The Steepest Highway in Virginia Is a Terrifyingly Treacherous Path

Written by Kathryn Koehler
Updated: September 25, 2023
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The steepest highway in Virginia is a terrifyingly treacherous path. State Route 56 has a peculiar way of making even the most seasoned drivers feel like they’re greenhorns. It’s as if your heart decides to race faster than your engine! Your grip on the wheel is tenuous; your palms slick with sweat. You heave a sigh of relief as you reach the summit. But your joy is shortlived, dissipating as soon as you realize the descent presents its own set of horrors. Take a deep breath. You and your trusty (insert your motorized vehicle of choice) have got this. Virginia State Highway 56 is an adrenaline-pumping road to be sure. With its 10 to 12% grade, Route 56 is the steepest highway in Virginia. Continue reading to discover more about this crazy steep road!

Highway sign for route 56 in Virginia

With its 10 to 12% grade,

Route 56 is the steepest highway in Virginia.

©Famartin, CC BY-SA 4.0 – License

The Steepest Highway in Virginia: Highway 56

Virginia State Highway 56 is the principal east/west route through Nelson County. The road originates at US Highway 11, also called the Lee Highway, near the Augusta/Rockbridge County Line. In Nelson County, where the steepest grades occur, Highway 56 runs along Little Marys Creek on its twisting ascent through the George Washington National Forest in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The highway intersects with the Blue Ridge Parkway at Tye River Gap. From Tye River Gap, Highway 56 begins its descent through Montebello. Once Route 56 leaves the George Washington National Forest, the highway grade, along with the terrain, becomes less steep.

George Washington National Forest

The George Washington National Forest is located in the state of Virginia, extending into parts of West Virginia and Kentucky. George Washington National Forest is a part of the 1.8 million-acre Washington/Jefferson National Forest. George Washington National Forest contains a wide range of landscapes, including mountainous terrain, rolling hills, and valleys. These different landscapes are home to diverse ecosystems supporting a variety of plant and animal life. The forest provides an important habitat for wildlife such as black bears, white-tail deer, and many bird species, including raptors and songbirds. George Washington National Forest plays a vital role in conservation efforts within the Appalachian region. It protects watersheds and preserves old-growth forests, which are a significant part of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Understanding Highway Grading Sytems

Highway grades are a measure of how steep a section of road is in relation to the horizontal plane. They are typically expressed as a percentage or ratio and indicate the rise in elevation (in feet or meters) over a specified horizontal distance (usually 100 feet/meters). Understanding highway grades is important for both drivers and road engineers. They can significantly affect vehicle performance and safety. Here’s a breakdown of common highway grades and what they mean:

  • 0% Grade (Level): A 0% grade indicates a level road in which there is no change in elevation over a specified distance. This is the easiest grade of road to drive on and requires no significant uphill or downhill effort.
  • 1-3% Grade: A mild grade that is relatively easy to drive on. It’s often imperceptible to drivers.
  • 4-6% Grade: A moderate grade that requires slightly more effort from a vehicle during the ascent. Most vehicles can handle this grade without difficulty.
  • 7-9% Grade: A steep grade that can cause slower acceleration and increased fuel consumption on the ascent. Heavier vehicles may experience reduced performance.
  • 10% or Higher Grade: Extremely steep grades that can be challenging for most vehicles, while ascending and descending. Heavily loaded trucks, RVs, and vehicles towing trailers should exercise caution, and lower gears may be necessary.

Technically, positive grades pertain to uphill slopes, while negative grades suggest a downhill slope. However, most signs do not differentiate between the two. With grades between 10 and 12% (and -10 and -12%; after all, what goes up must come down! ) Highway 56 is considered an extremely steep road.

Downhill road sign expressed in positive % grade.

Technically, positive grades pertain to uphill slopes, while negative grades suggest a downhill slope. However, most signs do not differentiate between the two.

©Tiia Monto, CC BY-SA 3.0 – License

The photo featured at the top of this post is © grandbrothers/

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About the Author

Kathryn Koehler is a writer at A-Z-Animals where her focus is on unusual animals, places, and events. Kat has over 20 years of experience as a professional writer and educator. She holds a master's degree from Vanderbilt University. When she is not writing for A-Z-Animals, Kat enjoys puttering in her garden, baking deliciously healthful treats for her family, and playing with her two rescue mutts, Popcorn and Scooter. She resides in Tennessee.

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