Travel

Rolling uphill in New Brunswick

For almost a century, Magnetic Hill has boggled the minds of visitors. Here’s a closer look at what makes this magical spectacle so intriguing.

  • Mar 16, 2023
  • 832 words
  • 4 minutes
Since the 1930s, Magnetic Hill has been one of New Brunswick's most popular tourist attractions, boggling the minds of visitors with its optical illusion.
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We all know that looks can be deceiving, but what you see is what you get. It’s a paradox on full display when you drive to the bottom of Magnetic Hill, an unassuming country road located 15 minutes outside of Moncton, N.B. Cars in neutral gear are simply not supposed to effortlessly roll up a hill. Yet, in defiance of gravity, that’s exactly what happens. Take your foot off the brake, and your vehicle will start to roll, increasing in speed as you approach the top of the road.  

Experiencing this undeniable “what the heck?” moment has attracted visitors to Magnetic Hill since the 1930s when the quirky phenomenon first captured public attention. Back then, this 15-hundred-metre stretch of road was part of the provincial highway, but thanks to press coverage and some savvy marketing, it quickly became one of the biggest draws to the region. 

According to Canada’s Historic Places, Magnetic Hill remains one of the top three most visited natural attractions in the country. These days, visitors turn off the Trans-Canada Highway and follow the signs to the very epitome of a roadside attraction. As your car, or anything else on wheels, for that matter, coasts up the hill, let’s look at how Magnetic Hill actually works.

Watch Robin roll up Magnetic Hill 

Gravity hills go by a few different names: mystery hills, magnetic hills, spook hills, magic hills etc. And despite fun theories of supernatural forces at work, it’s an illusion caused by the same environmental factors. The most important one is that the horizon must be partially or fully obscured. As a result, trees on either side of the road appear to bend, and our typically reliable brains get confused by the gradient of the slope. The shape and size of surrounding hills can have some influence too. 

We like to think that our perception can be relied upon, that something must be so because we saw it with our own eyes. In truth, the perceived reality is the result of our brains filtering and making sense of non-stop sensory inputs. Most of the time, our brain constructs a reality that accurately matches what is actually going on. To do this efficiently, we will often unconsciously fudge our perceptions to match an expectation, filling in the gaps from past experience, and predicting what we should see or what should happen, just because it usually does. If and when it doesn’t, the result are well-studied biases, mental blind spots, and illusions that magicians use to their advantage. Examples include our brains predicting motion that doesn’t exist with the ‘flash-lag’ illusion. Ponzo optical illusions mess with our sense of distance; the Hering Illusion appears to bend straight lines, while the Bistable Optical Illusion allows us to see both clockwise and counter-clockwise movement at the same time. You can see hundreds of additional examples here, but you won’t be able to drive a car in them.

Watch how the illusion works

Despite the sensation and optics of rolling up a hill without any effort, the truth is you’re actually rolling down a hill. The obscured horizon and trees have simply tricked our sense of perspective. It’s not a unique phenomenon either. Gravity hills are found all over the world, and there are several more in Canada. B.C. has one in Maple Ridge and Vernon, there’s another near Swan River in Manitoba, and magnetic hills in Ontario’s Oshawa, Burlington and Caledon. Conditions have to be just right for the illusion to work. When a road was re-paved in Abbotsford, B.C., a popular gravity hill ceased to exist.   

Moncton’s Magnetic Hill is probably the most famous, open for the curious when the snow thaws each spring. Located on private property, there’s a small fee to access and drive to the ‘bottom’ of the hill. If you hop out and find water flowing in the adjacent ditch, it too, will appear to be flowing uphill in the reverse direction. When you’re ready, place your car in neutral but keep your foot on the brake. Make sure your hands remain on the wheel, so you don’t crash into the trees, which are very real indeed. Confusing your senses in a manner that appears to defy physics is well worth the price of admission.

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