Passo di Gavia is located in North Italy, and is the 10th highest paved road in the Alps. Several times it has been the highest point of Giro d’Italia. Since the more famous Stelvio Pass nearby on the other side of Bormio grabs all the fame and interest from tourers, I wanted to write a guide for Gavia and to give my recommendation for this pass. Because in my opinion Passo Gavia is clearly superior to Stelvio!
The scenery is more beautiful, there are no power lines ruining your photos or the wilderness atmosphere, there’s less traffic and people. Stelvio on the other hand can be a bit of a circus in good weather and high season - I definitely didn’t enjoy the sight of so many hotels and restaurants and all the tourists milling around. Cycle both if you can, but if you only choose one, choose Passo di Gavia.
Where to start from
Gavia lies at an altitude of 2620 meters (point 1 on the map above), with many 3k+ peaks surrounding the road. You can approach from two directions:
Ponte di Legno (2) in the south, (17km and 1370 vertical meters, avg incline 8%)
From Bormio (3) in the north (25km and 1420 vertical meters, avg incline 5,7%)
Even though starting from Bormio is less steep and therefore easier, do not start from there if you can avoid it. The south side is much more scenic and fun to climb. The north side is still pretty, but not to the same extent, and there are more villages and ski centres and other things less pleasing to the eye on the way. The Bormio side is more suited for going quickly downhill past the less inspiring parts.
Again, I highly recommend the south side for the ascent. From Ponte di Legno you’re very quickly in remote countryside, and then soon climbing above the valley with just you, the road, and some really gorgeous views. There are a couple short stretches with 14% inclines in the hairpin section (4), but most of the climb is around 10% with some easier parts here and there. Near the top there is one unilluminated uphill tunnel (5) about 200m long, but you can simply go around it on the rocky old road if you want to escape the traffic briefly. You may also see some mountain goats hanging out by the detour around the tunnel, especially early in the mornings.
Points of interest
CAMPING - The nearest actual camping ground is in Temù (6) slightly west of Ponte di Legno. There are a couple rest areas before Pezzo on the way up. The first one (7) has covered picnic tables in case of rain, and the second one (8) slightly further up may allow camping. (At least the locals said it was okay, there aren’t “no camping” signs like in the other picnic area, and I wasn’t disturbed by anyone when I slept there on my way up.) It’s right next to the road though, so not that quiet even if there’s very little traffic at night.
The whole mountain is a national park, so camping isn’t allowed under threat of fines, but in an emergency the Lago Nero (9) area might be suitable (photo below). There's even a building with an open door, but the inside has sadly been used as a toilet by some disgusting idiots. On the top there are two refugios where you can get food and a room (10-11). 6km down from the top towards the north there is a reasonably priced and very friendly Agriturismo (12) where you can also sleep. They have some private land around as well, and may be open to a polite camping request. They offer refreshing showers for 3€, and a nice breakfast.
Also on the north side, the first few hairpin curves a little further up the mountain from Santa Caterina are in a forest area. In case of bad weather or other problems, it wouldn’t be difficult to find a campsite somewhere around there (13). It still wouldn’t be legal as far as I know, so use only as a last resort.
WATER - From the south side both picnic areas (7-8) have clean water fountains. After that there are only some mountain streams. You can probably drink from them, but if you’re unsure of your stomach, get enough water near Pezzo to reach the restaurant/bar at the top. From the north you have plenty of villages and tourism places to refill water from until the last 6km from the Agriturismo. But again, streams are probably safe.
GROCERY STORES - Ponte di Legno in the south (14) and Santa Caterina in the north (15).
RESTAURANTS - Besides the already mentioned refugios and agriturismo place, there are a couple more restaurants on the south side (16-17) and many between Bormio and Santa Caterina. I only ate my own food, so can't say much more about them. Pezzo (18) probably has something too, but the village is on top of an annoying extra uphill, so I didn't visit.
Much of the road on the south side of the pass is single-lane, so it’s better to be careful while ascending. Trucks and caravans are not allowed up there, which helps, but during the day there are plenty of cars and especially motorcycles driving up and down. Early morning and evening traffic is very quiet. At daytime the road is full of cyclists too (I didn’t see any with panniers), and the cars are respectful of us.
If you are lucky, you could also ride up during one of the three days of the year when the mountain pass is closed to motor traffic. I happened to be there during the first of these days, and it is quite nice and peaceful when the only other travellers are also on bicycles. You can check the future dates of the Enjoy Stelvio Park event here.
The altitude at Passo di Gavia is high enough that you need to expect much cooler temperatures on the top. In July the normal weather seemed to be slightly above +10C during the day and barely above 0C during the night. Which explains why there were still some patches of snow left here and there. Also rains, thunder and hail (see above photo) may occur suddenly, so bring appropriate gear. Don't forget gloves to keep your fingers from freezing in the long descent.
I hope this guide has been helpful. Let me know in the comments if I missed anything, and I'll try to answer with more info. Good luck and enjoy the ride!