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Bicycling mountain roads and passes

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World's highest mountain roads and passes accessible by bicycle
(Version 25 / October 2018)

asphaltedunpaved
Southamerica: Chivay-Arequipa / Peru4,910m Uturuncu / Bolivia5,768m
Asia: Taglang La / India5,358m Marsimik La / India5,680m
Africa: Dodola-Dinsho / Ethiopia3,610m Tulluu Dimtuu / Ethiopia4,377m
Northamerica: Mount Evans / USA4,307m White Mountain Peak / USA4,344m
Oceania: Mauna Loa / Hawaii (USA)3,397m Mauna Kea / Hawaii (USA)4,200m
Europe: Pico del Veleta / Spain3,394m Mulhacen / Spain3,482m
France: Cime de la Bonette2,802m Col du Jandri3,200m
Italy: Stilfser Joch2,758m Madritschjoch3,123m
Switzerland: Umbrailpass2,503m Gornergrat3,100m
Austria: Ötztal Glacier Road2,822m Gaislachkogel3,040m
Germany: Alpe Schlappold1,740m Osterfelderkopf2,032m


asphalted
Southamerica Chivay Road4,910m
Asia Taglang La5,358m
Africa Dinsho Road3,610m
Northamerica Mount Evans4.307m
Oceania Mauna Loa3,397m
Europe Pico del Veleta3,394m
France Cime Bonette2,802m
Italy Stilfser Joch2,758m
Switzerland Umbrailpass2,503m
Austria Ötztal Glacier2,822m
Germany Alp Schlappold1,740m

unpaved
Southamerica Uturuncu5,768m
Asia Marsimik La5,680m
Africa Tulluu Dimtuu4,377m
Northamerica White Mountain4,344m
Oceania Mauna Kea4,200m
Europe Mulhacen3,482m
France Col du Jandri3,200m
Italy Madritschjoch3,124m
Switzerland Gornergrat3,100m
Austria Gaislachkogel3,040m
Germany Osterfelderkopf2,032m


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Any search for world’s highest bikeable roads is mainly characterized by indefinable actual altitudes of respective roads. Relevant literature, maps and information on the internet provide many thousands of (often questionable and conflicting) results. In particular in the Himalayas, in the Andes and in Africa new roads are constantly under construction and actual trafficability of such roads is subject to changes of political and climate conditions in these areas. And some of existing high altitude runways deteriorate more and more. In addition, regular introduction of new light carbon materials, lower standard gears both at mountain bikes and road bikes and embarrassing increase of use of electric bikes give the opportunity to climb higher altitudes than in the past.

Besides the Himalayas the Bolivian Altiplano and the Chilean Atacama desert are respective areas with highest roads in the world. In the past such roads were built to reach sulphur mines in an elevation of more than 5,000 meters. In recent times new astronomical observatories have been established in the Atacama Desert including runways leading to the facilities in respective altitudes.

In terms of accurate altitude measurement it should be considered that both GPS and barometric altimeters have their respective weaknessess. GPS provides incorrect results if in dead spots less than four satellites are available for measurement. In this case only global position can be determined exactly but you can not rely on the reported elevation. Thus most popular GPS-devices do actually not determine actual elevation by GPS but by an integrated barometric altimeter. And barometric devices only provide reliable results if they have previously been calibrated and if weather conditions stay unchanged. In particular, the correct calibration can become quite difficult in remote areas of the Andes or the Himalayas. Anyhow, interaction of GPS and barometric altitude data in numerous travel reports, the contour lines in Google Maps and the elevation data in Google Earth provide a reasonably reliable picture of the actual situation.

In any case the fundamental question is whether a route is uphill passable on a bicycle, at all. Of course, you can partly ride, push and carry your bike cross country and thus reach any mountain peak. This may even lead in some cases to reported heights of more than 6,000 meters in Bolivia, Ladakh/India or in particular at Ojos del Salado/Chile. However, present search for the highest roads follows the simple idea that a road is continuously uphill bikeable if also a motorized two-lane vehicle finds its way on a route designated for that purpose - but actually even these runways are not always cyclable.

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South America

At Chilean volcano Ojos del Salado the Refugio Tejos (5,820m) can be accessed through a dirt track runway using a motorized 4x4 car. This route even proceeds to a maximum elevation of some 5,900 meters. Beyond this point several elevation world records have been set by all-terrain vehicles or by using using fat-tyred mountain bikes. However, the runway up to Refugio Tejos is said to be very rocky and sandy and provides an average gradient of 15% on its last kilometers. Thus this way is actually deemed not rideable with an ordinary bike.

Current world's highest cyclable road is located in the southwest of Bolivia and leads up to the mountain saddle of double-peaked volcano Uturuncu with its peak elevation of 5,768 meters. Until the 1990s there was a sulphur mine at the volcano which could be accessed by using this mine road. Nowadays the runway is only maintained by few local tourist guides. Thus this way is currently not blocked by landslides (as indicated in several trip reports) but motorable up to the mountain saddle (November 2013). After a reasonable time of acclimatisation this climb is actually cyclable.

Besides Uturuncu the current situation at Chilean/Bolivian volcano Acotango is interesting. Due to sulphur mining activities on top of this mountain the old Bolivian mine road has been renewed in recent years and work at this road is still in progress. Independent sources report the actual end of this road at a GPS measured elevation of some 5,700m. Road conditions are said to be more trafficable than at Uturuncu.

At Chilean volcano Aucanquilcha there was in the past a sulphur mine at an altitude of even above 6,000 meters and a dead-end road was leading up there. However, as the mine is no longer in operation the road currently deteriorates and is thus reported to be partly blocked and no longer trafficable above 5,500 meters. At close-by active volcano Ollague there is still some sulphur mining both on Bolivian and Chilean side of the mountain. On both sides unpaved roads lead up to the respective mines at an elevation of 5,500m. The same height can be accessed on a gravel way at volcan Tacora in the border area of Chile and Peru. All these mentioned roads can be identified on satellite images and Google Maps/Earth confirm respective altitudes.

Another rideable runway is the unpaved dead-end road in La Paz/Bolivia up to the former ski area Chacaltaya (5,200 meters / 17,061 ft). And some 250 kilometers northwest of La Paz the world's highest town is situated in Peru: La Rinconada (5,100 meters / 16,733 ft) can be accessed through a dirt track road. In addition there are several other nameless passroads in Peru's provinces of Arequipa and Apurimac said to exceed 5,000 meters at their peaks.

Further high spots can be found on the plateau of Chilean Atacama desert, driest desert in the world. Due to the climate conditions in that stone desert several astronomical observatories have been erected there in the past. The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) site with its several astronomical facilities is located there. On Cerro Chajnantor at an elevation of 5,612 meters / 18,412 ft several universities currently construct the Cornell Caltech Atacama Telescope (CCAT). Satellite images and photographs on the CCAT-website clearly show a trafficable runway up to the facility. However, whole area is non-public and access is ALMA-controlled. On enquiry CCAT and ALMA representatives unfortunately refuse any access to Cerro Chajnantor and a fence actually blocks the road. Nearby at Cerro Sairecabur a mobile Receiver Lab Telescope can be found at an altitude of 5,525 meters / 18,127 ft. This observatory and the respective road up there can also be clearly identified on satellite images. Pictures on scientific websites providing information on that observatory show 4x4 cars next to the facility and the satellite images even show that the road continues up to an elevation of more than 5,600 meters.

Highest paved road in South America (likewise in the world) is supposed to be Ticlio-Pass/Abra Anticona (4,818 meters / 15,808 ft) east of Lima in Peru. But asphalted Paso de Jama connecting Argentina with San Pedro de Atacama in Chile has its Chilean peak at an elevation of 4,831 meters / 15,846 ft. However, there seems to be an even higher cleanly asphalted route in Peru: The road from Chivay to Arequipa has its peak apparently at 4,910 meters / 16,110 ft. Photos on the internet show the nameless pass summit with a stone sign indicating this altitude and Google Earth/Maps confirm an elevation of some 4,860 meters – higher than Ticlio-Pass and Paso de Jama!

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Asia

Current situation in the Himalayas is quite ambiguous and unclear as many information on the internet can hardly be verified and relied on. One of the most interesting news is the said refurbishment of a pass road in Indian Ladakh up to Umling La (5,786m). This road is identifiable on satellite images and is deemed to be currently renewed. Some sources even label largely unknown Tibetan Lajiong La (5,821m) as trafficable (also identifiable on satellite images). Other unpaved mountain roads lead up to Kiu La (5,711m) and at Indian/Tibetan border to Mana La = Dungri La (>5,600m). At Siachen Glacier satellite images show a road from the Chinese side up to Karakoram Pass (mostly reported with 5,575 meters). And at Ladakh Marsimik La a gravel runway winds up to 5,680 meters. However, most named dirt tracks are situated in miltary strategic areas in the border region of India, Pakistan, China and/or Tibet. Access to these areas is often strictly restricted and you can not obtain reliable information about the trafficabilty and road conditions of the passes. Finally, it is hardly possible to determine the current highest cyclable road in the Himalayas. Given facts argue at the moment for Marsimik La being the highest actually accessible pass road for cyclists. Anyhow, the rapidly changing conditions at Umling La may require a new assessment of the current situation. Currently, Umling La is still said to be prohibited to tourist cyclists.

The title “Highest motorable road in the world” is still wrongfully being claimed by the Khardung La (5,602 meters / 18,380 ft) in Ladakh/Indian Himalayas. This information can be found on site and is repeated countless times in several travelogues. However, the reported elevation of 5,602 meters is obviously wrong. Actual altitude of that pass likely seems to be only some 5,360 meters. Latter specification can be found in an increasing number of recent trip reports and is consistent with the Google Maps/Earth altitude indication.

Other cyclable high altitude dirt road passes are Tibetan Semo La (5,565 meters / 18,259 ft) and Suge La (mostly indicated with 5,430 meters / 17,816 ft). Additionally, the classic mountain bike route from Tibetan Lhasa to Nepalese Kathmandu traverses on its 1,000 kilometers distance several passes with more than 5,000 meters of altitude. However, on Tibetan side this way currently turns into a road for heavy load traffic and becomes partly asphalted. Tibetan Gyatso La = Lhakpa La (5,220m / 17,127ft) is one of these cyclable high altitude passes. An even higher roadpass is Ladakh main road from Manali to Leh up to Taglang La (5,358m / 17,580ft). This road has recently become paved on its entire way and is now said the highest asphalted pass in the Himalayas (and likely in the world). In addition, the road to Tibetan Everest Base Camp (5,150m) has also recently been asphalted and was already conquered by road cyclists.


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Africa

Africa's highest roads should be found either in Morocco, in the mountainous East Africa (Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania) or in the Drakensberg Mountains in South Africa/Lesotho. As some of these areas are still not well developed but Third World countries it is hard to obtain reliable information about conditions and elevations of mountain roads there.

In Ethiopian Highlands there are several roads with their peaks at an elevation of more than 3,000 meters. Near Mount Buahit in the Semien Mountains you can even find an unpaved runway with its highest point above 4,000 meters. And in the southeast of Ethiopia an asphalted road leads to the Bale Mountain National Park. This road has its highest nameless spot at an altitude of 3,610m / 11,844ft between the villages of Dodola and Dinsho. However, the gravel road through Sanette Plateau in the Bale Mountains National Park is even higher: A dead-end side road leads to a telecommunication facility on the summit of Mount Tulluu Dimtuu (4,377m / 14,361ft), one of the tallest mountains of the country. This road is accessible by bicycle.

South African Drakensberg Mountains have their highest summits in embedded Lesotho. There you can find a paved road through the country with its peak at Tlaeeng Pass (3,251 meters / 10,666 ft). Pictures on the internet show this pass with an asphalted road and the respective altitude indication. Google Maps/Earth confirms this elevation. The way from South Africa to Lesotho leads via Sani Pass (2,873 meters / 9,426 ft) and Kotisephola Pass/Black Mountain Pass (3,240 meters / 10,630 ft) both obviously being only graveled runways.

At Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania you could theoretically ride on a mountain bike on Marangu route up to Kibo Hut (4,700 meters). Unfortunately, the National Park is completely closed to cyclists. Thus, you can only ride on a paved road (with murderous motorized traffic) up to Marangu Gate at some 1,900 meters.


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North America

Northamerica's highest roads all exceeding an elevation of 4,300m and accessible by bicycle are mainly situated in the Rocky Mountains in the US State of Colorado. The roads up to the two adjacent peaks Mount Evans (4,307 meters / 14,131 ft) and Pikes Peak (4,301 meters / 14,112 ft) have always been competing for tourists and visitors. The road winding to Mount Evans has been continuously paved for a long time and is thus rideable on a road bike. And since 2013 cyclists are also permitted to climb all the asphalted way up to Pikes Peak summit. Highest gravel road is located in Californian White Mountains: White Mountain Peak (4,344m) can be accessed by mountain bike.


Oceania

Provided Hawaii belongs geographically to Oceania the partly graveled road up to the observatory at Mauna Kea volcano (4,200 meters / 13,808 ft) should be the highest bikeable road on the continent. Face-to-face with Mauna Kea another volcano is located: Mauna Loa has an observatory at its northern side at an elevation of 3,397 meters / 11,169 ft. This facility is actually accessible on a narrow but asphalted runway leading through solidified lava up to the observatory. Otherwise the road up to the ski resort Charlotte Pass (1,840 meters / 6,037 ft) close to Mount Kosciuszko in Australia should be named the highest road of the continent rideable on a road bike. Whether there are even higher roads in New Zealand or in New Guinea is unknown, but unlikely anyhow.

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Europe

Europe knows world-famous pass roads in the Alps being tackled every year by thousands of amateur cyclists. However, Europe's highest accessible roadway is not located in the Alps but in the Spanish Sierra Nevada. A paved road winds from Granada up to the peak of Pico del Veleta (3,394 meters / 11,136 ft) and can be challenged on a road bike. Southern ascent of the Veleta is only an unsealed hiking path but can be climbed on a proper bike. Next to Pico Veleta the Mount Mulhacen (3,482m / 11,425ft) is situated. In the past its peak could be accessed on a former unpaved runway using a mountain bike. But Mulhacen National Park is nowadays explicitly prohibited to cyclists. And also in the Alps cyclists can reach the 3,000 meters range on several small paths. It is even possible to get significant higher if you carry and/or push your bike (partly across glaciers). However, constantly rideable 3,000m-tracks can be challenged from French Les Deux Alpes up to Col du Jandri (3,200m), in South Tyrol up to the Ortlerhaus (3,025m) and in Italian Susa-Valley up to Colle Sommeiller (3,009m / 9,962ft). Other dirt tracks lead in Austrian Ötz Valley up to Wurmkogel (3,023m) and to Gaislachkogel (3,040m) an in Swiss Valais to Gornergrat (3,100m). Strong riders may also reach at South Tyrol Madritschjoch (3,123m) an elevation of some 3,000 meters. And nearby you can get to Schöntauf cableway with its mountain station even above 3,200m. All these runways are almost continuously cyclable with respective strength and technical skills. In contrary the way to Italian Bontadini ski-lift (3,332 meters / 10,955 ft) and to even higher close-by spots at Theodulpass are actually not continuously rideable by bicycle. And the runways to French/Italian Mont Chaberton (3,131m) and to Col du Rosael (3,000m) in French Maurienne Valley are also mostly reported not cyclabe with pushing passages. Outside the Alps the way to the crater rim of Mount Etna (some 3,000m) in Sicily and the dirt road up to the Russian observatory Terskol (some 3,100 meters / 10,171 ft) in the North Caucasus close to Mount Elbrus should be noted.

Germany: It is quite hard to determine Germany's highest spot reachable by road bike. Highest public accessible asphalted German road for motorised traffic is Roßfeld-Höhenringstraße (1,540m) near Berchtesgaden. Even higher is the close-by non-public asphalted road up to the parking area at Kehlsteinhaus / Eagle's Nest (1,716m). But unfortunately this roadway is not permitted to cyclists but only to tourist coaches. However, there is an alternative old military road leading up to Eagle's Nest which can be accessed by mountain bike. From Oberstdorf an asphalted and very steep roadway leads at Fellhorn Mountain to Alpe Schlappold at 1,740m which is closed to non-authorised motorised traffic but is attainable on a bicycle. Close-by a further paved hiking way winds via Edmund-Probst-Haus (1,932m) at Nebelhorn mountain to an eleavtion of more than 2,000 meters. However, this last runway is in parts extremely steep and thus considered not cyclable by many riders. In addition, mountain bikers can challenge a gravel runway up to Osterfelderkopf (2,022m) and mountain station of Garmisch Alpspitzbahn.

Austria: Road bikers can find three paved mountain roads in Austria with their peaks above 2,500 meters. From Sölden in Ötz Valley a steep ramp leads up to Ötztal Glacier (2,822m). And northern approach to Timmelsjoch (2,509m / actually 2,474m) also starts from Sölden. Further high Austrian climbs are Großglockner High Alpine Road (2,571m) and asphalted road up to Kaunertal Glacier (2,750m). At Gaislachkogel (3,040m) bikers can reach an altitude of more than 3,000m by mountain bike.

Switzerland: Highest asphalted Swiss road pass is Umrailpass (2,503m) at the border to Italy close to Stelvio Pass. However, all other passroads entirely situated within Switzerland stay shortly below 2,500 meters. The highest of these is Nufenenpass (2,478m). Strong mountain bikers can climb Gornergrat (3,100m) up to an elevation of more than 3,000m.

Italy: Northern climb of Stelvio Pass (2,758m) is not only Italy's highest paved passroad but one of Europe's most viewy ascents. In addition road bikers can challenge the eastern ascent of Colle dell'Agnello (2,744m), the Gaviapass (2,652m) and finally Colle del Nivolet (2,612m). And Madritschjoch (3,123m) is the highest accessible spot for mountain bikers in Italy.

France: Highest French spot accessible by road bike is Cime de la Bonette (2,802m) shortly above the pass of the same name. However, highest real asphalted French passroad is Col de l'Iseran (2,770m), followed by western flank of Col Agnel (2,744m) and legendary Col du Galibier (2,645m). Highest unpaved road in Europe is the climb to Col du Jandri (3,200m).


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Antarctica

Even Antarctica has an unpaved "road": The trafficable snow runway of South Pole Traverse winds 1,500 kilometers from McMurdo Harbour and the Ross Ice Shelf through the Transantarctic Mountains towards the South Pole. The Traverse is used by snow vehicles to provide Amundsen-Scott-Station at the South Pole (2,835m / 9,302ft) with necessary equipment. On a different route cyclists reached in January 2012 the South Pole for the first time on specifically manufactured bicycles with fat tires. The tour led through the Antarctic Plateau (average height 3,000 meters) and was accompanied by support cars and a television crew. However, the trip was partly realised on skis and with wind sails. And as lowest temperatures in the Antarctic summer decline to some minus 40 degrees Celsius riding on a bicycle may become a little uncomfortable in that region.

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