WENATCHEE – Wednesday’s noon reopening of the North Cascades Highway marks the second latest since the highway opened 39 years ago. The latest ever was June 14, 1974, and the next latest, surpassed by this year, was in 1976 when it reopened on May 21.
WSDOT maintenance crews will open the east and west winter closure gates on SR 20 to traffic at noon on Wednesday, May 25.
The clearing effort took more than six weeks, compared to just three-and-a-half weeks last spring. Nine feet of snowfall in March and a record seven-and-a-half feet in April on the western slopes of the Cascades kept avalanche control technicians and snow clearing equipment on Stevens Pass until the avalanche threat eased and allowed the team to move up to the North Cascades. There, they found SR 20 buried in snow as deep as 75 feet.
“The crews are really pleased that the highway will be open for Memorial Day,” said Don Becker, WSDOT Twisp Maintenance Supervisor.
The noon reopening allows crews time to "sweep" the entire 37 mile winter closure zone for sand, rocks and debris between milepost 134, seven miles east of Diablo Dam on the west side of Rainy Pass 4,855 feet above sea level and nine miles west of Mazama at Milepost 171 below Washington Pass, elevation 5,477 feet.
"It provides the margin we need so the first drivers over the passes make their trip safely," said Becker. "We had to rent a helicopter and do active avalanche control in the Liberty Bell Mountain and Cutthroat Ridge zones on Friday to bring down snow from those chutes. We couldn't open the highway and allow traffic below potentially unstable avalanche zones."
It took Monday and will take all day Tuesday for crews finish removing the huge piles of snow that slid down to the pavement. In the Liberty Bell Mt. zone on Monday, crews cleared about half the 650 feet of roadway that was covered with snow from 10 to 30 feet deep.
When the gates swing open, drivers should find the road conditions bare and dry or bare and wet across the entire route. The forecasts for the next few days calls for high temperatures in the 60’s with a 30 to 50% chance of rain and a freezing level of 5,000 to 6,000 feet.
The highway closed for the winter Dec. 1. It typically opens between the last week in March and the first week in May. The earliest opening ever was March 10, 2005. One drought year, four years after the highway first opened in 1976, it remained open all winter.