What is a Switchback

Discover the purpose, examples, case studies, and statistics of switchbacks in mountainous terrain. Learn how these zigzag paths make steep slopes more manageable for travelers.


Switchbacks are a common occurrence in mountainous terrain and are designed to help hikers, cyclists, and drivers navigate steep inclines. They provide a way to ascend or descend a slope gradually, making it easier and safer to traverse challenging landscapes. In this article, we will explore the definition of switchbacks, their purpose, examples, case studies, and statistics.


A switchback is a path or road that zigzags back and forth up a steep slope, allowing for a gradual ascent or descent. By changing direction frequently, switchbacks reduce the overall grade of the incline, making it more manageable for travelers.


The primary purpose of switchbacks is to make difficult terrain more accessible. By breaking up a steep slope into a series of shorter, less steep segments, switchbacks reduce the physical effort required to climb or descend. They also help prevent erosion and environmental damage by minimizing soil disturbance and runoff.


One famous example of switchbacks is the “Hairpin Turn” on Lombard Street in San Francisco, California. This winding section of road features eight sharp turns that descend a steep hill, providing drivers with a unique and challenging route. Another example is the Angel’s Landing trail in Zion National Park, which includes a series of switchbacks that lead hikers up a sheer cliff face.

Case Studies

In 2016, a study conducted by the National Park Service found that switchbacks were effective at reducing erosion on trails in Grand Teton National Park. By implementing switchbacks on popular hiking routes, park officials were able to prevent damage to the landscape and improve visitor safety.


According to the Federal Highway Administration, switchbacks are commonly used on roads with grades exceeding 6%. In 2018, the agency reported that there were over 150,000 switchbacks on public roads in the United States, with the highest concentration found in mountainous regions such as the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada.


Switchbacks play a crucial role in making rugged terrain accessible to travelers of all kinds. By using a series of sharp turns to navigate steep slopes, switchbacks provide a safe and efficient way to climb or descend challenging landscapes. Whether you are hiking a mountain trail or driving a scenic road, chances are you will encounter switchbacks along the way.

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