beartooth pass montana mountain road winding peaks highway switch-back

5 Epic Drives that Induce Vertigo

There’s a reason the winding mountain road is an iconic image in our culture. Here are five roads that will induce a white-knuckle grip on the safety handle.

beartooth pass montana mountain road winding peaks highway switch-back
Highway 312, Beartooth Pass, Montana. Photo by: Eric Warren

Beartooth Pass – Highway 312 Red Lodge to Cooke City, Montana

Highway 312 winds 60 miles from Red Lodge to Cooke City, Montana at the edge of Yellowstone National Park. Starting at 5,555 feet, the highway claws its way up 5,000 feet in less than 19 miles, switching-back on itself dozens of times before reaching Beartooth Pass, named after a spike of rock that looks like a massive canine tooth. Most of the drive is above treeline, with great views of towering granite peaks, hundreds of alpine lakes and snow all summer long. Keep an eye out for Grizzly Bears and Bighorn Sheep. Also, don’t forget to stop at “Top of the World” a tiny convenience store near the highpoint of the pass.

Independence Pass, Aspen, CO

If you’re looking for a raw, near panic-inducing experience, head up Colorado Highway 82 to Independence Pass. At 12,095 feet, Independence Pass is the second highest paved road in Colorado. The highway is narrow and steep, seeming to almost hang in mid-air at points. The switch-backs give both sides of the car ample time to get familiar with the saw-toothed fourteeners all around. The road winds its way through the highest peaks of the Rocky Mountains with good views of the range’s highest, Mt. Elbert at 14,433 ft. As you climb out of the forested valley toward the top of the pass, the mountains will continue to tower high above you, giving a new perspective on just how big these mountains really are.

Mt. Washington auto road, North Conway, New Hampshire

When most people take a drive, they’re not looking for the worst weather in the world. Unless they’re heading up Mount Washington’s historic Auto Road. This road hugs the side of the highest mountain on the east coast, climbing an 11.6% average grade 4,618 ft (1,408 m) in less than 8 miles. The road tops out at the weather observatory famous for the highest recorded wind speed at 230 mph. Even on calm days the wind can have you staggering like drunk on a bender, so be sure to layer your clothing. Braving the weather is well worth the effort. On a clear day you can see the glistening water of the Atlantic Ocean 60 miles away.

While the road occasionally closes for weather, it also closes for the Climb to the Clouds auto race and a grueling Bicycle Hillclimb, so check the schedule beforehand.

telluride mountain fall colors yellow aspen colorado road town san juan scenic highway
Fall colors light up the mountainsides of Telluride, Colorado near the San Juan Scenic highway. Photo by Yann Ropars

San Juan Skyway, Colorado

This loop is one of the premiere mountain roads in the US. Head north on Colorado Highway 145 through the near ghost town of Rico From there, the road turns upward, topping out at Lizard Head Pass 10,222 ft (3116 m). Even as your engine gasps for air, the surrounding 14,000 ft+ peaks still soar above you. If you happen to be driving this route in autumn, the next stretch will give New England foliage a solid run for its money. The aspen trees turn a vibrant gold that offsets the blue of the mountains and the early snowfall. From there, the road passes Telluride and meets up with Colorado Highway 62 in Placerville. From there the Skyway slithers over Dallas Divide with more spectacular views of 14,000 ft peaks before turing south on US 550 toward Ouray. Try to pry your white knuckles off the wheel as you make your way south of Ouray. The “Million Dollar Highway” clings to the side of the Uncompahgre Gorge for seven precarious miles before switch-backing up to Red Mountain Pass at 11,018 feet. From there, you still have to contend with Molas Pass (10,910 feet) near Silverton and Coal bank Pass (10,640 feet) before dropping into Durrango and back to Cortez.

Highway 99 – Sea to Sky Highway Vancouver to Lillooet, BC

horseshoe bay british columbia sea to sky highway 99 canada boat mountain road pass
Boats along Horseshoe Bay, British Columbia. Photo by: Eric Warren

While it’s not the highest paved road in Canada (that honor belongs to Highwood Pass) the Sea to Sky Highway’s name says it all. Highway 99 climbs from the oceanside city of Vancouver, BC into the gold-rush town of Lillooet. Dramatic views of a water-shaped landscape fill your view, from rugged, wave-pounded Pacific coastline to mountain cascades to the tails of glaciers reaching down to the ocean. After you begin your ascent into the thick forests of the coastal mountains, you will encounter switch-backs into the Cayoosh Creek Valley, and climb into the jagged mountains along the Fraiser River and into Lillooet. The best part about the drive? You’ll get to do it all over again on the way back.


2 thoughts on “5 Epic Drives that Induce Vertigo

  1. Hey Eric, great list. I’ve been on all those highways, except for the Mt. Washington one. Beartooth is probably the most “epic,” but “Sea to Sky” is pretty beautiful.


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