Edit: This article was updated in January 2015 adding climbs 11 through 15, and in Feb 2016 adding climbs 16 – 20.
This is the second in a series. For others see:
- The “Ten Highest Paved Cycling Climbs in Italy” – here.
- The “Twenty Highest Paved Cycling Climbs in France” – here.
- Thirty of the Highest Unpaved Cycling “Roads” in the Alps – here.
- The Ten Highest Paved Cycling Climbs in the Jura Mountains – here.
See the bottom of this post for a pan Alps map with all the climbs from all three countries. Each climb below includes a link to a blog post with a map, photos, route description, etc.
The list is based on this Wikipedia article …. so feel free to point out any errors – I’ve added a few Swiss climbs missing there recently. And I know I am missing a small road or two.
#1 Umbrail Pass – 2,501 metres
This is the quiet, lesser known, third way up the mighty Stelvio. The Pass is literally just a few metres from the Italian border, and joins the Bormio route to Stevio perhaps three kilometres from its summit. The sign says 2,503 metres, but apparently 2,501 metres is the accurate height. There was a short unpaved stretch half way up that apparently has been paved this past summer.
More details here.
#2 Nufenen Pass – 2,478 metres
Nufenen Pass or Passo della Novena is on the border of German speaking Wallis canton and Italian speaking Ticino canton. The north Wallis side is particularly challenging. There is a lovely little lake at the summit, but don’t forget the short detour 2kms below to the beautiful and much larger Griessee dam/lake/glacier.
Details of the north side here, and south side plus Griessee here.
At 2386 metres, the little side road to the Griessee dam could be considered in the top ten itself. But I will exclude it and just add it as part of Nufenen.
#3 Col du Grand St. Bernard – 2,473 metres
Col du Grand St. Bernard or Colle del Gran San Bernardo is on the Swiss / Italian border. The Italian side is by far the most interesting for cyclists. The Swiss side is over 40 kms long from Martigny, but shares a relatively busy road with trucks until the huge car-only tunnel into Italy. From here cyclists can take the fantastic old road for the final 6 kilometres to the summit. The Italian side is bypassed by the tunnel.
There has been a hospice here welcoming travellers since the 9th century. The doors are still left unlocked all year even in winter for any lost adventurers.
For details of the south side see here, and north side here.
#4 Furka Pass – 2,429 metres
Furka Pass featured in the second James Bond film Goldfinger over fifty years ago. And the hotel seen in the film at the Rhone Glacier (source of the Rhone river) hasn’t changed at all. It’s part of perhaps the best cycling loop in Switzerland: Furka/Nufenen/Gotthard counter-clockwise. High and Beautiful.
Details of east side here. West side here. As part of the Alpenbrevet here.
#5 Oberaarsee/Grimselpass – 2,390 metres
At 2,165 metres, Grimselpass is one of the great gigantic climbs in central Switzerland – the 15th highest paved road. Around the pass are several huge dams/lakes. And there is a paved extension road up to Oberaarsee at 2353 metres.
I have only cycled to Grimsel, and still need to visit the extension. Update: Here are details of the extension to Oberaarsee. Fantastic!
Details of both sides of Grimselpass here. Grimsel as part of the Alpenbrevet sportive here.
#6 Lac de Moiry – 2,389 metres
I love (love), climbs to Alpine dams/lakes. The Swiss Valais has a bunch of huge dams but the ascent to Lac de Moiry has to be one of the hardest. 2100 metres (7000 feet), hard work. Details here.
#7 Flüela Pass – 2,383 metres
I’ve only cycled one side of this eastern Switzerland climb. Very scenic. With the opening of the 19 kilometre Vereina tunnel in 1999, the road has become a less important traffic link. Good news for cyclists. Details here.
#8 Bernina Pass – 2,328 metres
In the far east of Switzerland, a cyclo-tourist could descend Bernina until Italy and be at the foot of Mortirolo with Gavia and Stelvio just up the road.
It’s a beautiful climb with a hospice and the huge Lago Bianco near the summit. I have only climbed the easier north side. Details here of a big loop including Albula pass (10th highest) and Julierpass (12th highest).
#9 Livigno Pass – 2,315 metres
Also called Forcola di Livigno. It shares 30 kilometres with Bernina Pass. Darn, I have never cycled this. Hopefully I can visit next year. Here is the climb profile. Wow.
#10 Albula Pass – 2,312 metres
This is perhaps my favourite climb of the few I have done on the far side of Switzerland. Big and beautiful. It is often in the Tour de Suisse.
Details of the same loop as above with Julierpass and Berninapass here
#11 Lago del Narèt – 2,310 metres
Lago el Narèt – the 11th highest paved road – is my absolute favourite paved climb in all of Switzerland. It’s hidden in the Italian speaking part of Switzerland in the Alps north of Locarno.
This remote climb is 30 kilometres of cycling pleasure. It passes several dams and is beyond beautiful. It is so remote, I was told it wasn’t opened and cleared of snow this year until July. Top to bottom, the entire route is great, but the last 10 kilometres are almost beyond belief: fun. Ride details.
#12 Julierpass – 2,284 metres
Just a few kilometres above St. Moritz, Julierpass is another high climb in eastern Switzerland.
Details of the same loop as above with Albulapass and Berninapass here.
#13 Above Gotthard Pass – 2,257 metres
One of the more astonishing roads in the Alps is the old Tremola road to Gotthard pass. The summit of Gotthardpass is 2108 metres, however, a couple of side roads from the pass head slightly higher. I believe the highest being to the nearby dam/lago di Sella at 2257 metres.
Here are details of a ride up the (better) south side of Gotthard, and detour higher to another dam/lake Lago di Lucendro.
#14 Sanetschpass – 2,252 metres
I know several locals that agree with me that this lesser known road is one of the truly great hors-categorie climbs in the Alps. I once had to be “rescued” on Col du Sanetsch – details here. 🙂
#15 Männlichen – 2,229 metres
In the beautiful Swiss Berner Oberland, above Grindelwald, this quiet road has nothing but stunning Alpine views: Eiger North Face, Mönch, Jungfrau. Details here.
#16 Sustenpass – 2,224 metres
The east side of this huge climb lacks many hairpins making it seem like a long, tough drag – but that had probably more to do with the fact that it was the 3rd and final climb when I cycled it during the Alpenbrevet – details here. I prefer the very scenic west side. Although it has quite a few tunnels they are mainly “fun” tunnels.
#17 Lac du Vieux-Emosson – 2,205 metres
In the Valais, near the French border to Chamonix, is the amazing climb to Lac d’Emosson. It recently appeared in the Dauphiné and will be a finish in the 2016 Tour de France. However, what most people don’t know: the paved road continues over the dam, winds around the lake and then climbs a crazy steep little road to a smaller lac/dam, Lac du Vieux-Emosson. Details here.
Note: The paved road stops at the 2nd lake, but there is great hiking higher, including to some well preserved dinosaur tracks. Lac du Vieux Emosson:
#18 Mattmarksee – 2,203 metres
The Swiss Valais (Wallis) is a dream region for people (like me) that love huge, quiet climbs to alpine dams (see above for two more: Lac de Moiry and Sanetschpass). 34 kilometres long, but not too steep, the climb to Mattmarksee initially shares the road to Zermatt (the Matterhorn) then turns towards and finally above the ski station Saas Fee. Ride details here.
#19 Croix de Cœur – 2,173 metres
Every time Verbier hosts a Dauphiné or Tour de France stage I complain that they are ending the race before the true fun starts. Croix de Cœur extends the climb to Verbier by adding 6.5 steep, fun kilometres. The top stretch was only recently paved.
- Ride details here.
- The far side is not paved but a fantastic, huge climb via La Tzoumaz. See here.
- The highest I have been in Switzerland on a bike followed a superb, unpaved route that starts exactly at the Croix de Coeur – see here.
#20 Offenpass / Pass Fuorn – 2,149 metres
On the far easteran side of Switzerland, Ofenpass is not the hardest of climbs, but most of the route is through the stunning Schweizerischer Nationalpark (Swiss National Park). Very nice! Details here.
This list is not 100% perfect as I believe there are a few other high tiny paved Swiss roads here and there. For example, a road near Tguma apparently goes to 2340 metres, near Alpe Galm a road gets to 2231 metres, and a road near Täschalp gets to 2205 metres. I’ve yet to visit these, but will try in the near future. Any other ideas are always welcome.
Great job, Will! I was hoping to find something to add to the list, but I checked all of the lesser-known climbs that I’ve done that you might have missed, but none of them would break into this top 10.
I’ve done 10 out of the 11 on the list, so I’ll have to make sure that I do Lac de Moiry next year to be complete. I’m looking forward to seeing the full top 20, which should include one of my favorites, Col de Sanetsch.
Thanks for all of the work that you put into this.
Ha, yeah, I almost did all 20 in one go so I could include Sanetsch. 🙂
Have you been up to the Oberaarsee? What is it like? And Livigno?
The road to Oberaarsee is really special. It’s quiet and takes you into the heart of the BIG mountains and glaciers. It’s a must-do IMO.
I’ve done the Forcola di Livigno twice, from the Italian side both times, but I wasn’t particularly impressed by it either time. The Livigno region is really touristy and not so nice, then it’s just a bit of a slog over the col; there are many nicer climbs at far lower altitudes. It’s part of the Engadin Radmarathon cyclosportif, which my wife and i did on the tandem, finishing the long version just 15 seconds inside the 12-hour time limit! I believe that during that race is the only time of year that cyclists are allowed to go through the narrow tunnel between Zernez and Livigno, with no cars allowed then. The tunnel was the coolest part of that section.
Chris told me to look at your list. I’m only one behind you in that I’ve done 8, but 7 of them were on a tandem, which I think is pretty special. 😉
Maybe one of these years we’ll finally get around to riding together!
Chris, thanks for the info. Still checking, but Livigno looks to be roughly the 10th highest in Italy too.
Heather, I still regret that that Sanetsch day didn’t come off. 🙁
I’ve got to agree with you again Will – I also can’t find another paved road higher than Livigno in Italy that isn’t already listed on the Wikipedia page. I was surprised, I thought that there would be more high ones in Italy. After Italy, I hope that you’ll complete the collection and also do an Austrian edition, even if you haven’t visited many of those yet.
Chris, I added Mannlichen and Croix du Coeur to the wikipedia paved list. Griessee too (I think).
Ha, Austria. To my shame, I have yet to cycle there. You are (truly) welcome to write a guest top 10 Austria post here. Otherwise, I will probably hold off until I have cycled at least 5. 🙂
I couldn’t wait for next year, and went and did the final one in the list this weekend, Lac de Moiry. Talk about saving the hardest one for last! That is tough, especially if you have a warm-up climb up to Ovronnaz in the morning. I was very relieved to find the road still open in early November, although it was zero degrees at the top and there was some snow around. It was also dark for the last 30 minutes, but I climbed by moonlight, which was beautiful, and waited until the descent to turn the dynamo lights on. See my Strava data here: http://www.strava.com/activities/215195066
woooohooooo. Well done Chris (if you took a photo, send it to me)
Looking at the weather ….. that was your last chance this year. Pleased for you!
Hi Will, great blog, it’s one of the very few I follow regularly. Did you omit Sustenpass, at 2224m/s on purpose? It should list at #14 on your list! The west side is one of my favourite, especially in autumn, at 1600m climb also quite a long one. Did you have the chance to climb some giants in the Himalayas or Andes? It’s really special, starting at altitudes higher than many alpine peaks, the vast emptiness, cristal clear skies, it’s an amazing experience.
Ooops, I somehow forgot Sustenpass. I have cycled it a couple of times and agree with you, the West side is wonderful. I cycled it once early in the season when the tunnel at summit was still closed. I’ll fix my above mistake soon.
No, I have never done any “real” adventure cycling. I can imagine both the Andes and the Himalayas must be a dream to visit. One day perhaps. 🙂
Thanks for the comment
at first super website!
On great west side of Susten you can also take small blind road into mountains towards Steingletscher. It is about 4 km with two or so steep steps. The road starts just beside hotel Steingletscher.
Another high paved roads in Switzerland are Galm (2231 m) and Ottavan/Taschalp (2214 m) both in canton Wallis.
Thank you for the route ideas: I will try them next year. Excellent.
Both are steep narrow roads. Ottavan is steep all the way from Tasch, especially last km with 13 or 14% average (uff). There are vieuws towards Matterhorn and opposite ridge. Asfalt wan’t very good on this climb (2009). Galm is very tough. Start is same to road to Leukebard. After four km or so you must take right way to Gutten. Then (bad signed) you continue true medows and forest. This forest section is very difficult. Last km is mostly flat, open with great views to Wallis Alps. Surrounding of chalet’s village Galm is nice too. Asfalt is good without wooded part over Gutten (2009). Finally over 1600 hm climbing.
You can also try Moosalp which bypassed Mattertal and Rhone valley. It is “only” slightly over 2000 m, but one of the best spectacular mountain’s road in Alps and my favourite one.
Thank you for this fabulous site !!!
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Great list Will!
How about adding Männlichen (2229m) from Grindelwald? It’s paved all the way to the cable car station. Great views of Wetterhorn, Schreckhorn, Eiger, Mönch, Jungfrau. Stay overnight at the Berghaus to see the mountains turn pink in the sunset…
Another candidate: lac du Vieux-Emosson (2205m) above Finhaut. The last stretch from the new dam to the old dam is scary steep (1.3 km at 15% or worse iirc). Nice views of the Chamonix aiguilles all the way to the Mt-Blanc from the lower dam.
Hello Thomas, Those are both fantastic climbs — and I’ve done both. Somehow forgot to add them, I will update. Thanks.
Re: Vieux Emosson: my understanding is that it has been closed to bikes the last few years. I certainly got blocked by a yelling road guy the last time I was there. You are right, that little road is crazy steep, but so beautiful:
Also what about Solden/Rettenbachglacier? In this years Tour de Suisse and I’ve read your article on it!
Thomas, despite being in the Tour de Suisse, the Rettenbach glacier is actually in Austria!
i have just returned from a second stay at bourg d oisans, next year i fancy something different, maybe the swiss alps. Is there a central place to stay such as oisans is to the french alps?
I suppose Andermatt or Meiringen might be the best base town. Near Furka, Grimsel, Grosse Scheidegg, Nufenen, Susten, Gotthard, etc.
I have already done climb to Tguma parkplatz (also known as Alp Anarosa) and the views are totally breathtaking, especially at the end. I can definitely recommend you to visit one day. And it would be in top 10 of highest paved climbs in Switzerland. Atlhough part of it is only concrete strips and last few hundred metres is gravel, it is still perfectly possible on a road bike (but very steep).
Another great climb in this area (although not so high to make this list, but super steep) is to Calandahutte from Haldenstein (right above Chur). It is very badly paved with occassional gravel streches and also last few hundred metres are not paved at all. Actually the cyclable road ends at a hut below Calandahutte and it is necessary (at least for me) to push the bike for a short way to reach Calandahutte, but totally worth it for the views. On the whole climb I met three or four cars (be careful when descending!) and a few walkers at the hut. And they have a beer up there 🙂
Dan, thanks, helpful stuff – especially the beer part. 🙂
I know it’s a long shot but I’ll be in Interlaken in a few weeks (no bike, sadly) and am looking for a way to ride Furka Pass, hopefully with a local rider. If you have any leads or ideas please email me. Thanks for the great article!
Actually the climb to Croix de Coeur from la Tzoumaz is now also paved to the top. This was a bit disappointing as the organizers of the Tour des Stations had decided that this gravel section would be the cherry on the cake, but not too bad as the cake was big enough to really enjoy that great ride! You should do it next year 😉
Thank you for valuable information. Nice post! Enjoyed it! All the best for your next post.