A great road challenges everyday notions. But most of all, it elicits a thrill. These 20 mythic highways inspire us to hit the road.
A great road challenges everyday notions, replacing the familiar–the dull grind of everyday commuting–with the epic: turns, terrain and landscape that adjust our perception of the world. But most of all, it elicits a thrill. These 20 mythic highways inspire us to hit the road.
Highway 1, aka “Big Sur”
Where: California, USA
This stretch of Highway 1 chases the ragged central California coastline through Big Sur, which runs from San Simeon to Carmel. This drive is renowned for its staggering views over perilous cliffs, revealing the Pacific Ocean’s whitecaps as they rush past immense dark rocks.
During peak traffic hours, lumbering rental cars and motorhomes dampen the pace. If you’re stuck in slow motion, we suggest a detour through the nearby but less-traveled Nacimiento-Fergusson Road, which cuts east and offers an amazing bird’s-eye view of the coast below.
Deals Gap, aka “Tail of The Dragon”
Where: Tennessee, USA
This stretch of U.S. Route 129 offers some of the sweetest curves outside of the Atlantic coast, with no fewer than 318 turns in the course of 11 miles. No driveways or intersections interrupt this forest-lined thoroughfare, though there are plenty of peg-scraping cruisers who knock down the average speed. While you’re there, be sure to visit the Tree of Shame, where crashed motorcycle bits adorn the tree and dangle from its branches as a reminder of the road’s dangers.
Arguably the most notorious racetrack in the world, this 12.93-mile loop of tarmac also happens to be a toll road that anyone with 24 euros and a need for speed can drive on non-race days. Racer Jackie Stewart once called the Nurburgring “the green hell,” and it features treacherous landmarks, including the Caracciola Karussell (the Carousel) and Flugplatz (also known as “the Airport,” for its tendency to launch vehicles airborne). But keep your inner Michael Schumacher in check: This series of 154 turns has a nasty reputation for humbling even the most seasoned drivers.
White Rim Trail
Where: Utah, USA
While Moab steals the glory when it comes to off-roading meccas, we’ll take the lesser-known White Rim Trail. Rated moderately difficult for high-clearance four-wheel-drive vehicles, according to the National Park Service, this 100-mile loop slices through the Canyonlands National Park. White-knuckle your way through a broad array of views and terrains, from arches and canyons to basins and stunning plateaus. Be sure to take plenty of water, as signs of civilization are few and far between.
Argentina’s Ruta 40 is one of the longest stretches of highway in the world, connecting 20 national parks with countless passes through the Andes mountain range. If you don’t have time for the entire span of more than 3000 miles, we recommend bypassing the tourist-clogged southern portion and exploring the harrowing and gorgeous upper elevations, where Ruta 40 climbs as high as 16,000 feet above sea level
San Juan Skyway
Where: Colorado, USA
This scenic 236-mile stretch traverses some of the most breathtaking mountain passes in North America. Connecting Durango to Ridgway, the San Juan Skyway negotiates crusty mining towns and dizzying drops, offering its most impressive views along the “Million Dollar Highway,” which features spine-tingling hairpin turns and a daredevil’s delight–no guardrails.
It’s hard to go wrong driving through Ireland (as long as you stay on the left side of the road), but for an excellent Emerald Isle drive, seek out the Conor Pass. It runs from the southern end of the Dingle Peninsula toward Brandon Bay. This narrow road snakes through verdant vistas, and its view of the lakes below is the stuff of fairy tales.
Great Ocean Road
Imagine a kinder, gentler version of Big Sur tucked away in the Southern Hemisphere. The Great Ocean Road passes arresting natural rock formations such as Loch Ard Gorge and the Twelve Apostles. It’s a 151-mile coastal thruway not to be missed by relaxed road trippers who simply can’t get enough clear skies–and exotic roadkill.
Touge Roads of Mount Fuji
Where: China to Pakistan
It took 27 years to build China’s Karakoram Highway (aka the Friendship Highway), but it could take no more than the blink of an eye to meet your maker on this unforgiving road. Linking China and Pakistan through the Karakoram mountain range, this 800-mile highway is one of the highest paved roads in the world. The Karakoram traces romantic stretches of the ancient Silk Road, as well as desolate locales like Abbottabad, where Osama bin Laden met his demise.
Nestled 9000 feet up in the Italian Alps, the Stelvio Pass packs 48 switchbacks (numbered by stone markers) into 15 miles. Its daunting turns have become a rite of passage for adventure-seeking drivers, motorcyclists and cyclists. Slicing around the mountain in the relative safety of your car, you might feel a swell of thankfulness for your engine. As one of the highest altitude runs through the Alps, Stelvio leaves all but the fittest of cyclists breathless.
Built by Nicolae Ceausescu in the 1970s, this dynamite-forged highway defies the mountains that surround it, linking Transylvania and Walachia through a series of tunnels, bridges and viaducts. The blokes at Top Gearwaxed poetic about this hard-to-pronounce highway, but we’re guessing the Romanian gem is still relatively unperturbed by the motoring masses.
Col de Turini
The Tour de France and Monte Carlo Rally share this breathtaking mountain pass in the French Alps. Col de Turini has been featured in three tours and is a stage of the legendary classic car rally in the glamorous French Riviera. But don’t go there for the celebs and champagne; the Col de Turini has challenged everyone from Stig Blomqvist to Sébastien Loeb, leaving little room for rubbernecking.
With a peak of 17,582 feet, the Khardung Pass is one of the highest altitude roads that can be driven in a car. A caravan route traveled by horses and camels, this nosebleed-inducing series of twists and turns has it all: glaciers, craggy peaks and all manner of mammalian and mechanized traffic. Squeamish travelers need not apply. Vaccinations are advised.
Punctuated by picturesque coastal towns including Positano and Ravello, the Amalfi Coast is home to SS163, a snaking two-lane road that hugs the jagged hills that meet the sparkling Tyrrhenian Sea. Once you’ve had your fill of fearless local drivers and googly eyed tourists, you’ll find solace in the seaside trattorias and gelato stands.
Guoliang Tunnel Road
Some roads gain notoriety for their twists and turns, and others earn fame for their sheer visual impact. Nestled in the Henan province of China, the Guoliang Tunnel fits squarely into the latter category. The tunnel offers a short (3/4 mile) but stunning span, thanks to its path, which is carved through the edge of the Taihang Mountains.
Where: South Africa
South Africa is dotted with countless roads whose civility and natural beauty inspire comparisons to the California coastline, but the Sani Pass is a different beast. Connecting KwaZulu-Natal with Lesotho, these menacing trails are littered with the carcasses of vehicles that didn’t quite have the hardiness (or sufficiently skilled pilots) to make it to point B. But bold travelers with the proper steed will be rewarded by otherworldly views and ultimate bragging rights.
West Coast of the South Island
Where: New Zealand
From the land that provided the lush landscapes for Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, you’ll find exceptional visuals when traveling from Karamea to Haast, encountering untouched seaside vistas along the Tasman side, lush vegetation and glimpses of the towering New Zealand Alps.
Trollstigen, aka “Troll Ladder”
The land of the Vikings inspired sweeping arias from opera heavyweight Richard Wagner, and the Trollstigen (“Troll Ladder”) lives up to his larger-than-life scale. Climb its 9 percent gradient and navigate its 11 hairpin turns, and you’ll earn yourself an eyeful of the Stigfossen waterfall and a view of the valley below.
Where: Alaska, USA
The Denali Highway (or Alaska Route 8) spans 135 miles through undeveloped land that typifies the raw beauty of Alaska. If you don’t mind its gravel surfaces and scarce services, you’ll be treated to grandiose views of Mount McKinley. Though hunters have eliminated much of the big game that once roamed these plains, there’s still no shortage of natural eye candy for adventure-seeking motorists.