Search for the world’s highest bikeable roads is mainly characterized by indefinable actual altitudes of respective roads.
Besides the Himalayas the South American Atacama Desert in the border area of Bolivia and Chile is the area 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.
Barometric altimeters do only provide reliable results if they have previously been calibrated and if weather conditions stay unchanged. In particular, the accurate calibration can become quite difficult in remote areas of the Andes or the Himalayas. However, even GPS has a weakness and provides incorrect results if in dead spots only three (and not the necessary four) satellites are available for measurement. In this case the global position can be determined exactly but you can not rely on the reported elevation. 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 and Ladakh/India but has nothing to do with cycling. Present search for the highest roads follows the simple idea that a road is continuously uphill bikeable if also a motorized vehicle finds its way on a route designated for that purpose.
Finding the highest mountain road in Asia may also mean discovering the highest road in the world. The title “Highest motorable road in the world” is currently still 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 being repeated countless times in several travelogues. However, there is a catch in it: On the one hand you can occasionally find information on even higher mountain roads and on the other hand the reported elevation of 5,602 meters is obviously wrong anyway. Actual altitude of that pass likely seems to be only some 5,360 meters. Latter specification can be found in an increasing number of trip reports, is meanwhile also being
reported by Wikipedia and is consistent with the Google Maps/Earth altitude indication. Moreover, the popular Nelles Map of “North India” shows in Ladakh passes with its peak at even higher altitude: Sia La is reported at 6,200 meters and Khurdopin La at 5,790 meters. While the Sia La elevation is indicated in other sources with only 5,589 meters the Khurdopin La elevation might be correct. However, reports and photos on the internet show that both passes are apparently only trekking paths and are not rideable on a bicycle. Due to the obviously wrong altitude of Khardung La other passes and neighboring runways at Siachen Glacier in the Karakoram/Himalayas and on the Tibetan plateau with their peaks beyond 5,500 meters come into consideration as being highest rideable roads in the world. At militarily strategic Siachen Glacier Google Maps shows a road from the Chinese side up to Karakoram Pass (mostly reported with 5,575 meters / 18,291 ft). Google Maps also indicates an elevation of more than 5,500 meters. However, the three nuclear powers China, India and Pakistan show heavily armed military presence at Siachen Glacier and information about the military blocked roads is hardly available. Thus, this area is actually not attainable for ordinary cyclists. If you are weary of life you may try it… Increasing number of reports name in Tibet the Semo La (5,565 meters / 18,259 ft) and the Suge La (mostly indicated with 5,430 meters / 17,816 ft) as candidates for being the highest rideable roads in the world. Likewise Khardung La in Ladakh the traverse of Suge La has meanwhile become part of professionally operated mountain bike tours in that area (on the Lhasa-Kathmandu route). Google Earth/Maps confirms the elevation of Suge La above 5,500
meters. Even higher seems the peak of Semo La on northern ancillary road from Lhasa to the West (in direction to Mount Kailash). Reported GPS measurement has allegedly indicated an altitude of 5,565 meters and Google Maps/Earth again confirms an elevation above 5,500 meters. However, this pass is only a little hump on the Tibetan plateau which stretches constantly over hundreds of kilometers on an altitude level above 5,000 meters. With due respect to all cyclists traveling there, but this does not seem to be an uphill-ride but rather an onhill-ride (after all it is very respectable to get with a bicycle on the Tibetan plateau previously). Anyhow, given facts argue for Semo La being currently the highest actually reachable spot for cyclists in Asia! For purists to note is that Karakoram Highway from Pakistan to China is supposed to be continuously asphalted and it should be possible in theory to ride the highway on a road bike up the Khunjerab Pass (4,733 meters / 15,529 ft). However, photos and reports on the internet show that the road is severely exposed to weather conditions and that a 23 millimeter bicycle tire is not advisable on that trip. (And Pakistan currently does not seem to be a very cozy area, anyhow…)
In Ladakh/India the main road from Manali to Leh up to Taglang La (5,358 meters / 17,580 ft) is asphalted on its southern ramp up to an elevation of 5,000 meters but then becomes an unpaved dirt road which is no longer rideable on a road bike.
In the South American Andes the situation is similarly confusing like in the Himalayas. Many high altitude gravel roads are particularly being reported in Bolivia and Chile. But all elevation indications vary greatly in different reports and you can actually not rely on them. However, actual elevation of the unpaved dead-end road in La Paz/Bolivia up to the former ski area to Refugio Chacaltaya (5,200 meters / 17,061 ft) can be verified. This elevation is Google Maps/Earth confirmed. Even higher 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. In 2009 the University of Tokyo Atacama Observatory has been established on Cerro Chajnantor at an elevation of 5,640 meters / 18,504 ft.
Photographs on the website of the university show a trafficable runway up to the facility. However, the pictures also show a fence blocking the road and thus the road does not seem to be rideable for ordinary cyclists. Nearby at Cerro Sairecabur another 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 pictures provided by Google Maps/Earth. Pictures on scientific websites dealing with information on that observatory show 4x4 cars next to the facility and the satellite pictures even show that the road continues up to an elevation of more than 5,600 meters. Runways to both observatories have their peaks at higher altitudes than respective Himalayan roads supposed to be the highest roads in the world and both runways seem in theory to be cycable. However, the plateau of Atacama Desert has very hostile climate conditions (NASA is supposed to test their Mars cells there) and next domiciled location San Pedro de Atacama is some 70 and 100 kilometers away, respectively. Actual access to these roads is nebulous and at Cerro Sairecabur mine fields are being reported. Accordingly, these spots are probably not reachable by cyclists.
In the southwest of Bolivia volcano Cerro Uturuncu is located with its summit at an altitude of more than 6,000 meters and an old mine road leading up there. However, travelogues report very different information about the trafficability of that runway. All reports agree that the road is only rideable to a few hundred altitude meters below the summit. Respective information varies from 5,200 meters to 5,900 meters. As the old mine is no longer in operation the road is meanwhile blocked up by landslides. Satellite pictures clearly show the interrupted runway leading to an elevation of some 5,700 meters. Very similar is the situation at Chilean volcano Aucanquilcha. In the past there was a sulphur mine at an altitude above
5,600 meters and a dead-end road was leading up there. But now this runway is reported to be partly blocked and can not be cycled anymore.
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. However, there seems to be an even higher cleanly asphalted route also 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 confirms an elevation of some 4,860 meters – higher than Ticlio-Pass!
In the Rocky Mountains in Colorado/USA you can find two adjacent peaks that have ever been competing for tourists and visitors and that are both reachable on a bicycle: Mount Evans (4,307 meters / 14,131 ft) and Pikes Peak (4,301 meters / 14,112 ft). While the road up to Mount Evans is continuously paved and thus rideable on a road bike the runway up to Pikes Peak is only partly asphalted but mostly unpaved. However, the private toll road is generally closed to bicycles. Only once a year (in late August) cyclists are permitted to climb Pikes Peak.
Europe knows world-famous pass roads in the Alps being tackled every year by thousands of amateur cyclists. However, the highest accessible spot in Europe is not located in the Alps but in the Spanish Sierra Nevada. A clean paved road from Granada winds up to the peak of Pico del Veleta (3,394 meters / 11,136 ft) and can be challenged on a road bike. The southern ramp of the pass is only an unsealed path and respective travelogues indicate that it may even be hard to ride this part on a mountain bike. Mountain bikers may rather search for their highest reachable runways in the French Alps. The dead-end road up to the ski resort of Les Deux Alpes to the Glacier de Mont de Lans (some 3,160 meters / 10,368 ft) is often named as the highest rideable spot there. Possibly the dirt road up to the Russian observatory Terskol (also some 3,100 meters / 10,171 ft) in the North Caucasus close to Mount Elbrus may even be higher.
Highest roads in Africa 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 the condition and elevation of mountain roads there.
In Ethiopian Highlands there are several unpaved roads with their peak at an elevation of more than 3,000 meters. Near Mount Buahit in the Simien Mountains you can even find a runway with its highest point above 4,000 meters. However, the road on Sanetti Plateau in the Bale Mountains National Park is even higher: A dead-end side road leads to a telecommunication device on the summit of Mount Tullu Deemtu (4,377m / 14,361ft), one of the highest peaks of the country. The road is clearly visible on satellite images and is apparently accessible by bicycle.
South African’s 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 via 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.
Provided Hawaii belongs geographically to Oceania the partly graveled road up to the observatory at Mauna Kea volcano (4,190 meters / 13,776 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 reachable 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.
Highest unpaved bikeable road…
… in Asia: Semo La / Tibet 5,565 m / 18,259 ft
… in South America: Chacaltaya / Bolivia 5,200 m / 17,061 ft
… in North America: Pikes Peak / USA 4,301 m / 14,112 ft
… in Europe: Glacier de Mont de Lans / France 3,160 m / 10,368 ft
… in Africa: Tullu Deemtu / Ethiopia 4,377 m / 14,361 ft
… in Oceania: Mauna Kea / Hawaii (USA) 4,190 m / 13,776 ft
Highest paved bikeable road…
… in Asia: Khunjerab Pass / Pakistan 4,730 m / 15,529 ft
… in South America: Chivay-Arequipa / Peru 4,910 m / 16,110 ft
… in North America: Mount Evans / USA 4,307 m / 14,131 ft
… in Europe: Pico del Veleta / Spain 3,394 m / 11,136 ft
… in Africa: Tlaeeng Pass / Lesotho 3,251 m / 10,666 ft
… in Oceania: Mauna Loa / Hawaii (USA) 3,397 m / 11,169 ft
… in France: Cime de la Bonette 2,802 m / 9,193 ft
… in Italy: Passo Stelvio 2,758 m / 9,049 ft
… in Switzerland: Umbrailpass 2,503 m / 8,212 ft
… in Austria: Ötztal Glacier Road 2,820 m / 9,252 ft
… in Germany: Rossfeld-Höhenringstraße 1,540 m / 5,052 ft
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