Drive it if you can

Before arriving to your favorite ski resort, the first major obstacle is the road to get there. For some, a flight or train ride will do the job, but most of the time, you’re destined for a road trip. So, how do the major mountain passes stack up? Which is the most dangerous? How about the most switchbacks? After a bit of research, we found out which ones are the toughest of the bunch.

What’s the ranking criteria?

Most Dangerous Roads to Ski Resorts Silverton in Southern Colorado

Snow Covered Mountains Along Colorado’s “Million Dollar Highway,” US Route 550. Image taken by: Alan Stark

Switchbacks

This criteria was specifically weighted heavier than the rest of the characteristics. The curvier the road, the higher likelihood of sliding off it. Some mountain roads can reach upwards of 30 twists and turns, making it feel like you never drive straight. Both Mt. Rose Highway, NV and Red Mountain Pass, CO are windier than most, clocking in at 29 and 27 switchbacks respectively.

Season Snowfall Totals

Most Dangerous Roads to Ski Resorts Mt Baker Highway blizzard

Snowing heavily on the famous Mt. Baker Highway to the snowiest resort on the planet. Image taken by: Andreas Mohaupt

No matter how dangerous overall the road is, high amounts of snowfall lead to slippery conditions and make your journey more treacherous.

Average Grade

The more continuous the incline or decline, the greater likelihood of traction issues. Over the entire mountain pass, the average grade is an important consideration for safety. Though a number like 5% may not sound like much to you, it can be a monster number to your tires. Big Cottonwood Canyon, UT, which accesses ski resorts like Brighton and Solitude, has the largest average grade at just over 5.8%.

Maximum Grade

In addition to the average gradient, how steep does the path get at any single point? Both Big Cottonwood Canyon, UT and Teton Pass, WY have sections over 10% in incline. Yikes! Not a lot of room for error on a pitch like that.

Elevation Gain

Most Dangerous Roads to Ski Resorts Silverton in Southern Colorado

Depth of winter on US Route 550. Image taken by: Jim Good

Who knew Isaac Newton was smart on treacherous mountain passes. The old saying “What goes up must come down” definitely applies to winter driving. The elevation gain is determined by subtracting the lowest driving elevation from the summit elevation. Again, Big Cottonwood Canyon, UT has one of the biggest elevation gains out of all the roads standing at 4,900 vertical feet.

Length

Besides how steep, it’s also important to know how long the road is. Are you going to be stuck on this road for 10 minutes or 3 hours? Rogers Pass, BC is the longest with multiple ascents & descents across the entire 49 mile stretch.

Summit Elevation

Not as significant but still a factor is the altitude of the summit. Just like humans, cars and trucks don’t run as well at high altitudes. Both the Colorado passes on this list stand head and shoulders above the rest at nearly 11,000 feet.

Additional Facts

Lastly, we took into consideration other factors such as guard rails/shoulders, car accidents per capita, and fatalities.

Most Dangerous Roads to Ski Resorts

#5 – Mt Baker Highway, WA

Most Dangerous Roads to Ski Resorts Mt Baker Highway deep snow winter

Deep snowpack on Hwy 542 known as Mt. Baker Highway. Image taken by: Martin Bravenboer

Ski Resort: Mt Baker Ski Resort

The Facts:
Switchbacks – 21
Annual Snowfall – 647″
Elevation Gain – 3394′
Length – 21 mi

Starting out at nearly sea level, this road quickly rises up to it’s summit at Mt Baker Ski Resort which is the snowiest resort in America. Even though the pitch isn’t very steep, it does have a ton of switchbacks and all kinds of different types of snow which can lead to risky driving conditions. Mt Baker Highway definitely earned its spot in the top five.

#4 – Teton Pass, WY

Ski Resort: Grand Targhee

The Facts:
Switchbacks – 12
Maximum Grade – 10%
Average Grade – 5%

Wyoming HWY 22 is one of the few on the list that actually closes at night for snow removal. From the road, you can access some of the best backcountry in the world. Even though it has ½ the amount of switchbacks as others, the continuous climb and a section that is over 10% in slope helps push it to #4 on our list.

#3 – Big Cottonwood Canyon, UT

Most Dangerous Roads to Ski Resorts Big Cottonwood Canyon

S-curve up Big Cottonwood Canyon in Utah. Image taken by: Spencer Bawden

Ski Resort: Brighton

The Facts:
Annual Snowfall – 500″
Max Grade – 10%
Average Grade – 5.8%
Elevation Gain – 4,900′

This was a total surprise but based on the statistics, it makes sense and we had to rank it at #3. With one of the biggest elevation gains and receiving nearly 500″ of snow annually, Big Cottonwood Canyon is definitely not a route to be considered “soft.”

#2 – Mt. Rose Highway, NV

Most Dangerous Roads to Ski Resorts Mt Rose Highway

Mt. Rose Highway the highest summit in the Sierra Nevadas open all year long. Image taken by: Howard SD

Ski Resort: Mt. Rose Ski Resort

The Facts:
Switchbacks – 29
Max Grade – 9%
Average Grade – 5%
Elevation Gain – 4,387′

Anyone that has driven Route 431 from Reno up to Mt. Rose Ski resort will tell you it’s one of the toughest in the area! The elevation gain in a short distance plus the highest summit open all year round in the Lake Tahoe region, Mt Rose lends itself to be a contender as one of the toughest roads in the country and coming in at #2.

#1 – Red Mountain Pass, CO

Most Dangerous Roads to Ski Resorts Silverton in Southern Colorado

Mountain Cabin’s on Colorado’s “Million Dollar Highway,” US Route 550. Image taken by: Alan Stark

Ski Resort: Silverton

The Facts:
Switchbacks – 27
Max Grade – 8%
Elevation Gain – 4,100′

Colorado Route 550 is known as the Million Dollar Highway. If the elevation gain of 4,100′ to a summit of 11,018′ wasn’t enough, the road’s construction brings this bad boy to another level. First, a certain segment is cut directly into the mountain threatening to throw you into a ravine at the hint of an over-steer. Second, a 12-mile stretch of this road has NO guardrails and if your heading south towards Silverton, the outside lane puts you perilously close to the edge. There was no question that this won the #1 slot.

Any others measure up?

Did your local mountain pass just miss out on the top 5? Were you expecting to see others on our list? Here’s a graphical breakdown of where the top 12 ranked against one another:

Still don’t see one you feel deserves a place in the rankings? Let us know if there’s a mountain pass we should take a closer look at.

3 thoughts on “Drive it if you can

  1. Sorry, but these all pale in comparison to most mountain roads in the Alps, let alone elsewhere 🙂 10% is your max grade? How about 18+? Got a number of those just within 2h drive. How about the average grade… http://bikestein.com/blog/10-best-most-beautiful-road-climbs-europe or just about any Tour/Giro/Vuelta mountain stage (note: most of these get you to ski resorts as well)

    Single lane roads, switchbacks, no guard rails – got plenty of those.

    I’ve driven on half of the roads on your list, both in summer and winter, so I do get to compare and put things in perspective, and I never felt even remotely uneasy. But yes, if your plan is to drive 80mph on summer tires during winter then these are all highly dangerous roads.

  2. Highway 88 in CA “The Carson Spur” accessing kirkwood should definitely be on your list! For the Tahoe area, it’s not as tall as the mount rose highway but definitely steeper and more switchbacks than highway 50 Echo and I80 Donner Summit

    1. Hey Ryan, good catch! Did some quick research and it would rank as high as Teton Pass if you start at Barton, CA (3,271 ft) to the summit of Carson Spur. Elevation Gain: 5,381 ft Switchbacks: 20 and Summit Elevation of 8,657 help propel it way up to the top.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *