Road trips have several advantages over other forms of travel. You see far more of the land through which you drive, instead of flying above it.
You are in control of your route and can stop at will, instead of being confined to the halts along a railway line. And you can go a lot further than you can by bike or on foot. Above all, these routes are for the intrepid – they are about the journey, not the destination. Enjoy the drive...
Moab Trails: Dead Horse Point Scenic Drive Utah, USA
The view from Dead Horse Point is arguably the most spectacular vista in a land of spectacular vistas; it is claimed to be one of the most photographed viewpoints in the world, and for good reason.
It is truly jaw-dropping.
Head north on US-191 from Moab before turning left on SR-313. This is not a long drive, at just 33 miles, so do take plenty of time to pull off the road to take a look at displays with excellent explanations of the geology, archaeology and scenery of these impressive sandstone canyons and sagebrush-covered hills.
You can catch views of the appropriately named Seven-mile Canyon, the Needles, and Maze. After about 14 miles turn left at the fork towards Dead Horse Point. Dead Horse Point is a peninsula of rock perched on top of vertiginous sandstone cliffs with a narrow 25m (82ft) neck of rock connecting it to the rest of the mesa.
The name apparently comes from the cowboy practice of herding wild mustangs onto the point and stacking brushwood across the ‘neck’ to stop the horses escaping.
Tragically, the cowboys sometimes left without releasing the horses, leaving them all to die of thirst with the sparkling Colorado River in plain sight. When you see the river snaking its way through the canyons over 600 heart-stopping metres (2,000ft) below, you can imagine the hardships of those ranch hands working these harsh lands.
The Point is surrounded by the 5,362-acre Dead Horse Point State Park. It’s an immense vastness of ragged red-rock canyons and towering mesas with the snow-capped La Sal and Abajo mountains in the far distance. The nearer view is dominated by Monument Basin and a tall spire called the Totem Pole rising 93 metres (305ft).
At this point you are 1,830 metres (6,000ft) above sea level and you may get the urge to grab hold of something for balance. Steady your nerves, take one more look at the awe-inspiring view and then grab a coffee at the Pony Espresso coffee shop while you spare a thought for those poor horses.
Monument Valley, Arizona, USA
Frank Bach / Alamy Stock Photo
An ancient valley of towering red-rock pinnacles, isolated buttes, colossal mesas and wide open spaces, Monument Valley is one of the USA’s most iconic landscapes, and has changed very little in 3,000 years.
For a truly breathtaking drive, take a sunrise tour and watch the dawn light breathe life into this spectacular landscape. Monument Valley is a place to visit for quiet contemplation on what nature can create with nothing but wind, water, sand and time. Visit at any time of year, but light snow during the winter months will produce an unforgettable landscape of intense contrasts and beautiful imagery.
The main drive through this Jurassic landscape is a 17-mile circular one passing many of the most popular sites in Monument Valley. This is on dirt roads, but a 4x4 is not a necessity; the road is just bumpy and dusty. If you are nervous of taking your hire car on dirt roads, hire a Navajo guide who will take you round in their own vehicle.
And while the main loop is the only one you can self-drive, it is worth paying for a tour to take you to some of the less popular but equally spectacular parts of the valley, and give you the opportunity to see petroglyphs and Anasazi sites.
Since the valley forms part of the Navajo Nation Reservation, a Navajo guide will also be able to provide insights on the landscape and wildlife that you could never hope to achieve on your own, as well as a window into the culture of the people that still call this landscape home.
Monument Valley can be a busy place to visit, especially during the peak holiday times. So, if you are in search of real solitude and are looking to spend it in a setting almost as spectacular, it is worth travelling on a few miles to the northeast along US-163, to find the Valley of the Gods.
This is Monument Valley’s little-explored sister and, if you stay into the evening on a moonless night, you will think the heavens are exploding with the number of stars.
Jebel Hafeet United Arab Emirates
Panther Media GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo
The road to Jebel Hafeet snakes back and forth across a rugged mountainside just because it can. It has been designed and constructed entirely for the pleasure of driving, and at speed.
The family of the Emir of Abu Dhabi has its roots in the city of Al Ain, and although his principal residence is in Abu Dhabi itself, the Emir likes to also maintain a modest second palace in his ancestral home, or more precisely near the summit of Jebel Hafeet, the mountain that sits above Al Ain.
The fun starts on the outskirts of the city at Green Mubazzarah family park, one of the oases after which the city (whose name means ‘the spring’) is named. In this arid land it really is green, a large grassy landscape full of attractions including an incongruous railtrack bobsleigh and a number of hot springs.
From there, the approach to the palace and nearby hotel could have taken a relatively direct route through the rock and the sand. From the intersection at Green Mubazzarah to the car park at the top it is only 6km as the crow flies.
But instead, as built by the German engineering firm Strabag International to the Emir’s specifications, the Jebel Hafeet highway takes nearly twice as long to eventually reach its destination.
There are 60 bends, 11 of them turning through at least 180 degrees. They are perfectly engineered for camber and stability and the immaculate surface is designed to withstand the warping heat of the desert air.
With an average gradient of eight degrees, there are three lanes – two going up so that your driving pleasure won’t be interrupted by getting stuck behind a slow-moving vehicle.
The entire route is covered by street lighting, and driving it at night when all around is dark emphasizes the joy of driving purely for its own sake. The mountain sits on the border between Abu Dhabi and Oman and during the day the views from the top are absolutely spectacular. As you drive, be sure to set your dash cam to record.
Stelvio Pass, Italy
Markus Thomenius / Alamy Stock Photo
The Stelvio Pass is a route for superlatives. Thanks to a ‘fairground-ride’ sequence of hairpin bends it achieves an absolutely astonishing vertical climb. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, it’s as popular with cyclists as it is with motorists.
On one day every year in late August or early September, the Italian authorities close the Stelvio Pass to everyone except cyclists. Every year around 12,000 cyclists accept the gift of a clear road and put their leg muscles through this most gruelling of courses; and every year thousands of motorists wonder why the cyclists don’t just drive over it and save themselves the pain.
The answer is, of course, as Everest mountaineer George Mallory explained, because it’s there.
It’s been there since it was completed in 1825. It was a vital link in the transport network of the Austrian Empire of the time, connecting the province of Tyrol with Lombardy (which Austria had reclaimed following the fall of Napoleon).
In due course Lombardy seceded from Austria to join the newly formed country of Italy, and for a period of time the Stelvio Pass marked the border between Italy and Austria.
When the Austrian Empire was dismantled at the end of the First World War, Tyrol was divided in two: North Tyrol remained in Austria but South Tyrol was reassigned to Italy.
This is why on the Tyrolean side of the pass most still speak a form of German and why many places have two names. For example the pass is known as both Passo dello Stelvio (Italian) and Stilfserjoch (Tyrolean).
Trolls’ Path, Norway
Guillermo Avello / Alamy Stock Photo
According to Norse mythology, some species of trolls roam the countryside at night but turn into mountains as the sun rises. Perhaps it’s best to stick to daylight hours when driving Norway’s worryingly narrow Trolls’ Path.
The Trolls’ Path or Trollstigen, is a dramatic section of Norwegian County Road 63. Located in the north-west of the country, Road 63 snakes from Åndalsnes on Romsdalsfjorden south to Valldallen on the Storfjorden.
From there, motorists can choose to take the ferry from Linge Pier across the fjord to Eidsdal and then continue to the head of the Geirangerfjord; a location on Unesco’s World Heritage List since 2005.
The Trollstigen section, also known as the Trolls’ Ladder, was built over the traces of a centuries-old pack road mountain pass which linked the then villages of Åndalsnes and Valldall.
The new road was opened by King Haakon VII in July 1936. In 2012, the road was improved and designated a national tourist route.
Each of the 11 hairpin bends was either hand-carved from the rock or built by stone laid on top of the base rock
It is very much a seasonal attraction: snow and ice ensure that the road, with a 9% incline and potential rock falls, is usually closed from October to May.
The long winter season meant that the road took eight years to construct. Each of the 11 hairpin bends was either hand-carved from the rock or built by stone laid on top of the base rock. Most of the bends are named after the foremen that supervised their construction.
There are several viewpoints along the Trollstigen route. For many, the road bridge across the Stigfossen waterfall is a highlight. Others enjoy the sweeping vistas provided by the angular Trollstigen Visitor Centre.
As well as a café and museum detailing the history of the road, this development has a number of look-out points including one steel and glass construction which juts out from a ledge 200m (656ft) above the twisting road.
The Trollstigen Centre is located on a plateau which is 853 metres (2,799ft) above sea level. The 11 hairpin bends and steep incline mean that drivers will feel every single one of those metres. However, the platform is dwarfed by surrounding mountains.
These include Kongen, the king, and Dronninga, the queen. The former reaches 1,614m (5,295ft) into the sky. The trolls are obviously fairly tall in Norway…
Grossglockner High Alpine Road, Austria
On the highest ridge of mountains in the Alps sits Austria’s loftiest peak, the Grossglockner, 3,798m (12,460ft) above sea level.
The spectacular and winding Grossglockner High Alpine Route almost matches it for altitude as it snakes its way up and over the 2,504m Hochtor Pass.
A mountain pass is always an evocative route, a journey from one world to another, usually by an arduous, personally challenging path. It’s a philosophical transformation as much as a road trip. So it is with the Grossglockner High Alpine Road (GHAR).
It crosses the Great Alpine Divide, the watershed spine of the Alpine Region. Waters to the north of here all flow north into the Salzbach and Inn rivers which join the Danube at Passau in Germany; to the south they join the mighty Drava which drains parts of Italy, Austria, Slovenia and Hungary before joining the Danube around 1,000km downstream from Passau on the border between Croatia and Serbia.
This is a dramatic, twisting, often steep drive, requiring plenty of concentration from your driver. Expect distracting views of waterfalls, lakes, glaciers, rocky outcrops and snow-crowned mountains.
The idea of the GHAR was derided when first proposed in 1924. The idea of tourism in which the road itself was the attraction seemed laughable when roads were uncomfortable and cars were scarce – according to some sources there were at the time as few as 150,000 vehicles in all of Austria, Germany and Italy, the target markets.
The road climbs, clinging to the left-hand side of the valley before doubling back on itself repeatedly
The idea was revived at the height of the Great Depression as a means of relieving unemployment. There were more cars on the roads by then, but the target of attracting 120,000 visitors still seemed risible.
Nevertheless the dramatic drive was officially launched in 1935 with a road race for cars and motorcycles which attracted an international field. By 1938 visitor numbers had reached 375,000, three times that first target.
The original single-lane surface has been improved and considerably widened over the years and about 350,000 cars and coaches travel its 62km each year. It’s a toll road too, and in 2019 a day ticket for a car costs €36.50; so who’s laughing now?
The route leaves the town of Bruck heading south on Route 107, between the steep sides of the narrow Fusch valley. At Ferleiten a large car park and some toll booths mark the start of the adventure. Note that the road is liable to closure in bad weather at any time of year, and is never open overnight. If you find the road ahead closed, there’s accommodation here.
The road climbs, clinging to the left-hand side of the valley before doubling back on itself repeatedly in a series of four hairpin bends to gain extra height. In the range of mountains opposite sits the Grosses Wiesbachhorn, a 3,564m (11,693ft) mountain encircled by glaciers, and at Hochmais rest area you feel almost as if you are level with the peaks.
But you are not. A further set of six tortuous hairpins raises you another 300m (984ft) in less than 3km. And still you climb until a series of nine extreme bends make the final assault on Fusch Summit, the lower of two climaxes of this route. Just before you reach it, take a turning on the left.
The direct route from Bruck to Heiligenblut is a mere 48km in length, but there are two indispensable side roads from it. This, the first, takes you to Edelweissspitze, Edelweiss Point, a viewpoint of heart-in-mouth beauty across the whole of the Hohe Tauern mountain range. The air genuinely feels thinner here, but the scenery is richly, classically alpine.
Beyond Fusch Summit, at Fusch Lake, there’s an exhibition about the construction of the GHAR and views back across some of the hairpins that brought you to the summit. Then the road climbs, with the help of a tunnel and further hairpins, towards the border between the Austrian states of Salzburg and Carinthia. It crosses the border underground, emerging from a second tunnel at Hochtor Summit, 2,537m (8,323ft). Hoch Tor means ‘high gateway’. As if you needed to ask.
More hairpin bends now take you down through the upper runs of the Heiligenblut ski area. At a roundabout, you can take the second of the route’s side-road detours, to Kaiser Franz Josefs Hohe, a viewpoint – unsurprisingly – made famous by the visit of Emperor Franz Josef. The 7km road to it skirts the beautiful glacial lakes of Margaritzenstausee and Sandersee – both worth the short walk to their remote shores.
The viewpoint itself, housed now in a modern glass lantern, looks across to the Pasterze glacier and the Grossglockener mountain itself. This is as close as the route takes you to its namesake, while nearby a cable railway will lower you almost to the Pasterze valley floor, within a couple of kilometres of the glacier face.
From the Emperor’s Viewpoint you can retrace your route and complete the descent into Heiligenblut, a pretty alpine resort offering canyon rafting and walking trails in the summer to complement its extensive winter sports facilities. For now though, the driver of your vehicle will be grateful, after 53 hairpin bends, for a few moments of quiet meditation on the smallness of man in the vastness of the mountains.
Remarkable Road Trips by Colin Salter is published by Pavilion Books, £25. For more, see pavilionbooks.com