Post-pandemic, people are pressing in again, highways are once more jammed, and humans are on the move anew. Not yet ready to rejoin the rat race? Is getting out to a park or vacation destination not enough for your wanderlust?
The Manual offers you some of the most desolate places on Earth to escape via four wheels. Follow along for an online adrenaline rush and inspiration for your next destination. It may not be trekking through unpaved Canadian backwoods or hanging off of sheer cliffs in Asia Minor, however. These are only trips for the most intrepid. This may be the closest you get to the ends of the Earth.
Atacama Desert Highway, Atacama Desert, Chile
Stretching south for 990 miles down Chile is one of the planet’s most barren stretches, the Atacama Desert. Cutting through a land so dry that even bacteria can’t survive its 600-mile (mostly) asphalt track.
The Atacama Desert Highway is Chile’s longest road, officially named Route 5, a piece of the Pan-American Highway, the Guinness Book of World Records’ longest motorable road. The entire route stretches from Alaska to the tip of Argentina, with the Chilean portion spanning the country’s slim length. The road is mostly on its own, though, as it cuts through the sere Atacama.
Over three days, you can cruise dizzying barrenness, passing through a place devoid of almost any human inhabitance. Other than the rare driver, you’ll only encounter ghost towns, ancient ruins, and steaming geysers. The landscape stuns some drivers to death, wandering attention leading to a loss of concentration, and eventual collision as the car veers off the road.
The reward, however, is a connection with a world before life and, at night, a sprawling sky quilted with stars by the millions.
Eyre Highway, Nullarbor Plain, Australia
Despite a verdant coast, the Outback takes up about 70% of the Australian landmass. Most people choose to fly the approximately 2,500 miles across the country, skipping the opportunity to experience one of the world’s sparsest places. If you’ve got the itch to get behind the wheel, though, the Eyre Highway cuts across one of Australia’s most brutal landscapes, the Nullarbor Plain.
Stretching out across the continent’s southwestern coast are 77,000 square miles of flat, almost treeless, arid country, hospitable only to a few thick-skinned Aborigines. There’s not much more to the Nullarbor Plain than blistering heat, venomous snakes, and random ‘roos. There’s not much to see along the Eyre, illustrated by a 91-mile section that includes not a single turn, the longest straight stretch in the country.
Eponymous English explorer Edward John Eyre crossed the Nullarbor Plain in 1840, describing it as, “a hideous anomaly, a blot on the face of nature. The sort of place one gets into in bad dreams”.
It almost goes without saying that drivers need to proceed with caution.
Trans-Taiga Road, Northern Quebec
Is bone dry desert not your thing? Looking for a still isolated yet even rougher stretch away from anything at all? Eastern inner continental Canada offers an almost primal option.
In Quebec’s northern wilds, just off James Bay Road, is the Trans-Taiga Road, an unpaved, gravel track that defines the term “extremely remote.” It’s not a place that should be undertaken lightly. From its eastern start in northern Quebec west to Labrador, the remote path encounters zero public places for over 450 miles, with no settlements or towns aside from Hydro Quebec’s private worker towns. What you will find, though, are some of Canada’s most stunning, wooded, rocky landscapes.
Make sure that you’re fueled up with reserves on deck because there’s also no gas station for over 200 miles, crawling along the bumpy surface. The speed limit for the first 250 miles is 50 miles per hour. Past that point, it drops to nearly 40 with narrow, rocky roads encouraging less than that.
Open all year, it might be best to skip the coldest few months of the year along the Trans-Taiga. It’s northern Canada, so the weather can get treacherous with frequent snowstorms and temperatures dipping to as low as negative 100 Fahrenheit.
Pamir Highway, Central Asia
If it’s a trip back in time that will satisfy your otherworldly desire, you can thank the former Soviet Union for providing one of the most engaging, faraway highways in the world.
The wild and scenic Pamir Highway is an unofficial segment of the Soviet-constructed M41 highway that winds its way through the mountainous Pamir region of Tajikistan. Connecting the almost 750 miles between Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s second-largest city, and Dushanbe, the Tajikistani capital, accounts for an epic road trip through ancient, still-living civilization.
Much of the route follows the Panj River, separating Afghanistan and Tajikistan. Between navigating hairpin turns along slim roads and steep drops to the whitewater below are small, Ismaili Muslim settlements. Situated along both sides of the raging water are tiny villages, anachronisms cutoff from any idea that the modern world moved on from an agrarian existence at least a hundred years ago.
The Pamir also rises over 13,000 feet into the clouds, leaving human settlement behind for snowy peaks, snow leopards, and spiral-horned Marco Polo sheep. Watch out for motorcyclists, bicyclists, and other thrill-seekers, though, as the Pamirs, the second-highest range in the world next to the nearby Himalayas, attract lovers of extreme, untamed lands.
North Yungas Road, La Paz, Bolivia
Connecting the administrative capital of La Paz to Bolivia’s Yungas region, the North Yungas Road earned the title of the world’s most dangerous highway, until recently. Appropriately nicknamed “Death Road,” the switchback is just 12 feet wide, carving a narrow stitch into the Cordillera Oriental Mountain. The rain-shrouded forest easily blinds travelers, and one wrong turn could send them plummeting 4,000 to 15,000 feet to the ground below.
Until 2006, North Yungas was the only option for traveling between La Paz to Coroico, a hilltop village that acts as a hub for the rest of the region. In 2009, however, the Bolivian government finished paving a new, safer path along a close-by mountain range. The new road features a well-maintained, much safer two lanes.
This has directed much of the traffic away from North Yungas, which itself now has two driving lanes, new pavement, drainage systems, and guardrails. People continue to pilgrimage to Death Road though with a few local workers, backpacker, and bicyclists per year still meeting their maker at the end of precipitous falls.
D915, Black Sea and Northeast Anatolia, Turkey
The current winner for the world’s most dangerous road? D915 in Turkey, a twisting, anxiety-inducing climb from the base of Soganli Mountain in Turkey’s Trabzon Province.
Located on the boundary of the Black Sea region and the Northeast Anatolia region, in northeast Turkey, the road has quelled the urge of many daredevils and humbled many drivers. Extreme doesn’t begin to describe the at least 29 hairpin turns unprotected by guardrails, paved only by gravel, and bordered by thousands of foot drops to the hard earth below.
Russian soldiers following the Trebizond Campaign, naval and land operations that captured the Ottoman Trabzon built the road in 1916. Today, the so-called Bayburt Highway is actually a well-trafficked freeway, congested by buses, trucks, and buzzing motorbikes. Though the D915 is open to all, it’s not advisable to attempt it without a four-wheel drive. And you should forget attempting the highway during perilous, storm-thrashed winters.
Sprawling topography and unlimited nightscapes for days on end are the ultimate antidotes to an indoor existence. Just don’t forget your GPS and adventure gear kit.
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