Lines in the sand: Desert highways of the world

Paving across thousands of kilometres of sand, desert highways serve as vital infrastructure to connect cities across barren lands.

By Alex Summers

Linking cities separated by miles of desert terrain via highways is no easy feat as construction is costly and time-consuming. Depending on the terrain, delays are inevitable and costs are often exceeded. However, it is vital to connect towns and cities that are often cut off in some regard from larger urban areas or trade ports, for example.

desert highways
Part of the Tiznit-Dakhla Highway, National Route 1, Morocco. (Photo by nawfalelmajdoubiprod/Shutterstock)

One such highway in Morocco, the Tiznit-Dakhla, is nearing completion. The more than 1,000km road will connect the town of Tiznit with the coastal city of Dakhla in Western Sahara, with a dozen bypasses planned to circumnavigate other cities along the route where possible, avoiding downtown traffic. The goal is to reduce travel time between the northern and southern provinces and attract more investment to the areas. 

When completed, the impressive stretch of asphalt won’t be the only desert-cutter of note, of course. With so many to choose from, a good place to start is with the As.

Where are the world’s desert highways?

Asia: Tarim Desert Highway

Also known as the Cross-Desert highway, the road stretches across the Taklamakan Desert in China, and is likely the first result most search engines will give for ‘desert highways’. The total length of the highway, however, is ‘only’ 552km. By no means a short hike, this still falls short of the Tiznit-Dakhla at roughly half the distance.  

America: US Route 50 

Dubbed ‘The Loneliest Road in America’ by Life magazine in 1986, Route 50 courses through the Nevada desert for 800km from Carson City to Baker. Although Life magazine kindly pointed out that there were “no points of interest” on the route, travellers now make an effort to see just how lonely it is. Maybe they want to be alone. 

Australia: The Outback Highway

Highway One is Australia’s longest highway at a mammoth 14,500km, as it loops (almost) the entire coast of the country. However, it cuts through plenty of verdant lands along the way, so should really be discounted as a desert highway. Although a bit more unofficial, The Outback Highway is more in the spirit of things and has been thought of as the ‘world’s emptiest road’, stretching 2,700km from Laverton in Western Australia to Winton in Queensland.

Arctic: TBD

The Antarctic polar is considered to be the largest desert in the world. However, highways are few and far between at the South Pole. And you likely won’t find many paved tracks that aren’t directly outside a scientific station. You could shift to the Arctic and Canada’s Inuvik–Tuktoyaktuk Highway. This is only 138km long, and is discounted anyway as it doesn’t have the ‘polar desert’ tag that the Antarctic does. The same goes for Artic highways in Norway.

[Read more: How Google Maps is ruining your neighbourhood]

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