Roads. They can be long and winding, yes. But they’re often a whole lot else: teetering on the edge of an abyss; carved through mountain terrain so high your head swims; engulfed by tides; and even swamped by molten lava (really). Here, we’ve chosen 15 of the world’s craziest drives.
1. Needles Highway, Custer State Park, South Dakota, US
Rock does some spectacular things in South Dakota. There’s the eerie vista of the Badlands; the carvings of Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial; and the legendary Black Hills, sacred to the region’s native people. It’s through these hills that the 23km Needles Highway was threaded in 1922. The eponymous "needles" are gnarled granite pillars standing sentinel-like beside pine trees along the route.
2. The Klausen Pass, Switzerland
Concentration won’t be an issue at the start of this drive, which kicks off with a taxing climb out of Linthal. Soon, though, you emerge into distractingly beautiful scenery: isolated farms, a sprinkling of cows here, tumbling waterfalls and forested valleys there. But keep those eyes on the road – the pass itself is 1948m high, and the road is so narrow you’ve often got a deadly ravine right alongside you.
3. Spiti–Kinnaur loop, Himachal Pradesh, India
This is right up there, bumper to bumper, contending for the title of “Greatest Road Trip in Asia”. Spiti means “Middle Land”, since this desert-mountain valley is high in the Himalayas, in an otherworldly spot between India and Tibet. All manner of gorges and passes and clifftop drama await on this drive. And don’t expect a great deal of help if you break down, for this is one of India’s least populated regions. You’ll have to hope the goat herders are handy with a monkey wrench.
With a nine percent gradient, you’d need thighs like a troll to cycle up this road. Eight years in the making, Trollstigen opened in 1936. It has drawn tourists ever since, attracted by the sheer power of the surrounding landscape, sliced through with deep fjords, waterfalls and verdant valleys. The fairytale theme extends to the mountains glowering down from all around: you’ll see Kongen (“the King”), Dronningen (“the Queen”) and Bispen (“the Bishop”).
5. The Outback, Australia
Sharks? Box jellyfish? Snakes, crocs and spiders? Actually, the most dangerous thing you’ll face in Oz might well be driving in the Outback. The hazards are numerous: 50m-long road trains, rough tracks that shake your car apart and locusts that clog up your radiator. If you’re game, try the Mereenie Loop road, which passes through Aboriginal land (you’ll need a permit).
6. Bealach na Bà, Applecross peninsula, Scotland
Applecross: it sounds like a village in the Cotswolds, but this is the ultimate wolf in sheep’s clothing. Applecross is a corruption of the Gaelic Apor Crosan (“estuary”) and its most famous road, Bealach na Bà, is no gentle country jaunt. This former cattle drovers’ road has a 20 percent gradient and is full of switchbacks. The views over to Skye are worth the white knuckles.
If Tokyoites weren’t generally so very law-abiding, this would be utter chaos. As it is, it’s just…chaos. Wait patiently as pedestrians stream across like ants before you, with blazing neon and five-storey TV screens screaming down all around. If you’re not at the wheel, you can watch the madness from the bridge corridor linking the JR station with the Shibuya Mark City complex.
8. The Transfăgărăşan, Romania
It’s said that the cost – both financial and human – of building this road through treacherous mountain terrain outweighed its usefulness. It’s also said that Romanian dictator Ceauceșcu commissioned it more or less because he could. But when you’re looking down from its highest point, the 2042m Pasul Bâlea, with the road slinking like unspooled cassette tape before you, history is likely to be the last thing on your mind.
9. Chain of Craters Road/Highway 130, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii
Herds of cattle, burst drains, street protests – as a driver, there are plenty of tedious reasons why your progress might be held up. But even sinkholes pale into comparison with what the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park has in store for motorists: molten lava. There’s really nothing you can do about it, so just go with the flow.
10. Passage du Gois, France
You can have a dreamy old time of it on the Île de Noirmoutier, with its colourful bathing huts and whitewashed houses, figs and mimosas, renowned oysters and cod. Impressionist painter Renoir loved it here. So it’s somehow fitting that the 4.5km-long causeway to the island, “Le Gois”, has an ethereal quality, disappearing twice daily with the tides.
11. North Yungas Road, Bolivia
Death Road. The World’s Most Dangerous Road. The monikers of this highway pull no punches. It was built as the original road linking La Paz with Coroico in the North Yungas, descending swiftly through 3500m in just 64km. Year on year, bus after bus and car after car have toppled over the edge. Nowadays the road is used mostly by mountain bikers, though some local drivers still prefer it over the replacement bypass, opened in 2006.
12. Lena Highway, Russia
If you had any preconceptions about Siberia, this road might well cement them. The Lena Highway is the 965km section of the road that runs all the way from Moscow to the Siberian city of Yakutsk. Yakutsk lays fair claim to the title of “World’s Coldest City”, with average January temperatures of -45°F. Ironically, it’s during the warm, wet summers that this road is most problematic. During this season, rain turns the surface into the most appalling quagmire.
13. Meskel Square intersection, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Ever find yourself getting road rage while waiting at some traffic lights? The planners of Addis Adaba’s Meskel Square decided that they were an unnecessary addition to this intersection, and look how that’s worked out. It’s real-life bumper cars just waiting to happen. The fact that the square is a focal point for gatherings and demonstrations does not help the situation.
14. Passo dello Stelvio, Italy
If you’re in the passenger seat, try not to close your eyes. If you’re driving, don’t even blink. With switchback after switchback and hairpin upon hairpin, this is one of Europe’s greatest drives (television show Top Gear even called it the world’s greatest). The thrilling route passes across the Ortles mountains and ends up in the ski resort of Bormio. While the driving might be white-knuckle, for cyclists (the road sometimes forms part of the Girò d’Italia) it’s plain lung-busting.
15. Karakoram Highway, China into Pakistan
Take your leave of China in style by navigating this highway up in the country’s northwest. It enters Pakistan via the iconic 4700m-high Khunjerab Pass, which translates as “River of Blood” in the Tajik tongue. This has been the link between China and the Indian subcontinent since time immemorial – and it’s as grand as you’d expect. Don’t be put off by the prospect of altitude sickness – the views, of snow-caked mountains and yak- and camel-dotted pastures, are worth it.