The North Cascades National Scenic Highway opened last Wednesday (May 10), just in time for Winthrop’s ’49ers Days festivities.
Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) staff Jason Newman and Jesse Gurney swung the open gates at the Silver Star Sno-park at precisely 10 a.m., and the 20 vehicles waiting in line began the first ascents up to Washington Pass.
There wasn’t any pomp or circumstance on the east side of the 48-mile corridor of winter closure, just a queue that included several interstate travelers, five logging trucks, two late-arriving bicyclists, two WSDOT staff members from the Twisp maintenance crew and a dog named Jake with a forepaw in a cast from an adverse interaction with an obstinate bull.
At both Washington and Rainy Passes, snow banks alongside the road’s edge had melted back behind the guardrails and were only 3 feet deep, anecdotally about half of what early season travelers have found in the past.
“When we first got the road cleared up here the snow was 6 to 8 feet deep feet about three weeks ago,” Twisp/Brewster crew manager Ryan Smith said Wednesday at Washington Pass. “The warm days and lack of freezing nighttime weather has really melted it down.”
The day wasn’t without sweet tradition, though. After spending most of Tuesday in her Seattle-area home baking, a woman identifying herself only as “Tootsie’s granddaughter” showed up at the west gate above Ross Dam in time to present a batch of freshly made and generously iced cinnamon rolls for the WSDOT crew as a “thank you” for their efforts to open the highway.
The tradition was started in the early 1970s by her grandmother, Ethel “Tootsie” Clark, who was the owner and head cook at The Eatery and the Clark Family Cottages in Marblemount. Clark passed away in September of 2017, having baked and delivered her last set of homemade rolls at the age of 95 earlier that year. Clarks’ granddaughter led the procession to Rainy Pass, as is tradition, for a couple of photos at the Cascade Crest, then it was on to Washington Pass to deliver the goods to the awaiting Twisp crew.
Before the opening Wednesday, at the head of the line we found Marvin Peterson and Karen Yvonne, residents of Lopez Island, headed west to visit Peterson’s 100-year-old mother living in the Mount Vernon area before catching their ferry into the San Juan Islands. After spending Tuesday night in Winthrop, and learning of the impending opening, they arrived at the gate at about 8:15 a.m., surprised to find they were first in line.
John Larson and Morgan West, traveling west from Duluth, Minnesota, were also eager to see the gate swing. They woke up in Leavenworth and altered plans over breakfast, taking the long way around instead of traversing Stevens Pass to Seattle. “This is my first time in Washington,” said Larson. “We decided this morning to come up and drive the North Cascades. I’ve heard a lot about how beautiful it is, so looking forward to it.”
Also in line was former valley resident Lilly (Schlotzhauer) Sutherland, a 2014 graduate of Liberty Bell High School who was back home visiting her father Scott and showing off his 2-year-old granddaughter, Annabelle. Sutherland currently resides on Maui in the Hawaiian Islands. Her dad was giving daughter and granddaughter a ride back to SeaTac airport for the flight back home.
Not everyone was going all the way across to the Skagit Valley, though. Local resident Jeremy Hamel only made it as far as the Blue Lake Trailhead, which is no more than a wide spot in the roadway just west of the Washington Pass summit. Hamel and a couple of companions were headed up the north side of the highway to find suitable snow for some late-season skiing.
The most distant license plate was a affixed to a car belonging to Peter and Diana. They claim State College as their home town, which explained the Penn State paraphernalia round about them.
A retired couple, they are traveling the northern states and were pleasantly surprised to learn of the highway opening after having spent the night at Sun Mountain Lodge.
Dale Peterson, 71, of Manson, and Christopher Hicks, 35, of Cashmere, were pedaling bicycles up to Washington Pass from the Mazama Store, arriving at the gate just moments after it opened. They were headed no farther than the summit, and were last seen chugging up into Spiral Gulch about an hour later.
“The change is drastic,” said Missy LeDuc, co-owner of the Mazama Country Store after the highway opened. “Business really picks up. We know almost immediately when the first cars arrive.”
In that interim period where much of the summer help hasn’t come home from college yet, LeDuc said sometimes they get caught a little short.
Diane and Simon Blidon from Saginaw, Michigan, were just wrapping up a transaction with clerk Elke Wathen, saying they just drove over from Mount Vernon as a side trip, and were heading back that way as they departed the store.
WSDOT closed the highway on Nov. 8, 2022, earlier than the normal. The May 10 opening is, according to Newman, “maybe a week or so later than usual.”