Nothing beats the excitement of a road trip. Stocking a car with supplies, choosing the appropriate rousing soundtrack and heading out on the open road. And you’ve no doubt heard of the world’s classic choices – America’s Route 66 and South Africa’s Garden Route to name just two. However, there’s plenty more out there, including ones you may not have heard of before. We’ve put together a selection of less classic, but no less impressive driving journeys. They may need more research than simply entering a start and end destination into Google Maps but these alternative road trips are guaranteed to be a thrilling adventure.
1. Gobi Desert in Mongolia
Rugged, epic, wild, harsh, stunning, remote – these are just some of the adjectives used to describe the Gobi Desert in Mongolia. Originally the end point of the famous Mongol Rally, the capital city Ulaan Baatar is the gateway to the epic countryside that just begs to be explored. It’s also the best place to stock up on provisions to fill a hired off-road van with. Two essentials supplies are a map and compass as an off-beat adventure across Mongolia is one of the last few places you can truly switch off and relish a digital detox. Be prepared for long stretches of driving over dusty, unmaintained roads with detours along the way. Consider stopping at the ancient and spiritual Erdene Zuu Khiid – Mongolia’s first Buddhist monastery, the blazing red landscapes of the dramatic Flaming Cliffs in Bayanzag and the spectacular towering sand dunes of Khongoryn Els. Enjoy Mongolian’s overwhelming hospitality with a stay in a traditional yurt and experience their nomadic culture.
“Mongolia was definitely one of the highlights of our one year trip across Asia and Europe. Camping in the beautiful vast desert under a million stars, befriending the locals while sipping warm yak’s milk inside a cosy yurt and watching the sunset from atop of a sand dune are some of the best memories.”
– Daniel and Gina, Sunrise Odyssey
2. Guoliang Road Tunnel in China
The story of how one of the world’s scariest roads came to be is an incredible tale of hard work, resourcefulness and endurance. When the Chinese government decided in 1972 it wasn’t worth investing in a tunnel to link the mountaintop village of Guoliang with the rest of the central province of Henan, the villagers took matters, and their work tools, into their own hands. Replacing a narrow and treacherous staircase of 720 mountain steps, nicknamed the ‘Sky Ladder’, it took 4,000 hammers, 12 tons of steel and 13 diligent villagers five years to construct the 1,200 metre tunnel carved into the Taihang Mountains. Known as the ‘road that does not tolerate any mistakes’, driving through this tunnel requires nerves of steel and accurate precision, navigating through the unpredictable twists and turns. However, the stomach-twisting, knuckle-bearing ride is worth it for the views that overlook the diverse landscape comprised of towering mountain peaks, dramatic gorges and flowing waterfalls.
3. Ruta 40 in Argentina
Running along the backbone of the Andes, Ruta 40 is an inspiration to many Argentines the same way Route 66 inspires wanderlust in American teenagers. Also known as the Patagonian Highway, beginning just south of the Bolivian border and trailing all the way to Tierra del Fuego, this road trip embodies adventure. It’s not advised for new or nervous drivers as the conditions on the long stretches of road can be treacherous, with strong crosswinds whipping up mini-storms of gravel. Cars are prone to rattle and wobble as they make their way along the long stretches of road connecting each town. Paving renovations are currently under way along sections of the highway. This means easier driving conditions, which means the arrival of more and more visitors and this will inevitably change the raw atmosphere of this rugged and dramatic road. The best way to enjoy Ruta 40 is as soon as possible, driving from north to south. Be sure to stop at the vineyards of Mendoza and the UNESCO-listed cave paintings of Cueva de las Manos, before ending with the colossal glaciers of Perito Moreno and Los Glaciares National Parks.
4. Skeleton Coast in Namibia
Namibia, with its mountainous sand dunes, desert-adapted wildlife, and a bleak, brutal yet beautiful coast, might seem like an unlikely choice for a road trip. However, the Skeleton Coast, which starts in the colonial German town of Swakopmund, is an intriguing journey with many fascinating wildlife havens to visit along the way. An eerie landscape littered with the skeletons of doomed ships, all in varying states of decay, this coast was called As Areias do Inferno (the Sands of Hell) by early Portuguese sailors. Sat Navs and GPS won’t get you far along this barren yet alluring route – you’ll need to rely on maps and a keen sense of direction. Nevertheless, the feeling of achievement from successfully navigating this route without getting lost lasts a lifetime. Stops along the way include Cape Cross Seal Reserve to marvel at the sight of more than 100,000 seals lounging on the beach, and Skeleton Coast National Park with scenery of sand dunes, canyons and mountains.
5. N9 Road in Morocco
Morocco is a country rich with diversity. The bustling streets of Marrakech overwhelm the senses with their exotic smells, sounds and sights. The soaring peaks of the High Atlas Mountains look out over sweeping panoramic views. And the epic, wide-open spaces of the Sahara Desert are a sea of fiery-red sand stretching as far as the eye can see. The N9 is considered one of the world’s top driving roads and connects these dots on a map, starting in Marrakech and weaving south-east to M’hamid on the edge of the Sahara. The drive from A to B takes only nine hours but there are plenty of great stops along the way to transform this drive into a true Moroccan adventure. Leave Marrakech and drive the scenic twists and turns of the High Atlas Mountain range to arrive in Ouarzazate. The ancient city, known as ‘the door to the desert’, puts drivers in the perfect location to explore the fortified ksar of Ait Benhaddou and journey into the Sahara for a night in a traditional Berber camp. The adventure continues with N9 stretching down to M’hamid and threading through Todra Gorge. Stay nearby to visit the gorge in the early morning when the sunshine sets the red rock ablaze.
6. Hokkaido in Japan
While many people think of bullets trains as the iconic mode of transport to experience in Japan, not many consider it a place to drive through a wild and rugged landscape, stopping to marvel at hot springs, piercing blue caldera lakes and volcanic mountain ranges. Yet these are just some of the delights a road trip in Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island, has to offer. Drive from Hakodate, the island’s capital and home to markets heaving with fresh seafood, to Sapporo, the venue of the annual snow festival, before deciding which of the country’s main routes to take – the northern coast, the southern coast or straight through the centre. For those who want to enjoy unadulterated nature go through the centre passing Daisetsuzan National Park and Akan National Park. These national parks are full of dense, verdant forests, soaring mountain peaks, active rumbling volcanoes, alpine meadows and plenty of wildlife. And best of all, Japan’s roads are highly navigable as most are well signposted in English.
“I’m a road trip addict and while planning my trip to Japan, beautiful photos of Hokkaido kept popping up in my research. I decided this was going to be the road trip part of our Japan trip and it didn’t disappoint. I have never seen a landscape quite like it. The volcanoes were covered in snow, the skies were a vivid blue and we were lucky enough to see the sakura at Matsumae Castle. The roads are in perfect condition and there is virtually nobody on them. Hokkaido is a unique destination, a place that holds a very special place in my heart and that I would love to return one day.”
– Lotte Eschbach, Phenomenal Globe
7. North Yungas Road in Bolivia
A road experience to be avoided by those who suffer from acrophobia, basophobia or a nervous disposition, North Yungas Road in Bolivia is an absolute must for thrill seekers. Carved into the side of the Cordillera Oriental Mountains, the road has a solid mountain wall on one side and a 2,000 foot drop on the other. Called ‘El Camino de la Muerte’ (the Death Road) by locals who brave this journey everyday, the road starts in La Paz and climbs to the lofty heights of 15,260 feet at La Cumbre pass before declining back down to 3,900 feet in the town of Coroico. This change in altitude means dare-devils who drive this road can experience both cold conditions in the highlands and hot, humid weather when descending down to the rainforest. You’ll need to be careful of unpaved sections of road, heavy rainfall and rolling fog. Drivers also need to be on the lookout for bands of mountain bikers tackling the thrill of this road on two wheels rather than four. Wondering what there is to gain from driving along this perilous road? The views – you can see Amazon rainforest spread out before you in the distance.
8. Route 1, Iceland
A 1,339 km road that runs the circumference of the island, Iceland’s Ring Road takes explorers off the beaten track and submerges them into the country’s sublime nature and epic wilderness of dramatic volcanic craters, flowing waterfalls and glittering glaciers. Start in cosmopolitan Reykjavik with visits to the natural landmarks of the Golden Circle before continuing east, where the crowds of tourists will start to diminish but the natural wonders will only increase. Those intrepid enough to venture to the north of the island along Route 1 will be rewarded with the natural wonders of Dettifoss waterfall – Europe’s most powerful, Lake Mývatn – a volcanic lake surrounded by bubbling mud pools, and the West fjords region – a peninsula of rugged countryside and dramatic fjords.
9. Leh Manali Highway, India
Connecting Leh in Ladkah with Manali in Himachal Pradesh, this mountain road in the north of India is only open during the summer months between May and October when the snow has been cleared by the Indian Army. It’s a road fraught with hazards including unexpected road closures and poor conditions. Yet the risk is worth it when you get to drive through the beautiful Himalayan mountain range, crossing many breathtaking mountain passes. Driving the 500 km is full of many awe-inspiring views but lacks any real interaction with the locals as 350 km of this highway is practically uninhabited. This means careful planning and extra fuel tanks are a must – you won’t find petrol stations very often!
10. Pan American Highway, Argentina to Alaska
Starting in Patagonia in Argentina’s southern tip and covering an astonishing 48,000 km north up to Alaska, travelling the Pan American highway is one for the record books. It’s the ultimate road trip covering 14 countries, through Chile’s extreme Atacama Desert, Peru’s cosmopolitan Lima, colonial Quito in Ecuador, the deserts of Albuquerque, the ranches of Calgary and ending with Alaska’s freezing Prudhoe Bay. Along the way you’ll pass through a myriad of landscapes, cultures and ecosystems. The original section of the highway runs from northern Mexico to Buenos Aires with many ‘unofficial’ sections that has turned it into the epic trip it is today. Unfortunately driving the full extent is not possible thanks to the Darién Gap, which connects Colombia and Panama and is a dense and wild section of rainforest. Travel here is strongly advised against. But if you were to cover all the other thousands of miles on four wheels, and jump on a ferry to get along the Pacific Coast and pick up the rest of the route, we’ll happily look the other way when it comes to your record-breaking claim.
Have any of these road trip ideas inspired your next holiday? Visit our website for more information on these destinations and get in touch for us to put together a tailor-made road trip itinerary.