Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Road Trip: San Bernardino Pass

About The Route

Best time to Go: Weekdays during May, June, September and October

Places To Stop: Old hotel and restaurant at the passes peak, a view of the Zapporthorn as well as a high alpine lake. Excellent exploring opportunities, here and throughout the alpine area region.

Total Distance:  48 km

Altitude: 260m-2,066m

Starting Point: Beginning in Castione, Switzerland, head north on highway #13 Blue. The highway follows the Mesolcina valley over the mountain, and on to Hinterrhein, Switzerland.

Road Type: Flowing smooth road surface with a variety of changing topography.

Warnings: Watch for cyclists and Hikers as this area has many trails. Pass closed in the winter due to the amount of snowfall.


Review: Our next great road was suggested to us by the Head of Testing for the new Mercedes S-Class, Uwe Hörnig. Mr. Hörnigs favourite strip of tarmac is the San Bernardino Pass in southern Switzerland that links the Hinterrhein and the Mesolcina valleys, offering great challenges to both driver and car while driving through some of the most beautiful scenery and spectacular countryside in the Southern Alps. The San Bernardino is part of an extensive route that Uwe and his colleagues test the new S-Class; a course that features a wide variety of road conditions to ensure the car meets Mercedes high standards. When asked what he would drive the San B. with access to the Mercedes fleet, Hörnig replied that the S-400 Hybrid would be his choice. He noted, ”The S-400 Hybrid makes driving easier, more comfortable and, above all, safer without a shortage of driving pleasure. New technology and lithium-ion batteries means the car is as close to standard weight as possible while at the same time being both powerful and fuel efficient.”

With Mr. Hörnigs advice in hand I made my way to southern Switzerland to experience for myself what the San Bernardino had in store. Now, when he mentioned that he would have chosen the big S-Class to drive a narrow alpine pass, I had the distinct feeling that he must have been getting the evil eye from a Public Relations person to plug Mercedes latest offering. However, his choice started to make sense as I lumbered into the alpine of the pass. The San Bernardino really does offer a great amount of variety in terrain, and its smooth and fairly wide lanes (for a Alp pass) changed my way of thinking. Having driven the Grossglockner and other technically challenging passes with my hair on fire, the engine bouncing off the rev limiter, tires screaming in pain at the loss of adhesion and eyes dried out from the concentration required to safely navigate such roads open to oncoming traffic is a magnificent experience. But it’s also extremely taxing on you both physically and mentally. A great Alpine pass can also be enjoyed by simply cruising through at a sane speed and the San Bernardino definitely calls for an easy cruise to soak up not only this great road, but the spectacular scenery as well.

The beauty of the San Bernardino is that it’s a two-headed beast. There is the new autoroute, (A13 Red) which is a faster direct route through the valley, and slips into a 6.6 km tunnel that bypasses the summit. Unlike many pass upgrades, this route is still only a two-lane highway, still fairly windy and offers great views of the towering Alps above. However, it will be the old route (13B Blue) that I will be talking about here. The pass has been used since the Roman era, with several sections of an ancient path visible to the curious and energetic hiker. But it wasn’t until 1823 that a proper road was built, with a painstaking rebuild in the 1990’s.

Starting at the south point of highway 13B in Castione, the road is quite tame, and slow for that matter as it meanders up the valley through farmland and several small villages. Once you get past the sleepy villages, the road begins to breath some life as it rises into the forested highlands. It all starts with a couple of hairpins, then the road begins to climb into the hills, cutting a path through the thick forest while adhering to natures law of following the terrain. It is here that you get great views of the A13 as it does its best to break those rules, crashing through mountainside and using bridges to keep every thing on the level. After quite a while of this very pleasurable driving, I came across the village of San Bernardino itself. It’s a deserted ski village rammed full of ski lodges, hotels and restaurants, all but shutdown here in the summer.


After San Bernardino the pass starts to climb into the alpine. Here tree’s become extinct, the terrain becomes tundra, and the road blossoms into a winding mess of gloriousness. Above the tree line, you can see well down the road, allowing speeds to become interesting without fear of the unknown around a blind corner. Also the lack of stupidly steep drop-offs means one can start to use the entire road, even dipping a wheel off if one so inclines. It  ‘s a fluid road that winds around a glaciated landscape with glaciated knobs, mires and small lakes. The San Bernardino’s Alpine section is a driver’s dream, like a racecourse that has been placed atop a mountain. It really gives back in ways a Canadian driver could never imagine. Of course there are still a good number of hairpins thrown in to keep everything interesting, but perfectly placed sporadically along the route. The summit represents both a cultural and drainage basin border with locals speaking Italian in the south and German in the north.

 Like most passes, falling down the other side reveals a much different environment. In the case of the San Bernardino, the terrain became much steeper, and the road slows with tighter turns and narrower passages. From the wide open alpine, 13 blue falls down a steep rocky gulley. The hairpin lovers will love this section as the road slowly steps itself down the mountain, hugging the side of the cliff. At the base of the steep cliffs is rich farmland, full of the stereotypical Swiss cows. Take a rest break at the bottom, and listen to the echo of hundreds of cow bells bounce off the valley walls for an equally impressive scene as the road above.

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