World's Scariest Roads
Wheels spinning, tire tread searching for grip, Lee Klancher steered his motorcycle between two ruts before skidding to a stop. It was day No. 2 of the Caravana festival, a weeklong expedition held semiannually in the wilds of South America, and Klancher, a veteran rider from St. Paul, Minn., had signed up to attempt a road rarely traveled through the Amazon Basin.
“We were 200 miles from anything resembling civilization,” he said. “An all-out adventure.”
Like dozens of wilderness roads around the planet, the Caravana route—a 100-mile track in northern Bolivia—is just barely navigable with motorized transportation. But that didn’t deter the dozens of participants, including American tourists and South American dignitaries, who revved up at a remote start line to throttle north into the unknown.
Since the dawn of motorized transit, deep jungle and high mountains haven’t stopped humans from trying to lay roads through the planet’s most treacherous terrain. Some are primitive trails that evolved to accommodate four wheels and a motor, while others were forged by blasting through whatever nature put in the way.
These roads can be found all over the world. In the American West, where wagon tracks still scar sandstone in the desert, wild roads climb and dip along rivers and through canyons once used as waypoints for wilderness travel. And roads like the Karakorum Highway in Pakistan, a two-lane that climbs past 16,000 feet, have put pavement over parts of the historical Silk Route.
Related: America's Most Scenic Roads
They’re not always in the best shape. Despite the super highways of the Western world, roads in many countries remain vastly unimproved. Sometimes they’re used by adventure travelers like Klancher. The Canning Stock Route in Western Australia, for example, attracts four-wheel-drive enthusiasts to motor in convoys for 1,100 miles in a sun-baked expanse as desolate as Mars. But, be it a public bus route in Africa or a farm-to-market track in the mountains of Mexico, the world’s most dangerous roads were built first for transit and trade.
Either way, they can be heart-stopping—and perilous to traverse. Bolivia’s North Yungas Road, an archetype of danger dubbed the “Road of Death,” is a mountain-hugging lane lined by 1,000-foot drops. Robin Esrock, a television host from Vancouver who has twice descended North Yungas on a bike, cites the jungle lane as the most dangerous road he’s seen. “It’s a winding narrow track that skirts huge drops with a near miss around every corner.”
The Halsema Highway, an unpaved mountain road in the Philippines’ Cordillera Central range, seems tailor-made for the likes of Indiana Jones. Here, foggy cloud forests and landslides could come up around any given turn.
Sometimes the risk isn’t just topographical. Mark Jenkins, a staff writer with National Geographic, hiked the Stilwell Road, from India into Burma, in 1996 while researching a book. While traversing this infamous World War II supply line, Jenkins tiptoed unauthorized into the totalitarian regime, trekking for two nights in the jungle before eventually facing a military arrest. “It’s not a road I recommend,” Jenkins said.
The following 10 roads, from Klancher’s Bolivia route to a forsaken highway in Russia, represent some of the planet’s most harrowing. Ride, drive, or hike at your own risk.
North Yungas Road, Bolivia
Location: Between La Paz and the town of Coroico
Fear factor: In running as the most dangerous road on the planet, the North Yungas Road—aka the “Road of Death”—stretches for some 40 mountain-hugging miles, as narrow as 10 feet in spots and with 1,000-foot drops straight to a rainforest below. Guardrails? You only wish.
Guoliang Tunnel Road, China
Location: China’s Taihang Mountains
Fear factor: Let’s just say its name translates to the “Road that does not tolerate any mistakes.” In 1972, villagers in a remote area of the Taihang Mountains chiseled a 3/4-mile-long tunnel through a mountain for access to the outside world. Today, the route—15 feet high and 12 feet wide—is a tight squeeze for vehicles, twisting past the tunnel’s 30 “windows,” which provide views off the precipice to a tumbling abyss hundreds of feet below.
Halsema Highway, Philippines
Location: Island of Luzon
Fear factor: Like many under-maintained mountain roads, landslides are a hazard on the Halsema Highway, where big stones and debris tumble from peaks. And along with the cloud forests comes mist that can ruin visibility. Tracing a circuitous path, this road crosses the massive Cordillera Central mountain range on the Island of Luzon, and many sections remain unpaved.
Karakoram Highway, Pakistan to China
Location: Karakoram mountain range in Pakistan
Fear factor: The highest paved road on the planet, the Karakoram Highway winds through the mountains at an altitude above 16,000, eventually connecting to China. It’s a popular tourist route, with motorists stopping to view K2 and other stratosphere-scraping peaks from the pavement. Drivers can easily suffer altitude sickness on the 800-mile highway, which slinks along rivers and crosses arid planes before climbing the endless inclines of the Karakoram.
Kolyma Highway, Russia
Location: Russian Far East and Siberia
Fear factor: Actors Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman traversed this 1,200-mile route, nicknamed the Road of Bones, on a round-the-world motorcycle journey in 2004. Constructed in the Stalin era, the Road of Bones gets its name from labor camp inmates and other workers who died during construction, some of whom are buried beneath or near the road. This wilderness route runs past some of the coldest inhabited places on earth. In winter, motorists drive across ice on frozen rivers in lieu of ferries.
Canning Stock Route, Australia
Location: Through the vast deserts of Western Australia
Fear factor: Cattlemen 100 years ago pushed this 1,100-mile route through the endless deserts of Down Under, digging more than 50 wells along its length. Recreational four-wheel-drive convoys can now cross the desolation with the aid of fuel drops, forging endless sand and sun-baked earth to traverse one of the least inhabitable places on the planet.
Graciosa Trail, Brazil
Location: In the mountains above Morretes
Fear factor: This old mule route winds through a rainforest and crosses moss-covered bridges. Cobblestone paves parts of its length, slippery and dangerous on the route’s sharp turns, and hydrangea plants push in to line the lush lane with blue flowers.
Trans-Sahara Highway, Africa
Location: Algiers, Algeria to Lagos, Nigeria
Fear factor: From pavement to sand, the 2,800-mile Trans-Sahara Highway traverses three countries—Algeria, Niger, and Nigeria—on its journey through the largest sand desert on Earth. Fuel and water are unavailable for much of its sun-scorched length, and sand storms some years move immense drifts and dunes onto the road, blocking the route for days at a time.
The Stilwell Road, India and Burma
Location: Jungle route from Ledo, India into Burma
Fear factor: Built during World War II at the cost of thousands of lives, the Stilwell Road (aka The Ledo Road) climbs mountain passes, snakes through the jungle, and crosses more than 100 rivers and streams in its 1,079-mile length. Constructed as a supply route by Western Allies, the road today is returning to jungle, little used and inaccessible for much of its length behind Burma’s totalitarian curtain.
Wilderness Road to Selva Blue Lodge, Bolivia
Location: Between Santa Ana and the Selva Blue wilderness lodge
Fear factor: The route, a 100-mile jungle labyrinth, is a 20-foot-wide gravel track that shrinks to a grassy two-track and crosses log bridges over rushing Amazonia tributaries. The Caravana motorcycle festival chose this often-flooded route through the Amazon Basin of northern Bolivia in 2002.