Image: Moki Dugway
Bwac Images / Alamy
The Moki Dugway is a spectacular switchback stretch of State Highway 261 in southern Utah. Plunging off Cedar Mesa, the narrow gravel road drops 1,100 feet in just three miles as it snakes its way down into the Valley of the Gods.
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updated 3/26/2009 10:16:42 AM ET 2009-03-26T14:16:42

There are several kinds of fear when it comes to road trips. Routes that are physically frightening, like those that run along cliffs or over high bridges, and roads that are more of a psychological thriller — like U.S. Highway 50 across Nevada’s super-desolate mid section.

It's “America’s Loneliest Highway” because there are such long stretches with no towns, services or anything else manmade. But U.S. 50 is also one of the country’s most terrifying roads — especially in the middle of winter, as one driver drove it, in a small car with a broken heater, trying to make his way from Park City to Lake Tahoe in a single day. He says he still gets nightmares about the skidding on black ice, the wheels spinning and having to leap out and push his car out of the path of oncoming traffic.

At the opposite end of America’s scary road spectrum are the “adrenaline drives” like California Highway 1 along the Big Sur coast. Built in the 1920s with convict labor and mule teams, the two-lane portion between Carmel and San Simeon snakes along precipitous cliffs, through deep ravines and across 33 bridges that often hang hundreds of feet in the air. Driving the route from north to south is much more daunting because you are constantly on the outside of the road — often nothing but a thin guardrail between you and a thousand-foot plunge.

If the twisty roadway isn’t enough of a challenge, those who dare to drive Highway 1 are also distracted by the drop-dead (sometimes literally) gorgeous views, and must be constantly on the lookout for motorists slowing down (or even stopped in the middle of the road) to admire the panorama and snap pictures. Another hazard is the constant threat of rocks or mud slides caused by small earthquakes, forest fires and just plain gravity.

Hawaii has several hair-raising roads, including the sinuous Hana Highway and the switchbacks to the top of Haleakala. But the one that takes the cake is Saddle Road on the Big Island, which threads a vast lava-rock desert between two of the most imposing volcanoes anywhere in the planet. Long-time Big Island resident Jessica Ferracane says the Saddle is especially daunting after dark because there are no facilities, no lights, no nothing. "And if it’s foggy, Saddle can be harsh.”

Add a pinch of vertigo by taking one of the narrow side roads that run off The Saddle to the top of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. The former is a whopper — a series of switchbacks and hairpins to the Onizuka Astronomy Center at 9,000 feet. You can keep driving up an increasingly steep (and treacherous) road to the cluster of silver-domed observatories on the 14,000-foot summit, but you’ll need four-wheel drive to make the top.

Fear also factors into several Alaska drives. The state’s Dalton Highway (State Route 11) is the only one in the U.S. that crosses the Arctic Circle and the longest stretch of road in America with no services. Built in the early 1970s as a support road for the Alaska Pipeline, the highway runs just over 400 miles between Livengood (near Fairbanks) and Prudhoe Bay. All there is out there (beside the giant pipe) is frozen tundra and wild animals, including a few species that will gladly kill and eat you.

The Dalton is open throughout the year, including the depths of winter, which means that snow and ice can throw up a challenge. But even in the best of weather, the gravel roadbed can be tricky to drive; fishtailing is not uncommon. And there are also steep grades that approach 12 percent. But the biggest danger is breakdown. You know what happened to the guy in “Into the Wild” — think in similar terms if you should happen to break down along the Dalton.

The Bureau of Land Management recommends that anyone driving the route thoroughly inspect their tires and fluid levels before setting out; pack at least two spare tires, extra gasoline and motor oil, emergency flares and a CB radio; and bring along warm clothes, first-aid kit, and enough ready-to-eat food for several days.

Drivers face a whole different set of hazards on State Highway 170 along the Rio Grande in west Texas, a secluded desert route that’s straight out of “No Country for Old Men.” Extreme heat is liable to be your biggest problem, but there are also steep grades, sharp turns and many blind rises. This is especially true along the 25 miles of the “River Road” between the towns of Lajitas and Presidio through Big Bend Ranch State Park.

“It’s a very exciting drive,” says Rod Trevizo, superintendent of the state park. “There are a lot of dips — it’s like a roller coaster. And because it’s open range along most of the route, you get cattle, horses and wildlife crossing the road. You never know what’s around the next bend.”

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