33

I'm looking to drive up the highest road in the world but I don't have access to any special vehicles. Where can I do so? The exact conditions are:

  • The road must be accessible to civilians, so military roads by the Chinese-Indian border are excluded for example.
  • The road must be accessible to international tourists.
  • You can drive up the road on your own without needing to hire a guide as your driver
  • You can use a regular car, the likes of which one can rent at airport car rentals. In the US this usually means something like a stock 4WD Jeep at most, but nothing more fancy like cars with reinforced undercarriages.

I've found this list on DangerousRoads.org, but it includes many enthusiast-only roads.

1
35

For paved roads accessible to ordinary rental cars, I nominate Ruta 27 in Chile, a 156 km road between San Pedro de Atacama and the Argentinian border. At its highest point it is 4,832m (15,853 feet) above sea level, and at the border crossing at Paso de Jama it is 4,320m (14,120 feet) above sea level. No guides or permits of any sort are required.

8
  • 7
    Apparently not the highest, but relevant as a candidate for the highest outside the Himalaya area, in a very different part of the world. – Peter Cordes Jan 16 at 21:54
  • 5
    @PeterCordes I overlooked those because they all required guides or permits. Then later the question was edited to loosen that requirement a bit, but by now others have already given those roads as answers. – Michael Hampton Jan 16 at 21:57
  • 2
    Other future readers may have different criteria, like perhaps wanting no guide requirement at all. So +1. IDK if it's worth editing your answer to point out that advantage. – Peter Cordes Jan 16 at 21:59
  • 1
    I'm pretty sure this is where Top Gear attempted to cross at one point, and had great difficulty doing it due to lack of oxygen. Wild episode, worth watching if you can find it! – Brad Jan 18 at 1:51
  • 1
    @Brad I think you're describing the Bolivia special. As I recall they weren't on paved roads but were at much higher altitude than this. That said, this road is near the Bolivian border, so you could go visit that area if you first watch to see what all is going to go wrong. – Michael Hampton Jan 18 at 5:55
23

Semo La in Tibet at 5,565 is the highest surfaced road, used actively by travellers.

Semo La (Chinese: 桑木拉大坂; Standard Tibetan: བཟར་མོ་ལ) is a mountain pass situated in Coqên County, Ngari Prefecture in the central part of Tibet and gives access to the Changtang region. It is found on the so-called Northern Route, north of Raka and south of Town of Coqên in Central Tibet. Travellers use this route as an alternative access route to western Tibet and Mount Kailash, especially when mud makes access by the more southern route difficult.

The road crossing the pass was once an old unsurfaced track travelled only by a weekly bus and trucks heading west to avoid the boggy parts of the south of the country. The construction of paved road through the pass, Tibet Provincial Road S206, was finished in late 2015.

Elevation
The height according to the Tibet Department of Transportation is 5,565 m (18,258 ft); however, the signage at the road rounded it up to 5,566 m (18,261 ft). In 2005, a Catalan cartographic expedition certified the height to be 5,565.1 m (18,258 ft).

At 5,565 metres (18,258 ft), Semo La may be the highest asphalted road in the world. Khardung La was once thought to be the world record holder at 5,602 metres (18,379 ft); in reality, according to modern surveys, it measures 5,359 m (17,582 ft), 243 m (797 ft) less than previously thought.

Lonely Planet have an itinerary for the Northern Ngari:

https://www.lonelyplanet.com/china/northern-ngari/in-location/activities/a/nar/0899ecfe-ad83-4dd5-b21a-cfc4624ce790/1323946

Atop the World: The Xinjiang–Tibet Hwy With at least two passes above 5400m, the Xinjiang–Tibet Hwy is the highest road in the world. Approximately 1350km from Kashgar to Ali, this is an epic journey that can form a wild extension to a trip along the Karakoram Hwy

You'll need to do this as part of a pre-arranged tour, so if you're looking for a self-driven independent drive, you'll need to look outside of Tibet.

See also the Wiki for Extreme points on earth for other interesting places to visit!

1
  • 5
    Is that open to non-Chinese travellers though? You'll definitely need to be accompanied by a guide, since it's in Tibet. – lambshaanxy Jan 16 at 15:23
12

The Tanggula Pass of China National Highway 109 (G109), the main road between Tibet and the rest of the China, reaches an elevation of 5,231 meters at its highest point.

The highway is fully paved and maintained, so it's passable in a regular 2WD vehicle, although winter conditions can be extreme. It's also the only road entry point normally open to foreigners coming to Tibet, although general Tibet restrictions do apply, which means you will need to have a licensed guide accompany you (you can still drive by yourself).

5
  • 1
    If one must be accompanies by a licensed guide then it fails the "without needing to hire a guide" criterion. – gerrit Jan 16 at 16:44
  • 3
    @gerrit updated the question. What I meant was - you don't need to hire a guide as your driver. If you can be behind the wheel it's okay. – JonathanReez Jan 16 at 17:32
  • Wait, could you drive upo to the pass, and come back the same way, without a guide? – Fattie Jan 18 at 13:27
  • 1
    @Fattie No, you can't enter Tibet without a guide, and the pass is entirely in Tibet. You wouldn't even get anywhere close, as basically all of Qinghai outside Xining (the start of the highway) also requires permits. – lambshaanxy Jan 18 at 14:03
  • ah, thanks for explaining, @lambshaanxy So regarding Khardung La (see below), that's in traditional Tibet but these days in India right? – Fattie Jan 18 at 14:22
10

Not the highest, but perhaps much more doable than the above: Pikes Peak Highway near Colorado Springs.

Summit is 14115 feet (4302 metres). If you are legally allowed to enter and drive in the U.S. you can easily do this in a rental car. Try for July when it's open to the summit. When I went up in May 1995 it was open only to the 12000 foot (3650 meters) level. The air was noticeably thinner at that level.

7
  • 6
    4300 metres approximately for international readers. – mdewey Jan 17 at 15:24
  • 1
    Fun fact: Technically in the US all rental car agencies have clauses that state you can't drive on unpaved roads. – Peter M Jan 17 at 15:52
  • 4
    @PeterM True. But have you been on it since 2011? They had been hauling 75,000 tons of gravel up the hill every year (so like 3000 truckloads) to replenish the road service; the Sierra Club was concerned with where that rock was going. Upshot is, they paved the whole thing. Aside from their direct goal, they also took 3000 gravel truck runs off the road, "cheers" say Colorado drivers! – Harper - Reinstate Monica Jan 17 at 18:05
  • @Harper-ReinstateMonica Yeah, I realized afterwards that it had been paved. Never been there myself though. – Peter M Jan 17 at 18:52
  • 2
    Pikes Peak Highway isn't even the highest in its state. Mount Evans Scenic Byway is higher. – shoover Jan 19 at 1:55
8

Currently the highest answer on this page,

Abra Oquepuño, 4.873m

enter image description here


Some while ago, I did a bit of internet research on Macusani, a town in Peru. It sits at an elevation of 4,315 m (14,157 ft). It is on the Carretera Interoceanica, a relatively new road constructed between Brazil and Peru which was completed in 2011. Its highest point is at Oquepuño Pass, about 20km southeast of Macusani. It is described on the DangerousRoads site as follows:

Abra Oquepuño is a high mountain pass at an elevation of 4.873m (15,977ft) above the sea level, located in the province Carabaya in the region Puno, in southern Peru. It’s said to be the second highest asphalted road in South America. The pass is traversed by the Carretera Interoceanica, also known as Ruta nacional PE-34B. It’s an asphalted road.

I have done a virtual drive on highway 34B around Macusani and the road seems to be in excellent condition suitable for ordinary 2WD vehicles. I have never driven at that kind of elevation so I do not know how well a normal rental car might perform with the little oxygen available. Weather in general and sudden weather changes in particular are likely a significant hazard; I don't know the best time to travel the Carretera Interoceanica.

There is a timelapse video of someone driving on highway 34B from Azangaro to Macusani, dated 2015/05/06. They covered the distance of roughly 140km in a bit under two hours. At 23:45 into the video, they reach Abra Oquepuño. Road and weather conditions look excellent throughout the entire drive.

16
  • 4
    A non-turbo car won't perform well at those altitudes, to be sure. You'll have less than half your available power. However the far greater risk/threat is a novice driver not knowing how to downshift to avoid burning out brakes on the downgrade. – Harper - Reinstate Monica Jan 17 at 0:20
  • 4
    @Harper-ReinstateMonica I've driven a 2WD up to 4300 meters. You slowly feel the power diminishing until you're stuck in first gear for the last stretch. Other than that, if you're not used to the altitude, don't drive there yourself. Get acclimatized before, because your brain will perform less as well, and this can be dangerous. – Bernhard Jan 17 at 8:37
  • 2
    @Harper-ReinstateMonica With the CVT in my 2020 Forester you can't downshift. This worried me when I first got it as I live in a mountainous area. The solution mentioned by the dealer was to use cruise control to limit your down hill speed. This actually works in my car, and the stop light indicators on the dashboard don't come on, meaning that the system is definitely not using the brakes to control the speed. – Peter M Jan 17 at 15:49
  • 1
    @PeterM Definitely feasible. Engine computers have been controlling transmissions for at least 25 years (GM 4L60E). It wouldn't be terribly hard for the software to look for scenarios where you a) are not pressing the accelerator pedal yet b) the car is accelerating... and command appropriate downshifts. I know some modern cars can also autobrake, but the computer would know if it was creating hot brakes. However, certain EVs have no dynamic brakes - if the battery can't absorb the energy they cannot safely descend. . – Harper - Reinstate Monica Jan 17 at 17:42
  • 1
    @Fattie Sorry, I don't know which one is the highest. I know this one is higher than the one in the answer most heavily upvoted at this time. – njuffa Jan 19 at 3:25
7

Update:

The world's highest motorable road passes through Umling La pass in Ladakh Union Territory of India. It is located at an altitude of over 19,300 feet and connects the Chisumle in the Koyul Lungpa valley and Demchok villages of Leh district of Ladakh.

Road to Khardung La pass (5359m AMSL) is the 2nd highest road in the world. The pass is a crossover between Leh, Nubra and Shyok valley. The Indian military vehicles drive through this pass to send supplies to Siachen post (the highest battlefield in the world). Any kind of vehicle can be driven on Leh-Khardung-La pass road.

ILP (Inner Line Permit) is required for Indian tourists and foreign nationals need Protected Area Permits (PAP) to drive in Khardungla, Nubra, Shyok region. One can apply for the permit on LAHDC Permit website.

8
  • 7
    A glance at the link tells that tourists need special permits to drive this road. – Michael Hampton Jan 16 at 21:43
  • 2
    @MichaelHamlton The permit is usually easily obtainable. The question says road should be accessible to International tourists, not that no permit should be required. – RedBaron Jan 17 at 8:59
  • 1
    I think the "permit" aspect is very confusing. Of course, one needs "a bit of paperwork" to visit Tibet. But then Tibetans need quite a lot of paperwork to visit Boise. Tourists commonly and normally drive over this pass, google.com/maps/@34.2788611,77.6046903,3a,75y,38.22h,90t/… – Fattie Jan 18 at 13:44
  • and for example, a "Western" biker gang up there google.com/maps/@34.278701,77.6045655,3a,75y,104.73h,90t/… – Fattie Jan 18 at 13:44
  • 1
    Note that you need a "permit" to drive up Pike's Peak - it's a controlled toll road with guards, etc. – Fattie Jan 18 at 14:22
1

Chacaltaya is a ski slope in Bolivia. The road to the base station might not be paved. The weather observatory is at about 17,000 feet (5200 meters). Outside of the Himalayas, this has to be one of the highest.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.