The Ten Best Alpine Passes

Welcome to the Motorcycle Diaries top ten best Alpine passes. These roads are where you'll find the smoothest tarmac, most amazing views and most vacant surfaces in the Alps. Move over, Stelvio. You might be the most famous, but these ten passes are better: less packed and less monotonous. Get riding!

 

ALBULA PASS

Cliffs, Trees, Sharp Curves

Location: Switzerland
Elevation: 2315 metres View: 4/5
Surface: 3/5
Pleasure: 4/5

Nestled in south-eastern Switzerland, the Albula is a pass stock full of variety. Fewer traditional switchbacks than a typical high Alpine road means more opportunity for the road to surprise you. A smooth and well-asphalted ascent out of Filisur brings you towards an incredibly dramatic cliff-side ride, visible from the first set of switchbacks you come to. The Albula river dives through a deep crevice between two vertical rock faces, and the road impossibly follows it through as well. The road continues rising after the village of Bergün, tightens, and the surface becomes cracked and crazy before opening out into the Alvra valley. A few well-surfaced switchbacks round off the experience as you descend into Punt-Chaumes-Ch.

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UMBRAIL PASS

Tight, Grand, Valley Ascent

Location: Switzerland
Elevation: 2501 metres
View: 4/5
Surface: 3/5
Pleasure: 4/5

Sportsbike riders rejoice: the Umbrail has now been fully asphalted. Ride from north to south, so you arrive at the dramatic Stelvio viewpoint to finish. But that's not all you have to look forward to as you squirrel up along the tight single track road. Pause and look back north down the Müstair Valley. It's not as steep as some mountainsides in the Alps, but it's certainly a grand vista. Crossing over into Italy at the pass's peak, you have two options: the famous Stelvio viewpoint to your left, and the lesser-known, but no less awesome, descent into Bormio to the right.

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COL DE LA BONETTE, FRANCE

Epic, Top-of-the-world, Challenging

Location: France
Elevation: 2715 metres or 2802 metres including summit road
View: 5/5
Surface: 3/5
Pleasure: 4/5

Riding to the summit of Bonette is the highest elevation you will manage on any paved road in Europe. Avoid the little top-of-the-world teardrop road that leads off the main pass to the summit, however, and you'll only be managing a feeble 2715 metres – Col de l'Iseran, Col Agnel and the Stelvio all reach higher elevations than that. But seriously, who's counting? The Bonette is a sometimes tight test of riding ability that anyone should be proud of defeating. Add to that, the gob-smacking views towards the east and west, and you have yourself a truly epic experience.

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FURKA PASS

Switchbacks, Open Views, Fast Straight

Location: Switzerland
Elevation: 2429 metres
View: 5/5
Surface: 3/5
Pleasure: 5/5

Immortalised by that car chase from James Bond's Goldfinger, the Furka is a slim stretch of tarmac that traces the northern side of the Furkareuss valley betweeen the Grimsel pass and Andermatt. After an appetiser course of two-lane switchbacks, the route 19 sets into a mooth and sweeping rhythm, with glorious open views up the valley to the east. Hotels perch sparsely along the route, each and every one with incredible panoramas surrounding it. The road gets tighter on the descent, but after Realp and the bridge aross the Reuss, it's a dead-straight 2.5km race to the finish in the village of Zumdorf.

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SILVRETTASTRASSE, AUSTRIA

Surreal, Smooth, Perfect Switchbacks

Location: Austria
Elevation: 2032 metres
View: 5/5
Surface: 5/5
Pleasure: 5/5

Thanks to Ashish Kumar for adding the Silvretta Hochalpenstrasse to the Motorcycle Diaries atlas. Ashish says it's one of the “most surreal settings in Western Austria,” and we're inclined to agree with him. The 30km road runs straight through a national park, and you'll need to pay €12 per motorcycle (€15 for a car) to ride through. Don't let this put you off – forcing a toll on motorists puts some people off, and there is less traffic than would be expected on a road of this calibre. The sweeping corners just north of the Vermuntstausee reservoir must be some of the most perfect examples of the art of the switchback in the entire world.

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KLAUSEN PASS

Steep, Cliff-side, Single Lane

Location: Switzerland
Elevation: 1948 metres
View: 5/5
Surface: 5/5
Pleasure: 4/5

The mountainside route 17 wriggles along between Altdorf and Linthal, scrunched up into bunches in three places. Tight corners and blind views force speed down in places, while glimpses of the road ahead allow you to accelerate hard in others. The top of the pass bounces between the mesa-like cliffs of Glatten to the north and the monolithic mountain range to the south. Neither are ever conquered by the pass, so you feel as though you are only a humble guest in this giant landscape.

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GROSSGLOCKNER HOCHALPENSTRASSE

Wide, Curvaceous, Magnificent

Location: Austria
Elevation: 2504 metres
View: 5/5
Surface: 4/5
Pleasure: 5/5

An impeccable road surface allows confident riding, even at 2,500 metres above sea level on the 36 hairpin bends of the Grossglockner High Alpine Road. It's named after Austria's highest mountain which stands at 3798 metres, but the road actually runs over the Hochtor Pass. One of the classic Alpine passes, it incorporates curvaceous elevated sections and smooth curves with a wide surface complete with centre markings. However, expect to pay a hefty €25 toll per motorcycle (€35 per car) for a ride before 6pm.

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GRIMSEL PASS

Open, Winding, Rocky

Location: Switzerland
Elevation: 2164 metres
View: 5/5
Surface: 4/5
Pleasure: 5/5

Part of the popular triple-pass route, the Grimsel sets itself apart from the Furka and Susten passes due to its lack of blind bends. Attacking it from the north, leave the trees behind and you'll find yourself steaming across a huge valley, with good views of the road ahead. The experience builds naturally to the switchback crescendo on the ascent to the pass's peak. Stop at the top and look back over the two reservoirs, before plunging down the other side and turning onto the Furka pass to the east.

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SUSTEN PASS

Smooth, Green, Grand

Location: Switzerland
Elevation: 2260 metres
View: 5/5
Surface: 4/5
Pleasure: 5/5

More greenery here than you'll find traversing the Grimsel, and fewer switchbacks as well. The peak is still a dramatic sight, with the road smoothly curving off down the hillsides, peppered by the odd tight corner. Centre lines mean the road stays wide and each corner can be taken as a unit on its own, with good run-ups and sight lines. Smooth corners and good surfaces might encourage epic lean, but be careful on some corners: no run-off, vertical drops and inadequate small stone blocks for barriers don't provide much of a hero's safety net.

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SAN BERNARDINO PASS

Beautiful, Smooth, Curvaceous

Location: Switzerland
Elevation: 2066 metres
View: 5/5
Surface: 5/5
Pleasure: 5/5

This is one of Motorcycle Diaries' favourite passes, due to its smoothness, natural beauty and its fizzing cocktail of speed and curves. The official start point is the village of San Bernardino, the road before this to the south is worth the ride, winding between fir trees with perfect tarmac. North of San Bernardino, the road narrows, but maintains some open views that allow you to keep accelerating between tighter bends. Trees and scrub give way to grass and rocky outcrops, but the road maintains its surface quality all the way up to Lake Moesola. Up here, between beds of wild Alpine flowers, with distant mountaintops wreathed in cloud, the ride is simply blissful.

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WE NEED YOU


Two fantastic passes are yet to be ridden and added to the Motorcycle Diaries Atlas. We want you to head out and shoot some stunning pictures of them both for us, and then upload them as a road entry on the site.

FLUELAPASS
Location: Switzerland
Elevation: 2383 metres

JAUFENPASS
Location: Italy
Elevation: 2094 metres

 

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