Passo di Gavia is a high mountain pass at an elevation of 2.627m (8,618ft) above the sea level, located in the Lombardy region, Italy. The pass is traversed by the SP29 road, and it’s often used on the route of the Giro d'Italia road bicycle race. It's one of the highest mountain roads of Italy. It's perhaps the most challenging climb of all. It is an extremely difficult climb, with a combination of length, average gradients, maximum gradient and elevation gain not matched by any other climb in Europe.
The Passo di Gavia is one of the highest and even most beautiful passes of the Alps and divides the province of Sondrio to the north and the province of Brescia to the south. Road surface is very good. You will not see many cars on this road, but motorcycles are a common sight. If you decide to climb Gavia, make sure you have extra clothes for the descend. The top is a Glacier and the temperature at this elevation is fairly low even in the middle of the summer. Scenery is breathtaking and descending down to Santa Caterina Valfurva and Bormio is extremely fun, well worth the pain of going up. Don’t be surprised – there can be snowfall even in summer. The road is closed during winter on the south side. On the north side the street is partially open even in winter because there are a lot of ski slopes. This is a skiing area near the famous winter sport village of Bormio.
The surface of the road is asphalt, and chains or snow tyres can be required throughout the year. The road over the pass connects Bormio to the northwest with Ponte di Legno to the south and is single track most on its southern section. The uphill starts in the Valfurva in the north or in Ponte di Legno (BS) in the south. The side facing the Valtellina is less steep than the other one, even if it is a longer way up to the pass.
Don’t forget your camera! On top of the Gavia Pass you find the beautiful lake "Lago Bianco", surrounded by the mountain "Corno dei Tre Signori", 3.359 m. Even more beautiful is the lake "Lago Nero" at 2.386 m, which is situated just underneath the pass on the south side. The drive is definitely worth it. It includes tight curves, switchbacks, steep slopes, and at some points, it’s a very narrow road down to one lane wide. In most places the drop off is extraordinarily steep and no trees or guardrails to stop the descent of a tumbling car. A car the slips off the edge has virtually no chance of survival.
The road can be closed anytime when the access is not cleared of snow. Before the top of the Gavia you will cross a bridge over the "Rezzalasco", then you arrive at the alpine lodge "Berni" on a level of 2.545m, where a war memorial reminds us of the First World War. The road gets a little less steep now and after a couple of kilometres you reach the pass. On the south side of the pass there’s a legendary tunnel. Located 3 kms from top is truly terrifying. Dark, steep, gravelly, scary. The tunnel is long and very dark. The tunnel is unlit and essentially pitch black inside. The darkness is disorienting, and the tunnel is pitched at a 9% grade. Both combine to make the thru passage a memorable experience.
The road going through the tunnel is now well paved and reflectors in white and red have been mounted on the walls of the inner side of the tunnel so you can see where the road runs. The north side of the pass, especially in the higher region, has some potholes and has not been maintained the last years, so is becoming worse and worse.
On the left side of the tunnel, it's possible to follow for 500m the Old Gavia Road. Sometimes the tunnel is a trap of the local police because there is often a speed limit of 30 km/h which is naturally often ignored by motorbikes. Unfortunately sometimes there is a radar control at the beginning of the lower side of the tunnel – which can be quite expensive.
The road is difficult and it’s a nightmare in the wet or dark (or both). Starting in Bormio, take the road SS 300 which leads through the Valfurva: you pass by its little villages Uzza, San Nicolò, S.Antonio und San Gottardo and will arrive, after 13 km and 600 metres in altitude, to Santa Caterina. After Santa Caterina the "real" road up to the Gaviapass begins with its first switchback. From here one, the gradient is most of the time at about over 7 %, it reaches, however, quite often the 10 % mark for short stretches. The tight road brings you constantly higher in altitude. It never really gets below 10% with steady, steep grades, lots of switchbacks. Every few hundred meters there’s a little parking place carved out of the mountain, for cars to pull over and pass…
The road has been climbed several times by the Giro d’Italia race. There are a couple of routes to reach the summit. Starting from Bormio, the ascent is 25.6 km long. Over this distance, the elevation gain is 1.404 meters. The average percentage is 5.5 %. And starting from Ponte di Legno, the ascent is 17.3 km long. Over this distance, the elevation gain is 1.363 meters. The average percentage is 7.9 % and the maximum slope is 16 %. both sides are equally tough, but the Bormio side is easier to descend, hence the classic approach from Ponte di Legno (south). Both sides of Passo di Gavia are 17 km long with an average gradient of 8.1 %. Elevation gain is some 1.400 m, with the top just over 2.700 m above the sea level. Giro d'Italia always comes from the south. The reason for this is simple; the north side is much safer to descend and the south side is somewhat more difficult due to extreme gradients in excess of 16 %. Last five kilometers of both sides average between nine and ten percent gradient.
Ancient road in Passo di Galvia during a Giro Stage, in 70's.
On the south side of the Gavia road there is a piece of the street where it’s impossible that 2 cars can pass at the same time because the street is very narrow. This section is several kilometers long and it’s not possible to see if there is a second car or not – so it’s always a little bit thrilling to drive through this part. But it’s barely possible for a motorbike and a car to pass by.
On the south side of this road there are some steep hairpin bends which are so tight that it is impossible for a typical chopper motorbike (like a Harley Davidson) to take this bend at one, so they have to reverse at minimum one time. Unfortunately, especially at this point, there are no guardrails and the area aside the road is nearly vertical. So if you start to slip – jump off- the last thing you will have in your live is a spectacular freefalling overview on the beautiful mountains surrounding you.
On the top of the pass there is a restaurant where you also can rent a cheap bed for having a night, clean but very basic. At the summit, near the top driving from south to north (on the right side about 50 meters away from the road) you can see the “very old road” which was built by the ancient romans 2000 years ago.
Road suggested by: Michael Spannlang