Lights and road markings become long fluid lines that trail ahead to converge at a single vanishing point. Traffic cruises to the rhythmic pulse of vehicle hum as the sound of rubber on road reverberates through the cavernous space. A mountain range or great body of water sits above. Driving through a tunnel is nothing short of surreal. Eventually the trailing lines break and the artificial brightness gives way to natural light and a whole new landscape appears at the other end.
My favourite tunnel driving experience was through the Lämmerbuckel Tunnel on the A8 autobahn from Stuttgart to Munich. The relatively short tunnel punches through a pass in the Swabian Alps and ends to the north of the Bavarian border. I drove into it on a gloomy early winter’s night and travelled though the stark bright neon light as the weight of a mountain rested above. I emerged at the other end into the snow filled scene of a winter wonderland. As if I’d entered in Germany and come out in Narnia.
As enchanting as that was on a magical winter’s night, the tunnel was a mere minnow, hardly even registering on the scale of the world’s greatest. Marvels of modern engineering that conquer mountains, rivers and seas across the globe.
Laerdal Tunnel – Norway
Taking drivers on a 15 mile journey under the mountainous region of Filefjel, the Laerdal Tunnel is the world’s longest. Concerned for the mental strain on drivers as they pass through this subterranean epic, the designers of the tunnel came up with a novel idea. They built three large caverns along the route and illuminated them blue with orange and yellow lights at their edges designed to emulate sunrise. The caverns are large enough for drivers to take breaks and alleviate any feelings of stress or claustrophobia that the 20 minute journey may induce, while the air is kept breathable by a treatment plant.
Eisenhower Tunnel – USA
When first completed in 1973 the Eisenhower-Johnson Memorial Tunnel, was the highest tunnel in the world. Its elevation of 11,158ft provides drivers with a route straight through the Rocky Mountains 50 miles west of Denver. Drivers who make the 1.7 mile transition on the interstate 70 find themselves on the other side of the North American Continental Divide when they emerge at the other end.
Tokyo Bay Aqua Line – Japan
This bridge and tunnel combination takes drivers first above then plunges them deep beneath the 8 mile wide Tokyo Bay. The straight road bridge suddenly dips down and disappears beneath the surface of the water for 5 miles of sub-aquatic driving, making the Aqua Line the longest underwater road tunnel in the world.
Guoliang Tunnel – China
Up in the Taihan Mountains of China’s Henan province, the Guoliang Tunnel rises up the side of a sheer cliff face. Carved out of the side of the mountain by the hands of 13 local villagers, it was constructed to connect the village of Guoliang with the rest of world. The tunnel peppers the cliff face with open sided sections while its dramatic location and terrifying drops make it a popular tourist attraction, and a definite contender for Most Spectacular Tunnel.
The Drammen Spiral – Norway
This unique tunnel stands out from the others as the only one with no straight sections. Instead it follows the shape of a helix. Where as the purpose of many tunnels is to get to the other side of a hill, this one’s is to get to the top of one. Twisting up the inside of the Skansen Ridge like a helter-skelter, the Drammen Spiral provides drivers a route to the summit where access to local forests and hill country is popular among hikers and tourists.
The Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel – USA
Designed to link the spectacular national parks of Zion in Utah and Grand Canyon in Colorado, the tunnel was constructed in the 1920’s by the Utah Parks Company. It bores straight alongside the Pine Creek Canyon into the darkness of an unlit passage through the rock. The mile long darkness is broken four times by large openings that let in light and ventilation and provide tantalizing glimpses of the canyon. When the tunnel finally emerges, travellers are rewarded with stunning views of the canyon and mountains.
The Mt. Blanc Tunnel – France/Italy
This 7.2 mile tunnel passes under one of the highest points in the Alps. Connecting the French town of Chamonix with the Aosta Valley in Italy, the tunnel links two of Europe’s great nations by passing under Europe’s greatest mountain range. Constructed directly beneath the 12,605ft peak of Aguille Du Midi in the Mont Blanc massif, at its deepest point the tunnel sits under 8,136ft of mountain, making it the deepest road tunnel in the world.