Sometimes it’s not the destination that matters but the road itself. And we’re not really talking about ordinary road trips, when you pull into towns, see historic landmarks and mingle with the locals. Mountain passes, coastal highways and makeshift dirt tracks, even if secluded and leading to nowhere, can prove a rewarding experience that rivals the most carefully planned, event-packed vacation. Here’s a handful of those most scenic ones:
Combe Laval, France
Often called the most magnificent road in the French Alps, Combe Laval was constructed in 1897 and originally served for the transportation of timber. Today it mainly attracts cyclists eager to face the challenge of a steep climb and be rewarded with awe-inspiring views of the Vercors region. The most spectacular stretch of the road, between St. Jean-en-Royans and Col de la Machine, cuts into the cliff-like side of the gorge and runs through a series of short, narrow tunnels. Almost 8 mi (13 km) of lush, alpine beauty and dizzying heights.
Grossglockner High Alpine Road, Austria
“The Grossglockner – Bikers Heaven” is what you can read in a brochure describing the route. Indeed, motorcycles braving the tight hairpin turns are a common sight here, but drivers are equally welcome. The road curves over a distance of 30 mi (48km) and leads to the Kaiser Franz Josefs Höhe Visitor Center. From there, you get the unobstructed view of Austria’s highest mountain, the Grossglockner (12460ft/3,798m), and its extensive glacier, the Pasterze.
Start your ultimate driving experience at either Bruck or Heiligenblut. The route is a toll road (EUR 28,00/private car; EUR 18,00/motorcycle), but the fabulous high alpine scenery more than makes up for the expenses.
Icefields Parkway, Canada
To experience Canadian wilderness at its purest take the 142 mi (230km) journey along the Icefields Parkway into the heart of the Canadian Rockies. Also known as Alberta Highway 93 north, the road runs between Lake Louise and the town of Jasper. It cuts through the nation’s unmatchable treasure, Banff National Park, where snow-capped peaks, emerald lakes and pristine valleys form a surreal background for an unearthly spectacle of nature.
Pacific Coast Highway, USA
Although not as famous as the historic Route 66, Highway 1 frequently ranks first among America’s legendary drives. The 655 mi (1,055 km) road runs along California’s Pacific coast all the way from Dana Point in the south, through Los Angeles, Santa Cruz and San Francisco to its north end near Leggett.
However, it is the stretch between historic Monterrey and Morro Bay that attracts greatest attention with its stupendous landscape. Here the route cuts through the Big Sur region, where the road actually hugs the cliffs plunging into the ocean. Numerous pull-outs allow for gorgeous panoramic views and hikes down the cliffs.
Ring Road, Iceland
Taking the Ring Road (aka Route 1) is an exhilarating experience of raw Icelandic beauty. Geysers, waterfalls, fjords, tiny villages, lonely lighthouses and sweeping flats is what you pass on your way as you follow the 832 mi (1,339 km) road that circles the island and connects all inhabited parts of the country. With plenty of opportunities to stop by, take in the Viking folklore and dip into steamy sulfurous pools, this can easily become a trip of a lifetime.
Stelvio Pass, Italy
Cyclists curse their luck whenever the Giro d’Italia crosses the Stelvio Pass while motorists keenly face the challenge of its 60 breakneck curves. At 9045 feet (2757 m), it is the second highest paved mountain pass in the Alps and a major tourist attraction of Italy. Top Gear, a British automotive show, actually proclaimed it “the greatest driving road in the world“, and it truly lives up to the title (except that it could be less crowded).
The ascent to the pass starts just outside Bormio and continues straight into the realm of rugged peaks and dazzling alpine flora. Stop at any of the hotels at the base of the pass, make yourself comfortable at a sun-kissed terrace and take in the splendor from up high.
Norwegians call it one of the most significant attractions in the country, and it’s really hard to argue with that. This masterpiece of engineering winds in the Romsdal Valley on the sides of three giant mountains (the King, the Queen and the Bishop), which form a staggering backdrop to your drive. Being really narrow and lacking any safety barriers, the road makes for a particularly thrilling experience and extreme caution has to be used at all times.
The 3.7 mi (6 km) Troll Path is a highlight in itself, with 11 precarious serpentines and a 9-percent incline, but it is the fairytale setting that makes it one of the most scenic roads one can imagine.
Transfăgărăşan may be less known but it surely deserved a mention among the world’s most scenic roads. Running all the way from Arefu to Cartisoara village, this 56 mi (90km) route in Romania climbs through the most dramatic sections of the Carpathian Mountains to the altitude of 6700 ft (2042m) and is no easy drive. Countless sharp bends, viaducts and bridges force a strict average speed limit of 25mi (40km) per hour and heavy fog often impairs visibility. Nevertheless, the sweeping views of Vidraru Lake or Poenari Fortress are worth the struggle.
White Rim Road, USA
This is Utah at its most astounding. The White Rim Road is a 103 mi (165km) loop that winds through surreal Canyonlands National Park and yields phenomenal views of the state’s rugged composition of brick-red mesas and buttes.
The narrow dirt road rubs against the edges of the canyon and cuts into its walls to lead you all the way down to the bottom. 4×4 is a must. So is plenty of water and common sense. The trail is as dangerous as it is spectacular so be cautious, prepare well and allow at least 2 days to cover the whole loop.
Yungas Road, Bolivia
To many people, the name Yungas Road may not ring a bell. But ask about El Camino de la Muerte or the Road of Death and it’s immediately obvious you mean the 43-mile (69 km) Bolivian road leading from La Paz to Coroico. Blood-curdling dropoffs, the lack of guard rails and countless lives claimed have earned it the nickname of “the world’s most dangerous road“.
Yungas is actually so narrow that passing needs to be negotiated. Ironically, the road’s notorious reputation has attracted all sorts of daredevils, particularly downhill cyclists eager to descend into the cloudy Amazon rainforest. The most dramatic event in the road’s history took place in 1983, when a bus with over a hundred passengers on board went off the route and crashed into the ravine.
A word of warning before you hit the road. What’s by far more important than a bunch of unique pictures is the safety of you and other drivers. Pull over as often as you feel like, but don’t look around and get distracted as you drive. There are enough vantage points along the routes for you to take in so much beauty that it goes beyond imagination.