Conditions help WSDOT’s earliest opening since 2013
The North Cascades Scenic Highway will reopen to traffic Thursday (April 18) at 9 a.m., only a little more than three weeks after state transportation crews began working to clear away winter snow.
“We haven’t had an opening since 2013 that has been this fast,” said Don Becker, Twisp maintenance supervisor for the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT).
Most years, WSDOT crews are working to get the road open before the Winthrop ’49er Days celebration in early May. But this year, thanks to good weather and less snow than on the highway and in avalanche chutes, the job of clearing the road was completed two weeks earlier than last year.
“This year it will not only be open well before May 10 for the [’49er Days] festival, but for the opening of the lowland fishing season April 28 as well, which is a real plus for the businesses in both the Skagit and Methow Valleys,” Becker said.
The comparatively low snowpack this year made clearing the highway “pretty cut-and-dried this year,” said Becker. In fact, for the first time in his 28 years of supervising the highway clearing from the east side, Becker said crews didn’t need to contract for a large D8 Caterpillar bulldozer and were able to do the job with a smaller equipment.
“The snow is really dry, and wasn’t compacted very much, and the slides weren’t very big,” Becker said.
Snow depth on the road near Washington Pass was only 6 feet deep when clearing began, compared to 10 feet deep last year, according to WSDOT.
There are about 30 avalanche chutes within the 37-mile closure zone on State Route 20, including large chutes below the Liberty Bell spires that usually dump 35-70 feet of snow on the road. This year those chutes deposited only about 20 feet of snow on the road. “We were through the Liberty Bell slides in four days with a D6 and a snow cat,” Becker said.
The low snowpack may be good news for road crews, but has prompted concerns among state water supply managers, who have declared a drought in the Methow, Okanogan and Upper Yakima river basins.
Earlier this week crews were completing removal of danger trees that pose a risk of falling into the roadway, and repairing damaged pavement, guardrails and signs.
The North Cascades Highway opened in 1972, and closes between the Silver Star Gate in Mazama and Diablo on the west side each winter when avalanche danger makes traveling unsafe. WSDOT reminds motorists that the mile-high route across the Cascades may still see wintery conditions in coming weeks.