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Oregon Vortex.
Maria Cooper measures the Vortex Effect on the six-foot-tall Hinged Man (TM) in 1985.

The Oregon Vortex

Field review by the editors.

Gold Hill, Oregon

We've been to nearly all of America's so-called Mystery Spots. If we had to pick one as the most memorably disturbed, it would be the Oregon Vortex.

John Litster in the House of Mystery.
John Litster at the Vortex in the 1930s.

"It's a place that really doesn't make any sense," said Elena Cooper, long-time Vortex manager. Bottles roll uphill. Brooms balance on end -- at an angle. Photographs reveal unseen beams of light. For some visitors, back pains disappear and hangovers get worse. A lot of people become seasick at the landlocked Vortex. A person's height grows or shrinks depending on where they stand, and some say that they can feel the transformation happen.

Pale imitations of these effects can be encountered at "mystery shacks" in amusement parks and other convenient locations. But those shacks are copies of the one at the Oregon Vortex, and the Vortex shack is only part of a larger area of disorienting Oregon forest.

"The Vortex is special," said Elena, whose Cooper family has owned the attraction since 1960. "It's existed probably since the planet existed. To be a part of that is just fantastic."

Some of the berserk enigmas at the Vortex could be dismissed as optical illusions -- but that wouldn't account for the attraction's long-established history of making people feel and act weird. Its eerie reputation is usually attributed to some sort of mega freaky mojo, one that science can't -- or dare not -- explain.

Modern entrance to the Oregon Vortex.
Thousands have experienced it. They still can't agree what it is.

The outside world became aware of the Oregon Vortex through John Litster (1886-1959). He claimed that wildlife and Native Americans knew of the spot and shunned it, but the only source of that information was Litster, and he changed his story from time to time, possibly skewed by the demands of tourism ballyhoo or Vortex-madness. All that's known for certain is that Litster was at the Vortex, conducting experiments (so he said), when he opened it as a tourist attraction in 1930.

Latter-day skeptics have written off Litster as a con man, out to make a fast buck. That seems unlikely, because the Vortex was in a terrible spot for opportunistic enterprise: on a wooded hillside, off of a winding, narrow road, in the middle of nowhere.

"This was a hard place to get to in 1930," said Elena, who added that the only people in these hills at that time were either working or watching a nearby archeological dig. "I always wondered why Litster opened it to the public," she said. "I figure, people just started showing up. He got frustrated trying to conduct his experiments, so he told them, 'Okay, you can come in, but I'm charging each of you a nickel.' And they paid it."

According to Vortex lore, Litster eventually published his experimental findings, but revealed too much, including the exact dimensions of the "House of Mystery" -- a real, half-collapsed mine assayer's shack that had slid down a hill into the Vortex. Within a few years, copycat shacks began appearing in more easily visited areas, including one at the Santa Cruz Mystery Spot. It opened in 1941, changed "Mystery House" to "Mystery Spot," and thus added a classic term to the roadside lexicon. Bad blood between the two attractions lasted for decades. Elena said that when she first started working at the Vortex, its long-standing policy was to forbid entry to anyone who might be from the Mystery Spot, in case they were out to steal more secrets.

Growing up fast in the Vortex: just walk to the right.
Growing up fast in the Vortex: just walk to the right.

Nowadays, everyone is welcome, and all of Litster's original research was destroyed in a barn fire around 1962.

Litster's nearly incomprehensible "Notes and Data" booklet (available in the Vortex gift shop) attributes the hoodoo to a number of possible causes, including warped atoms, electromagnetic antigravity, oscillating "terralines," or perhaps something buried inside the hill such as unknown minerals or a subterranean super-machine left by prehistoric aliens.

Elena Cooper demonstrates the standing broom.
Elena Cooper demonstrates the standing broom.

Despite Litster's efforts, the powers of the Oregon Vortex remain a mystery -- which means that people keep coming up with new theories to explain it. "One of the more esoteric explanations," said Elena, "is that your height changes because you're walking on something that looks level, and it even measures level in three dimensions, but you're actually walking up and down a hill in a sixth dimension that you're not capable of perceiving." This kind of talk drives traditionalists nuts. Elena said that some visitors have yelled at her or stomped off because the Vortex topsy-turveyed their idea of the way things should be. "It violates some pretty basic rules," she said.

Also passionate about the Vortex are what Elena called its "Fan Club" of enthusiastic repeat visitors, as well as first-timers who are drawn to it by some inexplicable urge ("I don't know why I had to come here but I did"). One woman showed up and asked, with sincerity, "Where do you keep the fairies?" -- as if the attraction had them in a jar with holes punched in the lid. Another told Elena, after a perfectly typical tour, that the Vortex had revealed itself as "the gateway to heaven."

Mystery House mass effect.
One person or a dozen - it made no difference to the Vortex.

For years, some visitors have been convinced that a specific corner inside the shack is a portal. One of Elena's favorite groups are the Sasquatch people, who believe that Sasquatch is an intergalactic energy being that travels through transdimensional portals, and that the Vortex is the Energy Key that unlocks them. "They're the reason I started stocking Sasquatch stuff in the gift shop," said Elena. "If this is the middle of the Sasquatch Intergalactic Highway, I may as well sell stuffed versions of him."

"One guy told me he was coming back with a pizza to throw to the beings on the other side," said Elena. "That's a very Oregon hippie thing. 'The portal's open! I need to send you pizza!'"

Most visitors, however, are normal -- even the repeat ones -- and just enjoy the Vortex for its brain-scrambling anomalies and timelessness. If you visited today, you'd probably see the same physics-gone-haywire demonstrations that your great-grandparents did in 1950: the uphill rolling bottle, the suspended weight that can be pushed one way but not the other, the "line of demarcation" that abruptly marks the edge of the Vortex's powers, and the places where you grow or shrink by walking only a few feet. "People get so confused by what's going on," said Elena, "that by the end of a tour you could tell them just about anything and they'd believe it." But Vortex guides are taught not to exaggerate or lie, and to let the Vortex speak for itself, whatever it may be trying to say.

"For some people it's too much unknown," said Elena. "But I think learning about crazy stuff is really fun!"

Also see: Mystery Spots

The Oregon Vortex

4303 Sardine Creek Left Fork Rd, Gold Hill, OR
I-5 exit 40. Turn north onto OR-99. Drive to the T intersection and turn left to follow OR-99. Drive two miles, through Gold Hill. Just after you cross Sardine Creek, turn right at the Oregon Vortex sign onto Sardine Creek Rd. Drive four miles, bear left at the fork, then drive another half-mile to the Vortex, on the right.
Currently by appt only, daily 9-5, March thru Oct. (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Adults $22, various rates for others.
RA Rates:
The Best
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

Wooden RoosterWooden Rooster, Rogue River, OR - 6 mi.
Batman, Formerly a TreeBatman, Formerly a Tree, Rogue River, OR - 6 mi.
Grants Pass CavemanGrants Pass Caveman, Grants Pass, OR - 12 mi.
In the region:
Great Loop Golden Spike Spot, Ashland, OR - 28 mi.

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