” — the skunk ape is covered with hair, “a lot like the Bigfoot of the Pacific Northwest,” explains Shealy in a matter-of-fact tone. “But unlike a Bigfoot, skunk apes have four toes instead of five.” Good to know.
Shealy himself is a tall man, with legs like tree trunks, a dead-serious air and glacier-blue eyes. And he speaks with such conviction it’s hard not to be at least curious about the legend — especially when you browse the array of skunk ape–related souvenirs (koozies, tongue-in-cheek hunting permit stickers, T-shirts) — in the gift shop beside a small gas station. What you won’t find in the Skunk Ape Research Headquarters, an exhibit area about the size of a large garage, is a research station on the skunk ape. There’s no real research going on here at all.
Whether you buy into the lore or not, it’s worth shelling out the entrance fee ($12 for adults, $6 for kids ages 4-12) to access the exhibits on alligators, turtles and what’s quite possibly one of the largest snakes in captivity. Goldie, a beauty, and beast, of a reticulated python, tips the scales at nearly 350 pounds and stretches 21 feet from end to end.
Shealy’s property is also home to the old-school Trail Lakes Campground, where you can pitch a tent or park an RV for the night or sleep in a chickee hut — thatched-roof dwellings built by local Miccosukee Native Americans that overlook the surrounding swamp and grassland. For frequent Orlando visitor Chad Marvin, who arrives at the campground with his RV and a Jeep in tow, it’s the authenticity of the place that appeals to him. “It’s just good old Everglades-type people, and the place is accommodating but not fancy,” he says. “The location is very authentic and true South Florida.”
As for the legend of the skunk ape, Marvin says he’s not convinced but appreciates the fun factor. “Every time something happens down there or I hear something and am not sure what it is, I blame the skunk ape,” he says.
After your visit, when you’re out driving in the Everglades, keep your eyes trained on the treetops rather than at ground level, Shealy advises. Apparently the apelike beast, which smells like a skunk — hence its name — prefers to hang out in the trees.
Go There: Skunk Ape Research Headquarters
- Directions: From the southwest Florida city of Naples, it’s a 38-mile drive east through the Everglades along the Tamiami Trail to reach the Skunk Ape Research Headquarters.
- Hours of operation: Daily, 9am-4pm.
- Pro tip: At the gift shop, book a guided one-hour pole boat tour through the Western Everglades ($69 per person).