The Odd Midwestern Vacation Destination Where You Can't Trust Gravity

In the Black Hills of South Dakota, about 7 miles from Mount Rushmore, a weird, crooked cabin seems to defy the laws of gravity. They call it the Mystery House—not to be confused with the Winchester Mystery House in California. Instead of windows in the floor and staircases leading up to the ceiling, you'll find leaning doorways and walls where you can stand sideways, almost literally having an "off the wall" travel experience.

Outside the cabin, people can face each other on two level blocks, and they'll appear to undergo a drastic height change based on where they're standing. Trees on the same hill bend upward and downward as if gravity pulls them in two different directions. At the same time, balls roll uphill, and water mysteriously flows the same way. Yet there are some spots where a ball set down on what looks to be an incline won't move at all.

Welcome to the Cosmos Mystery Area, where a sign outside the gift shop entrance promises visitors "the strangest location in the entire Black Hills." In 2020, Newsweek named this Rapid City oddity the most unique roadside attraction in South Dakota. Since then, visits from the state's governor and celebrities like Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis have brought more attention. If you're in the vicinity already visiting Mount Rushmore, you may also feel the pull of the Cosmos Mystery Area drawing you in like some unexplainable magnetic force.

What exactly is the Cosmos Mystery Area?

Descriptions of the Cosmos Mystery Area tend to run rather vague, so it's not always easy for a first-timer to conceptualize what the place is. Even the official history is a little unclear since it just involves two unnamed college guys building a summer cabin in a spot where they observed "odd phenomena" back in 1952. Inside the cabin, everything looks askew, with the floor and windows appearing slanted, while visitors hang sideways from the rafters. Given that the Black Hills are considered sacred land by the Lakota and other Indigenous tribes, it's tempting to attribute some mystical power to these sights.

In reality, the Cosmos Mystery Area is one of many places around the U.S. where what's known as a gravity hill or mystery spot leads to dizzying optical illusions. When the eye can't reference a horizon line, and you're on a slope, but the surface you're standing on is tilted at a slightly different angle, it can play tricks on your vision that convince your brain it's in some bizarro pocket of the Earth where up is down and left is right. While hyping up the mystery of the cabin makes for a good sales pitch, the real draw of this place is its power over human perception. At the Cosmos Mystery Area, no magnets or magic are involved beyond the place itself, which serves as a tourist magnet where you can leave with a souvenir T-shirt or mug.

Admission and other attractions

The Cosmos Mystery Area is a seasonal tourist attraction that operates from April to October. If you're planning a trip to South Dakota, it might work best as an add-on to other nearby attractions like the aforementioned Mount Rushmore National Memorial, which is open year-round. Badlands National Park is only about 75 or 80 miles from these two places, so you could always start there in the morning or drive there at the end of the day to see the park's stunning sunrise and sunset views.

While you can visit Mount Rushmore for free, you'll need to dig into your wallet for some smaller presidential faces to visit the Cosmos Mystery Area. For the price of two Abe Lincolns and four George Washingtons (which is to say, $14), people aged 12 and up can tour the Mystery House. Admission is half-price for kids five to 11 and free for ages four and under.

A tour guide will walk you through the area and help demonstrate the cabin's properties. Unfortunately, the tour isn't accessible for strollers or wheelchairs, and though the cabin has handrails, people with balance issues might have a hard time maintaining their equilibrium inside. There are actually two cabins on-site, though you'll only visit one, and they're meant to be identical in terms of experience. A separate Geode Mine attraction, which adds $6 to the tour, allows visitors to unearth rocks with crystals inside and bust them open with a hydraulic press.