Avalanches and smaller rock falls, tortuous turns, poor road upkeep, dizzying heights, gorgeous but distracting scenery, sleep-deprived drivers, and incredible elevation gains are just some of the trials that await motorists on these stunningly beautiful yet hazardous roads.
While driverless cars are the coming trend—with robotic vehicles set to save thousands upon thousands of lives every year—we haven’t made the shift just yet. And with plenty of careless drivers still on the roads, driving is as dangerous as it’s ever been. Even worse, perhaps, is the fact that terrible roads still exist, which makes getting from A to B for some motorists (depending on where they live) a truly harrowing experience. Driving along one of these roads can be a risky proposition, to say the least … or even an act of bravery.
North Yungas Road
Bolivia is a country where people literally pray for four-wheel-drive vehicles to tackle the less-than-stellar roads. North Yungas Road, known as El Camino de la Muerte (Death Road), offers thrills, and yes, a high likelihood of death for cyclists and motorists who brave its terrifying elevation drop. After leaving the capital La Paz and an initial ascent up to La Cumbre Pass, the track, cut out of the Cordillera Oriental mountain range, plummets down to the town of Coroico. We’d say it’s a “death-defying journey,” but to be honest, the odds of survival don’t look great.
INSIDER TIPIt’s a single-lane road, and uphill drivers always have the right of way, so be vigilant, and prepared to break often when descending.
Los Caracoles Road
In the Andes Mountains, in an expanse linking Argentina with Chile, international motorists will come across the Paso (pass) Internacional Los Libertadores, and a steep chunk of the road on the Chilean side affectionately called Los Caracoles (The Snails). It’s a sheer, paved road, often bottlenecked with traffic due to rough mountain weather, as well as a ton of vertically exposed, tight switchbacks. The road leads up to (or down from, depending on your perspective) the Túnel Cristo Redentor (Tunnel of Christ the Redeemer), which links the two borders.
INSIDER TIPExtra food, water, and snow gear (for you and your vehicle) are recommended in case you have to spend more time on the pass than originally planned.
Apart from the political hassles (for foreigners) of obtaining permission to drive from China’s Sichuan Province into the Tibet Autonomous Region, driving enthusiasts who do manage to get permission or circumvent the rules (not advised) will still have to tackle the formidable Sichuan-Tibet Highway, which is part of the even longer 318 State Highway. Avalanches and smaller rock falls, tortuous turns, poor road upkeep, dizzying heights, gorgeous but distracting scenery, sleep-deprived drivers, and incredible elevation gains are just some of the trials that await motorists on this stunningly beautiful yet hazardous road.
INSIDER TIPCheck with local travel agencies to see if foreigners are allowed on the road without a Chinese guide or as part of an official tour, as the rules are subject to change.
Mountainous Norway offers up Trollstigen Road (Troll’s Path). Surrounded by greenery and rock with an almost mystical appearance as the morning mist burns off, this vertical, narrow road winds up the mountainside in a series of heart-pounding hairpin bends. And while it’s not a long haul, the incredibly tight angles require a driver’s full attention, as does the 10 percent incline. You’ll also have to spend a fair amount of time avoiding angry mountain trolls hurling boulders at your car. (OK, we might have made up that last part.)
INSIDER TIPStop at the viewing platform at Trollstigen visitors center and take in the spectacular views, and maybe take some time to relax after such a demanding drive.
Million Dollar Highway
While Colorado’s Highway 550, especially the stretch known as “Million Dollar Highway,” isn’t as dangerous as some of the motorways you might find in China or Peru, rough weather and a lack of guardrails don’t make it a cinch to drive either. As part of the San Juan Skyway, this 25-mile section churns out plenty of hairpin turns to accompany the wonderful mountain scenery. The good news is that the natural world abounds from the Animas River Gorge to the San Juan National Forest, offering plenty to see and do as you cross over three separate mountain passes.
INSIDER TIPThe Million Dollar Highway is open year-round, which means if you want to avoid the snow, summer is clearly the best time to go.
Srinagar-Leh Highway (Zoji La Pass)
When traveling from Srinagar in Indian-administered Kashmir to Leh in Ladakh (“Little Tibet”), make sure you have your life insurance policy sorted out and a stomach for Himalayan heights. If tragedy should strike and your bus should fall as you cross over the Zoji La Pass, you just might have time to finish writing your will and testament on the way down. It’s a gorgeous journey with panoramic views of the Western Himalayas, but with uneven road surfaces and periodic landslides, it’s a tough route to haul.
INSIDER TIPHeavy snows close the pass come wintertime, which is why you should either fly to Leh or plan your trip in the spring, summer, or early autumn.
Book a Hotel
While most entries on this list tend to weave their way through the mountains, Bruce Highway in Queensland, Australia, is a different kind of animal. This coastal road, clocking in at just over 1,000 miles in length, is relatively flat, but thanks to shoddy road conditions, lots of traffic, frequent flooding, and Mad Max-style drivers trying to pass one another after miles of relative calm, this stretch of Queensland highway accounts for a disproportional number of Australia’s annual traffic accidents and fatalities.
Driving in the Swiss Alps with all its dizzying heights naturally creates challenges for road builders and drivers alike. Furka Pass, a magnificent, bendy road that made an appearance in the James Bond flick Goldfinger, is a perfect example of the thrills driving in Switzerland can offer. But for all of the outstanding panoramas this road affords, never forget that this high mountain pass requires steely nerves; the smallest of slip-ups could send your car careening off the road toward a very steep fall.
INSIDER TIPThe pass is closed in the winter, which is probably a good thing as it’s difficult enough to tackle when the asphalt is dry and the conditions are clear.
If you want to drive from Kathmandu to the Chinese border, one possible route will take you along the Arniko Highway. Crowded with trucks, rife with landslides, full of precipitous plunges, and with barely any room to pass, this highway delivers all of the vehicular peril you’d expect (and more) from a narrow road carved from and slicing through through the mighty Himalayas, the tallest mountains in the world.
James Dalton Highway
The James Dalton Highway is one beautiful, isolated Alaskan highway. And this is why, given its remote location stretching north to the town of Deadhorse and the Arctic Ocean, it presents such a formidable drive. Given some notoriety by the television show Ice Road Truckers, the highway, which parallels the Trans-Alaska pipeline, promises freezing temperatures (especially in winter), ice, strong winds, elevation gains, wild animals, no roadside assistance, avalanches, poor visibility, and many other difficulties likely to arise. Sounds like a fun Sunday drive, doesn’t it?
INSIDER TIPThis highway is no joke. Prep like a winter survivalist, and if in doubt, consult with an expert or two about what you’ll need to take along for this exquisite yet lonely drive.
Passage du Gois
If your vehicle’s engine has a snorkel and you aren’t afraid of getting a wet, then the Passage du Gois near the city of Nantes is the road for you. This short road (less than 3 miles long) links Noirmoutier Island to the mainland. It rates more as a mildly difficult drive rather than a dodgy one that risks life and limb—although, if you don’t know how to swim and go at the wrong time, it’s dodgy as hell. The low-lying roads flood twice a day with the rising tides, which means it’s almost always slick and wet.
INSIDER TIPMake sure you study the local tide tables before you arrive as the passage is only accessible during low tide.
Pakistan’s legendary Karakoram Highway soars up to massive heights, in the neighborhood of 15,000 feet or more. Landslides, abrupt cliffs, snow storms, dubious road conditions, and variable high-altitude terrain (along with the real possibility of suffering from a bout of altitude sickness) make this highway the challenge of a lifetime. The road, over 800 miles long, connects Pakistan with China—and you’ll likely feel every bump and mile if you attempt to negotiate its entire length.