Road Type Mountain Pass
Stelvio Pass - the best in the Alps?
It's the most famous pass in the Alps due to it's Top Gear association, but is the Stelvio Pass really the best? Back in 2015 we set out to find our for ourselves in our lime green Lamborghini Huracan LP610 and red Ferrari 488 Speciale...
Setting the Scene / Our Stelvio Pass Roadtrip
We have been driving the Stelvio Pass in Italy since 2010 when we started running tours in the Alps. However, back in 2015 we decided to go on a mission and recreate a little bit of Top Gear and make our own group test on the Stelvio Pass. Taking the recently launched Ferrari 458 Speciale and Lamborghini Huracan LP610, we decided to test them back to back on the Stelvio pass and at the same time decide for ourselves if this pass Pass really is the greatest driving road in the world (or at very least the greatest of those 60-70 passes we had driven over the previous 5 seasons in the Alps!).
Our LP610 Lamborghini Huracan Heading up the North Face of Stelvio Pass
Stelvio Pass Fact Check
Elevation: 2757M or 9045 feet, makes it the highest paved mountain road in the Eastern Alps, and the 2nd highest in the Alps, 7m or 23 ft below the Col de I'Iseran in France.
Turns: 60 hairpins, 48 that are numbered on the Northern section, the famous North face of the Stelvio Pass.
Length: 35KM, assuming a start in Trafoi, and an end in Bormio, though the 20-25km run up to Trafoi is also a pretty decent drive too, so some people count this - either way, it's a lot of mountain road
So the raw facts certainly live up to the reputation, that's a lot of height, turns and length for sure!
Why so much fuss about the Stelvio Pass?
Let's start with what is true - visually, Stelvio Pass Italy is one of the most dramatic passes in the Alps, due to it's incredible wall of switchback turns. These turns can be clearly viewed as you head up the pass approaching from the north east side, and equally viewed as you look back down from the summit. The wall of 48 switchback turns running up its north face really are an engineering sight to behold, not to mentioned the beautiful stone retainer walls, with each turn numbered. So in that regard, Stelvio Pass does not disappoint - visually it's five stars all the way, so get your camera out and start snapping. But as a drivers road?
Having driven the pass on many occasions in the past, we knew to approach from the east, meaning we ascend the Stelvio Pass up the famous north face. The first thing you will note is after passing the small village of Trafoi (well its about half a dozen houses and a hotel really) the road is narrow, and in parts extremely narrow - the first stretches of the pass before you get to the wall of switchbacks can be hairy to say the least in a Supercar - we met another convoy coming back down in the opposite direction, and a sharp intake of breath was needed. However, after you get through this first stretch running though some woods, where the visibility ahead is pretty limited, you begin to quickly climb above the tree line, at which point the visibility (if not width) improves - though it still remains a challenge. The steepness of the pass means that many of the 90 degree switchback turns needing to be taken at less than 30KMh to avoid bottoming out or drifting to the wrong side of the road, taking account of the fact drivers coming in the opposite face a similar challenge, so caution is needed at all times.
What a road, what a racket from the Huracan!!
However, as you start to make your way up the Stelvio pass, when you do get some clear road ahead (fortunately we had a guide car ahead calling the road for us) you are able to attack the long straights, some 300-400M, then break late into the switchbacks, the smiles start to well and truly appear - this is what the guys on Top Gear were on about for sure - it's kind of relentless, and goes on and on!!
Not only is the drive fun, and we think this is the beauty of the Stelvio Pass Italy is that to drive it well is a real challenge! By that, we mean a challenge to your driving skills and technique. Perfectly judging a breaking point, attaining the best turn in, then accelerating smoothly out of the corner gives you an incredible sense of accomplishment - and we think that's what the Stelvio Pass is really all about when it comes to the driving experience - driving it well - we honestly feel that's what the guys were on about when they drove the Stelvio Pass back in 2008. In many ways, it's just like a drive around a track like the Nordschleife, it shouldn't be easy, it isn't, but if you do a lap or even a section of corners just right you get that amazing buzz inside.
Our two mean machines - Lamborghini LP610 Huracan & Ferrari 458 Speciale
Once at the summit, be sure not to miss the left turn up to the Albergo Ristorante Tibet where we took our pictures from - that's where you will get the signature shot from.
Heading back down the Stelvio Pass towards Bormio is still a great drive, the turns are of course much more "sweepy" in their nature, but still great fun with several superb vantage points to park up and take pictures from. Once at the foot of the pass your are literally spat out into the center of Bormio, which is not maybe the most beautiful village, but plenty of good places to grab a bite to eat.
OUR TIP: rather than heading down to Bormio, around 1KM after starting the ascent, turn right onto the Umbrail Pass, direction Switzerland, and into the stunning Swiss National Park. This deserted pass (sometimes almost single track) really feels like you are visiting the land that time forgot, then takes you directly into the heart of the Swiss National Park and the beautiful Offenpass, completing your drive back on the Swiss Lower Engadin valley.
Finally at the top of the Stelvio Pass Italy, and the views on a day like this are to die for!!
So what's the catch / why the bad press?
It's quite common for people these days to just write the Stelvio Pass off - but that's not because it's a bad road, it's because it's a busy road. Due to the Stelvio Pass's iconic status since this series of Top Gear was aired, it's become the busiest of the ultra high passes in the Alps. At the weekends often packed with cyclists and bikers, many with not much regard for road positioning, as well of course as the cars, often even causing tailbacks, and this wasn't what it was supposed to be about.
In realty, all this means is the Stelvio Pass really is a road of two stories - hit the pass when it's empty, and ideally you have someone ahead able to call the road ahead, it's an absolute gem!! Hit it at the wrong time, when it's busy with bikers and other cars, then it's hell on earth - probably the worst alpine driving experience you can imagine.
More pictures from the summit outside the Albergo Ristorante Tibet - Stelvio Pass in background
Our Conclusions on the Stelvio Pass
Well it's quite simple - you really MUST drive the Stelvio Pass, it really IS an incredible road. HOWEVER, the only way to do it is very early in the morning, and we are talking 7am, or into the early evening, after 7pm - for the former, it's quite easy, just grab yourself an overnight on the pass (we highly recommend Hotel Belle Vista at the foot) rise early, make the drive once, or maybe twice, return back to your hotel for breakfast, then you may even agree with the guys at Top Gear, this really is the greatest driving road in the World.
And the cars we tested?
Well anyone that likes the sound of a car is never going to be disappointed with the Lambo, it handles a dream, and the pop pop of the exhaust on the overrun as you head down the pass is amazing. However, as a driving machine, the Ferrari 458 Speciale really is special, and even now, we haven't found a better driving machine to tackle the Alps, it truly is the last of the track focused naturally aspirated V8's Ferrari built, and they certainly ended on an epic high!
Our Winner - the Ferrari 458 Speciale - you don't need to be driving this car to have fun on the Stelvio Pass...it just helps a bit!
Frequently Asked Questions
When was the Stelvio Pass Italy first opened / what was it's original purpose?
The original road was built in 1820–25 by the Austrian Empire as a route that would connect the former Austrian province of Lombardy with the rest of Austria. The engineer and project manager was Carlo Donegani and since that date the route has changed very little, asides of course an occasional re-tarmac.
Is the Stelvio Pass open all year around?
The Stelvio Pass like most high alpine passes will be closed through the winter season due to snowfall, however there is never an official closing date, as this is largely dependent on weather conditions on the Stelvio Pass. Under normal circumstances, the Stelvio Pass will open mid to late May, and will remain open until the end of October. However, you should always check the latest status when making drives close to the start and end of season - a really good source for the latest status on the pass (open / shut / snow down) would be https://www.alpenpaesse.de/
What's the best direction to drive the Stelvio Pass?
Unlike many mountain passes where approaching from either direction offers a similar experience, with the Stelvio, it's best approached from the north west side. It's only by coming from this direction you get to drive up the Stelvio Pass's famous wall of switchbacks - and one thing we know from experience is that's always lot more fun than heading down. It's also by approaching from this side you get to run through the heart of the Stelvio National Park itself before starting the ascent - this run takes you through several great stretches of alpine forest and many KMs of fast/ sweeping roads before arriving at the foot of the pass. Once on the pass, each of the turns are numbered with stones, so at least you get to count your arrival to the top, 48, 47, 46…
What's the best month to drive the Stelvio Pass?
Without doubt June, and the earlier the better - at this time you will see walls of snow as you approach the summit, plus the nearby rivers and waterfalls are that bit more dramatic as the glacial snow melts on the surrounding peaks
What's the best time of day to drive the Stelvio Pass?
As already mentioned, the pass can get very busy, try to ensure you drive mid-week and either before 8am (normally requires that you stay close by overnight) or actually often better, the early evening around 7pm, when most people are already tucked up in their hotels!
Where's the best place to stop on the Stelvio Pass for a bite to eat?
Our recommendation is the hotel / Albergo Bella Vista - the terrace on the back as you suspect by the name, has an incredible vista!
Where's the best place on the Stelvio Pass to take a picture
Without doubt, looking down from the Albergo Ristorante Tibet, just above the summit - from inside the restaurant, lean out of the window for the perfect picture!
Drive this road on these Ultimate Drives
The St Moritz region of Switzerland is famed for its sweeping valleys, high alpine plains, and spectacular mountain passes. Now combine this with a loop into Italy, crossing the iconic Stelvio Pass, you may have found driving heaven
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