For every driving lover nothing quite compares to a leisurely drive along a special road. There are many of such routes across the world. Some owe their fame to their beautiful setting, others to their fascinating history but there are also those which are famous because of their extreme difficulty and complexity.
The all time favourite classical American routes or the winding roads that circumnavigate the world’s highest peaks are but a popular few that come to mind. But there are many others that will offer a very special experience to the adventure traveller. Here we offer a selection of these legendary, and often extreme, roads for a unique experience at the wheel:
Route 61 (The United States)
To talk about famous North American driving routes is, undoubtedly, to talk about the iconic Route 66, whose original configuration is mostly preserved. Along route 66 the driver time-travels to an old United States which somehow remains alive in the roadside towns, the dusty motels and the unending plains of the American heartland. There is plenty of literature on the legendary route and so we would like to start this review by talking about its lesser known ‘little sister’; route 61, or the so called ‘Great River Road’. This 2.300 mile long road runs between the source of the Mississippi and New Orleans, following the course of the river and along the ten states that border it.
As for its historical interest, the Great River Road route is indeed a journey across the popular black American music history. The route also offers an extensive display of cinematic and cultural references and traditional local customs. Opened in 1930, it passes by places such as Memphis (Elvis’ birth place), the Mississippi Delta (cradle of Blues) or Nashville (cradle of Jazz). It also runs across towns like Hibbing (where Bob Dylan was brought up), Spring Read where Frank Lloyd Wright started his career, Hanibal where Mark Twain grew up or Metropolis (Illinois) where Clark Kent used the phone booths to change into Superman. These are just a few of the many highlights of a route that keeps a very authentic flavour of traditional American culture and exhibits a landscape characterised by large plains, low buildings and nostalgic billboards a plenty.
Trans-Siberian Route (Russia)
Its near 7.000 miles make it one of the longest roads in the world and a considerable challenge for any driver. It is estimated that it takes at least a week to cover it in its entirety. In its length it covers a very diverse range of sceneries, from treacherous swampy terrain to frozen lands. It was created at the beginning of the 20th century in order to join Moscow with the Pacific at the port city of Vladivostok. It is the main artery of an extensive tapestry of roads crossing Mongolia and China. This is a trip only suitable for the most adventurous, with a history tightly linked to that of the railway and abundant in local legends. It also provides a chance to immerse oneself in the coldest Russia.
It was built by local settlers in the 70’s in order to open up the small village of Gouliang to the world after the government refused to take on the project. It is a narrow and winding road which opened for the first time in 1977 and cuts across the beautiful landscape of the Taihan mountains, in the province of Hunan (not far from Shangai). The route culminates at its most famous spot, a mountain tunnel, literally sculpted in the rock, just short of a mile long and barely 160 inches wide and 200 inches high. Its intricate design accounts for seemingly impossible turns and plenty of challenges for anyone who dares to cross it, especially over the rainy season. Thirty windows carved out on the rock side alongside it give this tunnel its emblematic appearance.
James Dalton Highway (Alaska)
If you are looking for an extreme adventure you might want to consider the James Dalton. This 400 mile highway is the only link between civilization and the oil wells of the frozen sea of Alaska. It is a gravel road built on the sea ice and which crosses just three small populated enclaves across its whole length. It is used essentially by heavy trucks whose drivers take on the risky journey in exchange for big sums of money. It is almost exclusively surrounded by snow and ice, at extremely low temperatures with strong winds and through inhospitable landscapes with no trace of human life. A plentiful supply of provisions is essential as breaking down could be lethal. Vehicle hiring companies expressly prohibit its customers to drive on it.
Yungas Road / The Road of Death (Bolivia)
Following on the treacherous and dramatic routes subject, this is what many consider to be the most dangerous road in the world. This track connects the Bolivian capital of La Paz with the region of Yungas and the Amazonian rainforest. At a height never lower than 3.600 meters, it borders the mountain range with up to 800 metre side drops to negotiate. The road not only has no safety measures of any kind but is barely four meters wide and unpaved throughout. On top of this it has a high vehicle density, long traffic queues at certain hot spots, and several hundred people lose their lives driving on it every year. Hazards aside, the beauty of the surrounding setting is worth a look, but you better not dwell on it much, unless you are not driving of course.
Lysebotn Road (Norway)
Europe has several examples of sinuous and beautiful routes to offer along its many mountain ranges. Stelvia in Italy and some parts of Portugal are very popular but here I want to talk about Lysebotn road in the Norwegian fiords. It is a course that ascends to the top of the Lyse fiord across a sort of grand staircase dotted with narrow tunnels and hairpin bends. Its final stage is a real challenge for the driver and it includes a tunnel curling at a 340 degree angle. Once at the top however, the landscape that unfolds in front of the eyes is truly wonderful.