It is very difficult to determine where’s the highest road on Earth, since it is impossible to establish what is meant by the ‘road’ term.
Is it a mountain pass that can only be driven by an expert driver with an adapted car? Is it a road that can be driven only by bicycle or motorcycle? Or do we have to strictly stick to a mountain road that can be driven by an average driver with an average vehicle? Therefore, it is very difficult to define what is meant by the world’s highest road. Search for the world’s highest bikeable roads is mainly characterized by indefinable actual altitudes of respective roads. Relevant literature, maps and information on the internet provide many thousands of (often questionable and conflicting) results.
What is the highest road in the world?
What is certainly evident, and confirmed by everybody, is that the road to Khardung La, at 5.359m (17,582ft) -located northeast of the Indian Himalayas-, is not the highest road on the planet, despite the opinions probably based on the erroneous Guinness World Records, on a large number of misinformed websites and even on the signal at the top of the mountain, which indicates that, with an elevation of 5.682m (18,641ft) it is the highest road in the world. Recent GPS measurements show that even this elevation is not even real. In the same country there are much higher mountain passes, among them the Umling La, a recently built road to the called 'top of the world' at 5.882m (19,300ft) above the sea level in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. A new mountain road climbing up to Kiu La, an international mountain pass on the border between India and China, reaches a top elevation of 5.711m (18,736ft). But the real ‘monster’ of the area could be the road climbing up to Chāmkang mountain, at 5.953m (19,530ft), on the disputed region of Aksai Chin, on the Chinese-Indian border. It’s an old jeep track running north-south along the Indian border. The region is uninhabited and was a conflict zone, so it's a strictly military track. On the Chinese-Indian border, a gravel road tops out at 5.844m (19,173ft) above the sea level at the summit of Khungyami La. On the same border, an unpaved road climbs up to the top of Kungzhag La, a mountain peak at 5.780m (18,963ft) asl. And a new unpaved road built near the Chinese-Indian Line of Control, climbs up to Wenquan Daban (Hot Springs Daban), at 5.808m (19,055ft) asl. In the disputed area between India and China, a new unpaved road to the summit of Lungar La has been built, reaching an elevation of 5.795m (19,012ft) above the sea level. A very treacherous road climbs up to Lungmar La on the Chinese-Indian border, at 5.776m (18,950ft) above the sea level. There is a road on both sides of the border but they don’t meet at the summit. The same area hosts many military high mountain roads. One of them, climbs up to Laghang La, at 5.838m (19,153ft) asl. A new road built in 2021 links India and China through the Medo La, topping out at 5.915m (19,406ft) above the sea level.
In China, the situation changes radically. The impossibility of access to certain border areas means that the certainty of the transitability of the highest mountain roads in the country is a mistery and must be based on doubtful credibility sources. A new built road climbs up to the international Kiu La, reaching a stunning 5.711m (18,736ft) asl. Apparently, some vehicles could have climbed up the 5.830m (19.127ft) of the Lajiong La, the 5.793m (19.005ft) of the Jang Rang La, the 5.829m (19,124ft) of Kye La, also known as Kyen La, between the villages of Gyirong and Changguoxiang or the 5.774m (18,943ft) of the Bodpo La. On all these mountain passes it is very doubtful to determine the possibility of driving to the top. It’s not clear if it is motorable in the sense that most drivers and vehicles could consider it motorable. Perhaps the most reliable one is Lajiong La, where it is possible to find pictures of 4x4 vehicles at the top. In the other two passes, we know ascents by bicycle - there are snapshots-, but there is no reliable information about motor vehicles. Tibetan road maps suggest there are much higher mountain passes, but it is not clear if they are accessible. Some sources point that there could be a much higher mountain pass than the two previous ones, a giant called Gorun La, which would reach an elevation of 5,910m (19,389ft) but this seems unlikely. The satellite pictures do not confirm if the road is wide enough for vehicles go through. But it is clear that the only route near the top finishes at 5,690m (18,667ft) approximately. A rather remote military road known as Tiankong Way, climbs up to Yiyepusangla daban, at 5.886m (19,311ft) above the sea level. The road was built in 2016. Nestled in the Himalaya mountain range, in the Ngari Prefecture, a new road climbs up to Buduo peak, at 5.825m (19,110ft) above the sea level. Set high on the Tibetan Plateau, a 4x4 road leads to Changlung and Aruo lakes, climbing up to Zǔsōng La, at 5.775m (18,946ft) asl.
In Europe, the highest road is located in Russia: the ascent to Mount Elbrus (4.044m -13,267ft), -a dirt track for specially prepared vehicles. The Veleta Peak, in Spain, features the continent's highest paved road, at 3,394m (11,135ft) above the sea level.
In North America, several roads climb up over 14,000’s feet. The most prominent fourteeners are the White Mountain Peak (4.344m -14.252ft) and the Mount Bross (14,178 ft - 4,331m) both on gravel, and the steep climb to Mount Evans, by a paved road topping out at 4,316m (14,160m ft) asl.
South America is another continent where the highest roads can lead to confusion when we try to determine whether it is a driveable road for a vehicle or simply a point where you can reach by bicycle or highly adapted vehicles. The true identity and location of the highest motorable pass depends on how "motorable pass" is defined. There is evidence of the climb of a Spanish team in 1977 to the top of Aconcagua, in Argentina, reaching the 6,961m (22,838 ft) of the summit, where they established the altitude record for a motorcycle. However, this is not at all a road and they used especially adapted motorcycles. On the border between Chile and Argentina, Ojos del Salado is a volcano rising up to 6,891m (22,608 ft) above the sea level in the Atacama desert. It has been the scenario chosen by some drivers to beat the altitude record in a motor vehicle. In any case, these vehicles were adapted for this fact and there’s not a delimited/clear road to the top. In Northern Chile, a sulphur mine on the Aucanquilcha stratovolcano, at 6,176 m (20,262 ft) above the sea level, was serviced by motor vehicles. But after the mine ceased its activities, the road to the summit is no longer available due to landslides. Another of the continent's highest volcanoes, the Cerro Uturuncu, rises to 6,008m (19,711ft) high. Some years ago a road ascended to the top as it also allowed access to a mine. But when the mine ceased activities, the road fell into disuse and nowadays it is not entirely passable. A landslide makes the road impassable at 5,500m (18,044ft) above the sea level. Despite this fact, it is known that a French team recently arrived near the summit on mountain bike, topping at 5.760m (18,897ft) asl. Another high point in the continent accessible by vehicle it's a mountain refuge known as Refugio Tejos, at a height of 19,000ft (5,800m) above the sea level, in Chile. It is a 4x4 vehicle mountain track. A little lower sits Ollagüe Volcano, which reaches 5,868m (19,251ft) high on the border of Chile and Bolivia. The road ends abruptly at 5,705m (18,717ft) above the sea level. This is a 4x4 road but can be impassable due to stone collapses and landslides. On the border of Chile and Bolivia, an abandoned long mining dirt road climbs up to 5.753m (18,874ft) above the sea level to a mountain outcast near the summit of Cerro Sairécabur. The trip is essentially horrendous.
Highest Motorable Points in the world:
|Ojos del Salado||6.688m (21,942ft)||Argentina-Chile|
|Chāmkang mtn.||5.953m (19,530ft)||India-China|
|Medo La||5.915m (19,406ft)||India-China|
|Tiankong Way||5.886m (19,311ft)||China|
|Umling La||5.882m (19,300ft)||India|
|Khungyami La||5.844m (19,173ft)||India-China|
|Laghang La||5.838m (19,153ft)||India-China|
|Lajiong La||5.830m (19,127ft)||China|
|Kye La||5.829m (19,124ft)||China|
|Wenquan Daban||5.808m (19,055ft)||India-China|
|Refugio Tejos||5.800m (19,000ft)||Argentina–Chile|
|Lungar La||5.795m (19,012ft)||India-China|
|Jang Rang La||5.793m (19,005ft)||China|
|Kungzhag La||5.780m (18,963ft)||India-China|
|Lungmar La||5.776m (18,950ft)||India-China|
|Zǔsōng La||5.775m (18,946ft)||China|
|Bodpo La||5.774m (18,943ft)||China|
|Cerro Uturuncu||5.760m (18,897ft)||Bolivia|
|Cerro Sairécabur||5.753m (18,874ft)||Chile-Bolivia|
|Kiu La||5.711m (18,736ft)||China-India|
|Ollagüe Volcano||5.705m (18,717ft)||Chile-Bolivia|
Highest roads on Earth (by country):
Pic: Saurabh Arora