Gravity Hills

Many years ago I had an acquaintance who was an accomplished magician. I got to see him practice various magic ticks as he perfected his craft and of course I learned the secrets behind many of the illusions as a result. The human brain likes to believe what it thinks it sees. The trick often reveals itself as one moves to an angle not normally available to the audience. I never tired of the illusions even when I understood the mechanics. If anything, I became more enthralled with the amount of practice, skill and timing necessary to make all of the moving parts come together in a convincing manner.

I think of "gravity hills" much the same way, with Mother Nature substituting as the magician. Gravity hills go by many names — magnetic hills, mystery spots, ghost roads, electric hills and so on — and they all describe the same basic phenomenon. It’s an optical illusion where a slight downhill appears to be an uphill. The topography, horizon, road cut, floral growth, and angle of pathway all conspire to fool the eye.

Many people ascribe gravity hills to supernatural explanations. Why they jump reflexively to an ethereal cause as their first resort is for someone else to determine. I’m simply an observer who notes that a quick Internet search will reveal countless gullible people willing to take the phenomenon too literally. There’s some weird magnetic or electrical force at work in their opinion, or a disgruntled ghost associated with some improbably legend, an alien or extraterrestrial vortex to to a different dimension, or any number of strange, devious or evil explanations. The truth is rather more mundane.

One often sees individual gravity hills described as rare or even unique. Actually, there are many such places identified worldwide. Some of them are easier to perceive than others, and of course those are the ones that become word-of-mouth or even literal tourist attractions. There are any number of lists and collections one can consult to experience a gravity hill nearby. Minor ones exist everywhere, though. I often experience the feeling of driving slightly uphill even when I know the road is completely flat as I move through long, open stretches of lightly-traveled highway. I’m not sure if I have a propensity for spotting such things or whether this is common to everyone.

Let’s take a look at a few examples, bearing in mind that Google may or may not capture the phenomenon adequately. I’ll limit myself to one instance per country so please don’t take offense if I don’t happen to mention your personal favorite. Feel free to post a link or Street View image in the comments if you like.

Electric Brae, Ayrshire, Scotland

View Larger Map

"Brae" is a Scottish term for a hillside. "Electric" comes from a time when people didn’t quite understand electrical forces and considered that to be a possible explanation. This gravity hill became somewhat of a local attraction. Authorities posted a stone marker to help people locate the brae and better understand the phenomenon: "Whilest there is this slope of 1 in 86 upwards from the bend at the Glen, the configuration of the land on either side of the road provides an optical illusion making it look as if the slope is going the other way. Therefore, a stationary car on the road with the brakes off will appear to move slowly uphill."

The marker can be observed on the left side of this Street View image.

Gravity Hill, Moonbi, New South Wales, Australia

View Larger Map

Does a gravity hills operate in the opposite direction Down Under? No, that’s my poor attempt at humor. The phenomenon appears exactly the same way as it would in the Northern Hemisphere.

The International Directory of Magnetic Hills, Gravity Hills, Mystery Hills and Magnetic Mountains says, that for the gravity hill outside of Moonbi: "With caution, position your car at a point nearest the southbound lane and put your car in neutral, take your foot off the brake and you will experience the thrill of your car not only climbing the hill by itself, but gaining speed as it goes. Look out for other traffic and make sure you stop before your car rolls on to the northbound lane."

Australia’s New England Highway splits into northbound and southbound lanes in a mountainous area about five kilometres north of Moonbi. The phenomenon occurs on an access road that connects the two sides of the split highway and allows traffic from both directions to divert to an observation deck at Moonbi Lookout.

The Street View image does appear to go slightly uphill. I guess.

Magnetic Hill, Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

View Larger Map

One needs to travel to North America to realize the true potential of a local geographic oddity: roadside attraction as money-making opportunity. I say that lovingly. I’ll alter my path in a heartbeat when I know something unusual can be found nearby, and Magnetic Hill in Moncton is but a stone’s throw from the Trans-Canada Highway. Oh yes, I’ll be stopping here if I’m ever in the area.

Those crafty citizens of Moncton purchased Magnetic Hill and diverted the highway around it. The city owns it. They’ve used it as an anchor for an ever-expanding universe of tourist attractions: zoo, water park, golf course, replica fishing village, shops and restaurants that practically overshadow the phenomenon itself.

Spook Hill, Lake Wales, Florida, USA

View Larger Map

However it’s hard to beat the Canadian’s neighbors to the south when it comes to cheezy over-the-top tourist traps. New Brunswick’s Magnetic Hill seems positively high-class compared to some of its counterparts in the United States, to wit:

Again, don’t get me wrong, I define cheezy as "good."

Nonetheless, I’ll focus on a free, easily-accessible gravity hill. I could have chosen literally hundreds of examples in the U.S. but I’ve chosen Spook Hill because it has a level of local government recognition and support. They’re proud enough of their gravity hill that they’ve named the local school accordingly. Check out Spook Hill Elementary School with its Casper the Friendly Ghost logo.

Spook Hill received a flurry of coverage after the Wall Street Journal featured it in a 1990 article (often referenced, unfortunately I couldn’t find an online link to it). It also has nice coverage in Roadside Americana. One simply needs to park a car at the sign on the right side of the Street View image, put it into neutral, and let gravity take its natural course. It’s dispelled the same way any gravity hill can be debunked. As SunCam explained, "We took a carpenter’s level to Spook Hill and discovered that what was ‘up’ was really ‘down.’ The lay of the terrain around Spook Hill is responsible for the illusion. If you approach the hill from the opposite direction and survey the surroundings you can clearly see how the illusion works. In conclusion, cars do not roll up hill; they are actually rolling down hill."

Like any good magic trick however, knowing the secret doesn’t have to spoil the fun.