Passo dello Stelvio

Stelvio Pass: 48 hairpin turns to the Europe's most iconic road

The Stelvio Pass is a high mountain pass at an elevation of 2.757m (9,045ft) above the sea level, located in the Ortler Alps in Italy between Stilfs in South Tyrol and Bormio in the province of Sondrio. It's one of the highest mountain roads of Europe. The road itself is a marvel of engineering skill; the exhilarating serpentine sections ask to be driven by experienced drivers for their own sakes. All in all, this could be the most magnificent road pass in Europe. It's one of the most scenic drives in the world.

The road over the pass, known as Stilfser Joch in German, connects the Valtellina with the upper Adige valley and Merano and is particularly challenging to drive due to the presence of 48 hairpin bends, with the road becoming exceedingly narrow at some points, and some very steep inclines. The toughest and most spectacular climbing is from the Prato side; Bormio side approach is more tame. It’s one of the most magnificent road pass in Europe. Several accidents have already taken place in this high-altitude road, especially among people who underrate the difficulty involved in traversing its zigzag path. Local drivers have been described as 'homicidal'. It's possibly the most historic of all climbs ever used in pro cycling, a giant in every sense (length, elevation gain, gradient and the elevation at the top). 
The road over the pass, Strada Statale 38, is the highest paved mountain pass in the Eastern Alps, and the second highest in the Alps, after the Col de l'Iseran  (2.770 masl) which sits 13 metres higher. The tour books advise that the toughest and most spectacular climbing is from the Prato side, Bormio side approach is more tame. The route takes you down the rest of the way with little more than a small barrier keeping you from tumbling to oblivion. Featuring hair-raising 180-degree corners, just one wrong move and you could find yourself going over the low concrete barrier and down the side of the Alps.  
This road is very exciting and sometimes very exposed and unsecured driveway in innumerable twists and turns. On the southern side the road worms its way up the immensely deep Braulio ravine, clinging from side to side and tunneling frequently, between towering rock walls, to the more open basin at the 4th Cantoniera, where the Umbrail Pass comes in from the left. From the junction to the summit is little more than a mile, the road winding more gently up 900 ft. of shaly slope, but still relatively viewless. Viewed from the air, the Passo dello Stelvio looks evil and yet totally alluring. Its elevation means it’s open during summer only and even then anyone attempting it may find themselves snaking their way up through walls of snow. Starting from Prato on the Northern side, it boasts a vertical gain of 1,808m and 48 hairpin bends, all of them numbered on a stone by the road. 

The most mythical of the Giro's major climbs

The pass has been climbed by the Giro d’Italia bicycle race several times. There are 2 routes to reach the summit. Starting from Prato, the ascent is 24.3 km long. Over this distance, the elevation gain is 1.808 meters. The average percentage is 7.4 %. And starting from Bormio, the ascent is 21.5 km long. Over this distance, the elevation gain is 1.533 meters. The average percentage is 7.1 %. Steeped in pink history, the Passo dello Stelvio is arguably the most mythical of the Giro's major climbs. The 30 miles of snaking, high-altitude tarmac have seen some of the greatest battles of the Giro d’Italia. This is a climb that is romanticised by journalists and rich in history but when ridden it’s more grim treatment than a treat. It's one of the highest mountain roads of the country. 
Exercise extreme caution when passing on-coming traffic, over-taking and around corners. From the summit, where the famous Ortler view is suddenly revealed, the Trafoi windings lead down in face of superb views of peaks and glaciers to Trafoi, just below the tree line. The rest of the road, falling along the Trafoibach to the Adige levels in the main valley, is a pleasant descent with fine views ahead of the Zillertal (Austrian) peaks in the main Alpine chain. The legendary Fausto Coppi, nicknamed Il Campionissimo (Champion of champions), said after cycling it that he “felt he was going to die” during the climb. It's fair to assume you'll feel worse.

Nestled between the imposing peaks of the Ortles-Cevedale chain, the road encompasses miles of stunning views through twisty hair pin corners, high elevations and steep grades. It needs very little introduction. From Prato its 48 bends carve their way up the mountain in what appears to be an endless road towards heaven, constantly switching back and forth the higher you climb.
This road is usually open from June to September, but it can be closed anytime when the access is not cleared of snow. The original road was built in 1820-25 by the Austrian Empire to connect the former Austrian province of Lombardia with the rest of Austria, covering a climb of 1871 m. Since then, the route has changed very little. After 1919, with the expansion of Italy, the pass lost its strategic importance. Its sixty hairpin turns, 48 of them on the northern side numbered with stones, are a challenge to motorists. To stay safe on your travels around Europe, carry an EHIC at all times - this will entitle you to the same medical treatment that the residents of that country receive without any extra costs. Click here to view more information about the EHIC and don’t forget to order one if you don’t own one already!
On the west side, half the way up to the pass, there are several tight tunnels. Big vehicles can’t pass each other in these tunnels which caused often traffic jams inside. There is now a traffic light before and after the most critical tunnel with very long periods. There is a button mounted on the traffic lights to make the lights switching from red to green (and vice versa on the other side). So if you reach the lights with a motorbike is worth to step off the bike and press the button.

The drive is definitely worth it. There are many excellent photo opportunities here. Don’t forget your camera! The Stelvio’s height can mean that it’s a wildly unpredictable and somewhat volatile mountain where the weather can turn in an instant, so be prepared. There’s little wonder why the Stelvio is one of the most photographed roads in the world. No less than 48 hairpin bends on its eastern face make it an icon like no other. Beware that this is one of the last Alpine passes to open to traffic each year, and it’s not unknown for the road to stay closed until July if there’s been a late fall of snow. 

An iconic road built because of military needs

Especially in Mid-Europe weather conditions can be harsh during winter and as a result roads can be damaged by frost in spring. So in Mid-Europe roads are generally built in a little bit different way to resist the weather conditions: First a ditch is dug into the underground. E.G. Typically for highways this ditch has a depth of 1.5 meters but, depending on the underground it can even be deeper. Afterwards this ditch is filled with a couple of layers of grossly gravel which become from one layer to the next more and more fine. At the end all of it is covered by asphalt, concrete or any other material, which you are really finally driving on. To point it out: Its not just taking a caterpillar, pushing the soil away and cover the rest with asphalt – it’s building a street like a house with a resilient fundament. This makes roads building in Europe a long and expensive undertaking but results in very long living roads. Inclinations aside the street are stabilized with “anchors” which partly are rooted more than 20 meters deep in the rock. Building roads in such a way is common all over the world but the special thing in Europe is, that in Europe roads are (partly) build in such an expensive way since more than 150 years. And a good example for this is the road across the “Stelvio”. It was built because of military needs and they had to build it so costly because it had to be possible to drag even heavy artillery across this pass. Remember that in those times only horses could be used to draw wagons. Because of the cold and snowy winters it was not possible to make war during the cold periods of the year but as soon as the snow has been melt away the street should have been usable – so there was no time for long lasting roads repair periods in spring. The incline of the road was the same like it is today used for cars. The road across the “Stelvio” follows still the same route because it was built so perfectly because they had to be able to draw heavy artillery across this pass.
A few bends down on the side towards Trafoi the road is a little bit wider for a few meters. There is a parking lot for just a few cars along the hillside. On the other side of the road (on the downhill side) there is a kind of balcony where you can safely stay to make some pictures of the last, most spectacular hairpin bends of the street. This is the best spot for taking pictures and its really worth it to stop here (if you find an empty parking place). This “balcony” does not exist since very long. It was opened after 2012. Like on a lot of French passes you can see some guys taking some pictures of all cars, motorbikes, bicycles etc. passing by. These are professional photographers. If you briefly look around where they are standing for sure you can find a kind of label with an internet address. Memorize the date and time and the internet address. Call up next morning the address and scroll through all the photos you will see. For sure you will find the pictures of yourself, your car, motorbike etc. You can buy this pictures for little money. Especially for motorbike drivers it’s a nice souvenir. There are a lot of hotels on top of the pass but be careful.  The hotels are on a height of above 2750 meters so you can become sick at high altitudes with the intense feeling of asphyxia.
At the parking area of the Stelvio’s cable car station there’s a small and hidden gravel road climbing up to Passo delle Platigliole. It’s a 4x4 road climbing up within a lunar landscape. Apart from two short bad sections (with a gradient of 25%) you can otherwise ride this road, ending at 3.018m (9,901 ft) above the sea level where the snow, skiers and glacier starts. There are 3 hotels at this point.
Road suggested by: Michael Spannlang 


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