This Underrated Mountain Pass Is One Of The Most Awe-Inspiring Drives In Italy

From spectacular mountain ranges to charming coastal towns on the Italian Riviera and magnificent lakes like Como, Maggiore, and Garda, northern Italy offers so much for travelers to explore. A great way to do this is on an epic road trip through the stunning countryside, away from chaotic urban areas, which can be teeming with tourists during the busy summer travel season. Wine lovers can travel through the enchanting, hilly area known as Conegliano Valdobbiadene along Strada del Prosecco (Prosecco Road). Wilderness lovers, on the other hand, will be awe struck by the drive through the magnificent Passo Gardena mountain pass in the Dolomites. 

The Passo Gardena is located 121 miles north of Venice and 34 miles east of Bolzano in the Trentino-Alto Adige region, which is also known as Südtirol (South Tyrol). The Germanic origins of this name speak to the region's complex history: Before World War I, it was under Austro-Hungarian rule. The most striking features of the area are its stunning alpine scenery and the distinct vibe of the towns and villages, which blend Italian and Austrian languages, foods, and traditions. This provides a delightful experience for Passo Gardena road trippers, who are treated not only to gorgeous vistas but also to mind-expanding glimpses into a fascinating sub-culture in northern Italy. 

What to expect on a Passo Gardena road trip

Spend a half-day driving the Passo Gardena pass, stopping for views and a meal along the way. Start your 11-mile journey on SS-243 through the Passo Gardena from either the town of Selva di Val Gardena in the west or the town of Calfosch in the east. As the road climbs the 7,000-foot-high pass, it affords 360-degree views of the Dolomites: the Cir Peaks to the north, the Sella Group to the south, the mountains of the Val Badia to the east, and the iconic Sassolungo Group to the west. The latter was formed from a coral reef around 230 million years ago. Try not to become entranced by the main peak in the group, the dramatic 10,000-foot-high Sassolungo, or you may be sucked in to trying to climb it, as many others do every year. 

Hungry? Stop for some Italian food, Germanic food, or a mix of both at a restaurant in one of the towns on either end of the pass. If you finish the drive and find that you still haven't had your fill of the Passo Gardena yet, check into the Kolfuschgerhof Mountain Resort and Spa and stay for a while. The four-star resort is located near the pass, 1 mile west of Calfosch on SS-243. It boasts cozy rooms with balconies overlooking the Sella Group, "gourmet food on top of the world," (per the resort website), and a world-class spa. You might never want to leave! 

Safety tips and weather conditions

Driving in the mountains comes with some risks, so be prepared for the Passo Gardena adventure. The well-maintained, two-lane road is steep, with sharp turns and exposed areas that may send shivers down your spine, even when guard rails are present. If you're terrified of heights, this is may not be the best road trip for you. In summer, the route is busy with not only motorists but also motorcyclists and cyclists, so take care when following and passing. Admire the views at designated lookout points rather than stopping your car in the middle of the road. Be prepared for unpredictable moves by other drivers, don't text and drive, and try not to get too distracted by the breathtaking scenery.  

Definitely check the weather before doing the pass, recognizing that it can snow anytime in the high country but especially from early fall to late spring. The pass is amazingly beautiful after a snowfall, but be prepared for winter driving conditions with chains for your tires and other necessary items (e.g., a shovel, a scraper, winter clothing, etc.). In addition to snowstorms, thunderstorms with heavy rains can come on suddenly in the mountains, impeding visibility and increasing the slickness of the road. Stay safe and above all, enjoy the once-in-a-lifetime ride!