Highest Motorable Road and Passes in the World

by Vargis.Khan

The very mention of traveling to the highest motorable road is sufficient to invoke interest in anyone who likes adventure; traveling; or exploring new places; or even motorcycling for that matter. From my very own experience, I can tell you that the very feeling of standing at a point where only a few have been is like none other. It is a journey that begins with curiosity; unfolds as an adventure; and finally ends in a feeling of accomplishment. If I talk specifically about India, then each year thousands of motorcyclists and thrill seekers head towards the deserts of Ladakh and Spiti like a moth to the flame; and one of the biggest factors that attracts them here is the highest motorable passes of the region. It is a challenge that they all crave to undertake and a road they dream to conquer.

Highest Mountain Pass in the World

But then which one is the highest mountain pass in the world? This is a question that always had many answers to it and almost every answer was disputed. Why? Because the definition of the term is not absolute or definite. For example, if I talk about the highest mountain pass in the world then I will also have to include the ones that are doable by foot. After all, they are all mountain passes and people are indeed traveling over it. There could be hundreds of such passes in the Himalayas that can only be crossed on foot and majority of them are not yet known or scaled by anyone except the locals.

So then in order to refine the search and definition further, the word “motorable” gets added and the term changes to Highest Motorable Pass or Road in the world. But does the dispute end here? Not really, because then the argument begins around what kind of vehicle are we talking about for a road to be considered as “motorable”?

Highest Motorable Point in the World

There is an active volcano in Chile by the name of Ojos Del Salado which actually also is the highest mountain in the country at a height of 6,893 meters (22,615 ft.). On 21st of April 2007, a couple of Chileans by the name of Gonzalo and Eduardo Canales Moya attempted to scale it in a modified Suzuki Samurai. They could not reach all the way to the top but made it to an altitude of 6,688 m (21,942 ft.); hence, setting the record of the highest altitude reached by a four-wheeled vehicle.

But can this volcano and the point they reached be called as the highest motorable pass or road in the world? Not really because first of all there was no road at all. They were just driving up a volcano where no one would probably even want to make a road. Secondly, since it was a volcano, it wasn’t really a mountain pass.

Highest Motorable Road in the World

If we talk about the highest motorable road in the world, then another volcano in Chile by the name of Aucanquilcha must be talked about. There once existed a mining road here that reached an elevation of 6,176 meters (20,262 ft.) and was common to be used by 20-tonne mining trucks. This road, however, is impassable now and no longer in use. The mine too was shut down in 1992.

So after we consider out the above two spots in Chile, the title of the highest motorable road or pass in the world is open to and has been claimed by many. Two names that are most commonly related to this crown are of Khardung La in Ladakh region of India and Semo La in Tibet, however, none of them can be called a winner anymore.

Khardung La – The Retired King

If you are living in India then the name of Khardung La would not be unknown to you. It is a high mountain pass located in Ladakh region of Jammu & Kashmir state in India. A well-paved road travels across this pass connecting the town of Leh to Nubra Valley. The road gets used by Indian Army locals throughout the year and serves as a lifeline for Indian soldiers posted at Siachen Glacier. For a long time, the maximum elevation of this road and pass was incorrectly cited as 5,602 meters (18,379 ft.) making it the highest motorable road in the world. The boards at top of the pass still claim it to be so as a matter of fact. It was however later discovered that the actual height of the pass is 5,359 meters (17,582 ft.). And hence, Khardung La lost its crown to its contender, the Semo La Pass.

Highest Motorable Road

Semo La – The Disqualified Contender

Semo La is a mountain pass situated in the central part of Tibet. The road traveling across this pass was an unpaved dirt track that was used by only a handful of vehicles every week. In 2015, a metaled road was built in the area. At its highest elevation, this road would cross Semo La Pass at an altitude of 5,566 m (18,261 ft.). After Khardung La lost the title of Highest Motorable road in the world, it was then passed on to Semo La in 2015 because of its altitude and the smooth condition of the road over it. But even Semo La could not retain it for long and it was transferred to another motorable pass in India which I have covered further in the article.

Which is the highest road in the world?

So as you can see, the whole argument is around what can actually be considered as a road. For some, it has to be metaled and well-paved so that any vehicle can travel on it. But a lot of others will make an argument based on the navigational capabilities of the path. So for them, even a broken dirt trail doable by a 4×4 vehicle will qualify as a road as long as it is helping them reach their destination. The driving capabilities of a person also play a role in the argument to some extent. Can it be called a road if only an expert at the wheel can handle it? The accessibility of the road can also be considered as a qualifying factor. Is the road open to all or it is used only by Army vehicles and restricted to civilians?

What Qualifies as a Road?

In my opinion, any path can actually be called a road as long as it qualifies on the below.

  • The trail is broad enough for a car to travel on
  • It is helping you navigate your path and move from one point to another
  • An average skilled driver whether military or civilian can handle it.
  • A regular city car can make it to the top without needing any kind of modification to make it capable enough to travel to the pass.
  • The road may not be accessible to low GC vehicles like Sedans but an SUV, either with high ground clearance can make it to the top. It does not matter whether the vehicle was a two-wheel drive or 4×4.

I do not believe that the fact of whether the road is paved plays a part here. I am a frequent traveler to the Himalayas and can testify that no road here remains metaled at all times. Depending on the weather, snowfall, landslides, rainfall; these roads break and get rebuilt each year.

So basically I am talking about a road wide enough for a car, has been traveled upon by civilians and is doable by a 4×4 vehicle if not 2X4. Now keeping this qualifying factor in mind, below is a list of passes and roads all over the world that can be considered as the highest in the world.

Highest Motorable Road or Passes in the World

I will list the names below in a descending order based on the altitude. I am not factoring in either the difficulty level of the pass or the condition of the road. The only qualifying factor is the elevation that has been validated and the fact that people have been able to reach here in their regular cars.

Umling La

Umling La is a high altitude pass located in Changthang Valley of Ladakh region in India. This pass was built towards the end of 2017 and at an astounding height of 5,883 meters (19,300 ft.), it is by far the highest motorable pass in the world. It has been traveled to by both civilian motorcycles and cars. I made it to the top of the pass on my 350 CC Royal Enfield. The road to Umling La is a mix of super smooth metaled road and a dirt trail but a regular 4×4 vehicle can easily make it to the top without any problem at all which proves that the road is in fact motorable. There is a dispute around its actual height being 5,800 meters (19,030 feet) but even then, it will still be the highest motorable pass in the world.

Also Read: How to Plan a visit to Umling La

Umling La is located at a distance of 108 kilometers from Hanle; in the direction of the village of Demchok. Depending on the route you take; total distance between the city of Leh and Umling La Pass is about 350 to 400 kilometers. From Hanle, it will take you about 4-5 hours to reach Umling La top; depending upon your speed and breaks. From Leh, it is a minimum of 2 days of journey.

In the initial days, when this pass came to public knowledge, a lot of people traveled to it in 2017 and early 2018. But due to its extremely close proximity to India China border, access to this area is now severely restricted. Civilians are no longer allowed to travel to the pass.

Mana Pass

I know what you are thinking. Is Mana Pass really the second highest motorable road in the world? Actually, if you consider in the fact that the road across Umling La was just built in 2017, there was, in fact, a time when Mana Pass was, in fact, the highest motorable pass.

Like all other passes, its actual height too is disputed. If you go as per the BRO, the highest elevation point of Mana Pass is at 18,399 ft. (5,608 meters). As per another measurement, the summit of Mana Pass is actually at 5,545 meters (18,192 ft). But a well-graded gravel-dirt road on the Indian side of the pass rises to an even higher elevation of 5,610 meters (18,406 ft) about 250 meters of the pass. Another measurement puts the elevation of this spot at 5,632 meters (18,478 ft.). This imagery is visible on Visual globe systems such as Google Earth. Go by either of these measurements, Mana Pass will still remain to be the second highest vehicle-accessible pass in the world.

The road was constructed in the 2005-2010 period for the Indian military by the Border Roads Organisation. The Chinese side of the road was built after the Indian side. The pass is also commonly referred to as Dungri La, Mana La, Chirbitya, Chirbitya la. It is regularly  in use by Indian Army and ITBP and even tourists are allowed after getting an Inner Line permit from SDM Joshimath along with NOC Certificate from ITBP and Indian Army.

Marsimik La

Next in the list will be the much talked about and sought after pass of Marsimik La. It is located in Ladakh region of India and almost every motorcyclist heading to Ladakh dreams of conquering Marsimik La. The pass was open to civilians until a few years ago but the entry now has been restricted to military only. I am not saying that the permit cannot be obtained at all but it is extremely tough to get.

The altitude of Marsimik La too is actually a matter of confusion. If you are to believe the board put up by BRO at top of the pass, it stands at an elevation of 18,953 ft. or 5,777 meters. Due to this, Marsimik La was actually thought of as to be the highest motorable road in the world. But a recent and more accurate measurement has put its elevation at 5,582 meters (18,314 ft) which would make it the third highest vehicle accessible road after Umling La and Mana Pass.

Location

The pass is located about 36 km from Pangong Lake, 33 km from Lukung, 25 km from Phobrang, and 180 km from Le City. To get to the pass, you will first have to reach Pangong Lake. From there, you will travel towards Phobrang and submit your permits at the check post there. After Phobrang, the road climbs up sharply to the top of the pass.

Road to and across Marsimik La regularly gets used by Indian Armed Forces and regularly by tourists. People have been to the top of the pass in their motorcycles and cars both. I reached the top on my Royal Enfield 350 CC but a friend of mine has actually done it even on 150CC Pulsar. If you read the web, you will find out that several people have in fact conquered it even on scooters. This means that even though the road is a dirt trail and gravel all the way, it is definitely motorable.

Fun fact is that if we are to consider the fact that the elevation of Mana Pass is 5,545 meters, it would make Marsimik La the second highest. It is a part of the road to Mana Top that rises to 5,610 meters but the actual pass is at a lower height.

Semo La

After Khardung La, Semo La was once believed to be the highest motorable road in the world. It was actually the strongest contender and the argument was based on the quality of the road. Passes like Mana La, Umling La, and Marsimik La are all dirt or gravel road but Semo La has a proper metaled road built over it, as you can see in the image below.

Image Credit: By V.Steuer – Own workHighest Motorable Road

It is located in the central part of Tibet at an altitude of 5,565 meters (18,258 ft), slightly behind Marsimik La. Another measurement puts its height at 5,566 meters (18,261 ft).

Semo La is still believed by many to be the highest motorable pass in the world based on the argument that it is only one that has been measured accurately. It also disputes the claim of the other passes as “motorable” based on the fact that they are all gravel roads. If we are to define the term road on basis of its condition, the Semo La would actually still come out as a winner to the title. In old times, the road crossing the pass was all dirt track and only used by a weekly Bus and a few trucks. The construction of the paved road was finished in late 2015.

Photi La

For our next name in the list, we will come back to Ladakh once again. Photi La Pass is actually located on the same road that further continues to Umling La. Its elevation is 5,524 meters (18,124 ft.) at a distance of about 35 kilometers from Hanle. To reach the pass, you will first have to reach Hanle from Leh either via Chushul or Chumathang.

Highest Motorable Road

From Hanle, take the road towards Photi La top which is 35 kilometers approximately. The board there would read 28 kilometers which is not true. If you keep on the road and do not take any short cuts, the entire stretch till the top is about 35 kilometers. This entire section of the road is a dirt track with last 5 kilometers being a very steep climb. If you cross the pass and continue further, you will reach Umling La.

Dongkha La

The Dongkha la, also known as Donkia Pass, is a high mountain pass in the Himalaya connecting Sikkim in India with Tibet. The elevation of the pass is at or 5,534 meters (18,156 ft.). The pass is located about 4 kilometers from India-China border due to which, obtaining the permit for it is next to impossible. I do not know anyone who has been to this pass but it regularly gets used by Indian Army vehicles. Quite close to the pass is the beautiful lake of Tso Lhamo Lake. At a length of 6.5 km and width of 2.5 km, it is one of the largest lakes in India at such a high altitude (5,330 meters or 17,490 ft.) This lake is also the source of Teesta River.

The pass was first recorded in western literature was botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker who crossed it on 7 September 1849.

Kakasang La

To continue our list further, we will yet again return to the charming land of Ladakh. Kakasang La (also known as Kaksang La) is a high altitude pass in the Changthang region of Ladakh at an altitude of 5,437 meters (17,834 ft.). The road is one of the two connecting the villages of Chushul and Mahe and the shorter one. The other route is via Chushul, Tsaga, Loma, and Nyoma. If you chose to travel via Kakasang La, you will be crossing another high altitude pass of Hor La before you make it to Mahe. The climb to Kakasang La is a very steep one and you really need a 4×4 vehicle for it.

Suge La

Suge La is a high mountain pass in Tibet at an elevation of 5,430 meters (17,815 feet) above the sea level. It’s one of the highest motorable road passes of the world. The climb to Suge La is a nightmarish one but from the pass, you get an amazing view of Chomo Gangtse, which rises to 7,048 meters. The road conditions at the Suge La are decent. It is a wide dirt road that most vehicles can travel on.

Chang La

Coming back to Ladakh once again; we will now talk about one of the favorite passes in the region; the mighty Chang La; which, at an elevation of 5,360 meters (17,585 ft) for a long time was incorrectly considered as the third highest motorable road in the world. It is, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful passes and gives way to Pangong Tso, one of the most beautiful lakes. The pass remains open for all 12 months. There is a metaled road that travels across the pass and it is driveable by all kinds of vehicles.

Khardung La

The final and the last entry in top 10 highest motorable passes of the world would be of the king himself, Khardung La. If you search in Google; chances are that you will still get the name of Khardung La as the highest one; such is the glory of this pass. At an elevation of 5,359 meters (17,582 ft.); it remains open for all 12 months and connects the town of Leh to Nubra Valley and Siachen Base Camp.

These are just the top 10 names I provided but the list, of course, does not end here. The passes I listed above was entirely based on ease of accessibility, condition of the road and whether or not an average driver can make it up to the pass. There are however numerous other passes spread across the world; mainly in the Himalayan region of India, Nepal, Tibet and China.

Top 50 Motorable Passes or Roads in the World

If we change the definition of the highest motorable road to just about any kind of road, no matter the condition, and that it can be reached to the top by either a specially designed or regular vehicle, then the list will change entirely. With this definition, below are the top 50 motorable passes or roads of the world.

Pass / Road Altitude (Ft) Country
Aconcagua 22,838 Argentina
Ojos del Salado 22,608 Argentina
Ojos del Salado 22,608 Chile
Cerro Uturuncu 19,711 Bolivia
Volcan Tacora 19,620 Chile
Chāmkang 19,530 Tibet
Volcán Ollagüe 19,251 Bolivia
Volcán Ollagüe 19,251 Chile
Lajiong La 19,127 Tibet
Refugio Tejos 19,000 Chile
Jang Rang La 19,005 Tibet
Umling La 19,005 India
Kungzhag La 18,963 Tibet
Kungzhag La 18,963 India
Bodpo La 18,920 Tibet
Cerro Sairécabur 18,874 Bolivia
Cerro Sairécabur 18,874 Chile
Kiu La 18,736 Tibet
Kiu La 18,736 India
Cerro Estrella 18,707 Chile
Charding La 18,674 Tibet
Gorun La 18,667 Tibet
Suolang La 18,494 Tibet
Cerro Chajnantor 18,487 Chile
Gurudongmar peak 18,474 India
Cerro Cañapa 18,467 Bolivia
Curiquinca 18,454 Bolivia
Curiquinca 18,454 Chile
Mana La 18,406 India
Marsimik La 18,339 India
Lo La 18,300 Tibet
Semo La 18,300 Tibet
Cerro Azufrera 18,218 Chile
Mana La 18,192 Tibet
Kunlun La 18,182 China
Portezuelo Sairécabur 18,179 Bolivia
Portezuelo Sairécabur 18,179 Chile
Dongkha La 18,152 India
Sairécabur Telescope 18,127 Bolivia
Sairécabur Telescope 18,127 Chile
Photi La 18,124 India
Daulat Beg Oldi 18,120 India
Volcán Acotango 18,074 Bolivia
Volcán Acotango 18,074 Chile
Aucanquilcha 18,044 Chile
Cerro Cachi Laguna 18,015 Bolivia
S205 Road 18,005 Tibet
Luobusazhen mine 17,982 Tibet
Kompas La 17,965 China
Conclusion

I hope the information above on highest motorable road and passes in the world was of help. If you have any question, or need any other details, please feel free to ask in the comments section below; or at our Community Forum; and I will be glad to answer.

Related Articles

Leave a Comment