After the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) closed the North Cascades Highway on Saturday (Nov. 11) because of heavy snowfall and the risk of snow and debris slides, the highway remained closed until Tuesday (Nov. 14).
WSDOT said in earlier updates that it would reevaluate the closure on Monday, then announced on Tuesday that the road would re-open at 1 p.m. that day.
The highway had been closed between the Ross Dam trailhead at milepost 134 and Silver Star gate at milepost 171, seven miles west of Mazama.
The highway was closed to traffic for the season on Nov. 8, 2022, after a heavy early-season snowfall. The road was re-opened on May 10 of this year.
WSDOT explains it all
But for the one winter since the highway opened in 1972, the opening-closing-opening cycle on the North Cascades Scenic Highway has been an annual ritual for the valley’s residents and its visitors as they calculate which route they can safely traverse while keeping an eye on the weather. That said, the process and protocol may not be well-known to travelers who only want to know “yes or no,” and get grumpy about the wrong answer. Here are some excerpts from a WSDOT press release on the topic that was sent to media last week.
• Why do we close the North Cascades Highway? “The stretch of SR 20 that crosses Rainy and Washington passes also crosses dozens of avalanche paths between Whistler Mountain and Delany Ridge. Unlike Stevens Pass and Snoqualmie Pass where our avalanche control teams use a variety of techniques to clear the avalanche chutes in the winter, staffing, funding and proximity to the national park make it not feasible to do ongoing avalanche control through the winter in the North Cascades.
“This route … is a useful route for freight, medical travel, commerce, and recreation, so our maintenance crews plow this section of SR 20 until it is no longer safe to work in the area due to avalanche conditions. At that point, we close the gates for the season to ensure the safety of the traveling public and our hard-working crews.”
• Why do we move the closure points mid-winter? “While initially we close the pass between mileposts 134 and 171, when winter comes to lower elevations, we have to focus our resources on those communities, so we extend the closure points to Newhalem gate (milepost 121) on the west side, and Early Winters gate (milepost 178) on the east side.
“For those that use the area behind the closure points for winter recreation and need to know where you can access or park, we’ll get the word out about the mid-winter change through the same channels we use to announce the closure.”
• Check in for updates. “We’re already past Oct. 17, which is the earliest winter closure date SR 20 has had and occurred in 2003. We began with our regular mountain pass reports Nov. 1, which populates with real-time pass updates. Crews will plow the road as needed. As soon as the team determines the route must close, we will share that information through our GovDelivery listserv topic “North Cascades Highway Newsletter” and Facebook.
• Why don’t we just set a date for the closure? “Every season is different and keeping the highway open for as long as possible provides a more direct route for freight, recreation, and the communities on each side of the mountains.”
• Can I park at the closure points? “The gate closure locations are in place for the safety of the traveling public, safety of our crews and at locations where adequate parking is available for backcountry users while still providing access and maneuverability for crews clearing the road to the gate.”
• Am I allowed to go beyond the gate for recreation? “Yes … [but] this is a very active avalanche area that sees a huge amount of snow and has lots of potential hazards. So always be prepared if you choose to ski, snowshoe, snow mobile, etc., beyond the closure gates.”
• Why aren’t there any traffic cameras on Rainy or Washington passes? “Since the passes close for up to half the year, the expense of installation and maintenance of cameras doesn’t justify the need. With tons of avalanche activity potentially damaging the equipment and no traffic, there’s little value in having cameras up there. There are cameras on other parts of SR 20 that remain open all year.”
• There is a snow park at Silver Star gate, why don’t we stay open all winter to the park? “At a certain point in the winter, the snowpack will become too deep for our equipment to manage and we need to focus resources on priority routes.”