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SR 20 - North Cascades Highway - Frequently Asked Questions

We have compiled a list of the most frequently asked questions about the highway. If you can't find the answer you're looking for, feel free to contact Jeff Adamson at jeff.adamson@wsdot.wa.gov or 509-667-2815.

  1. When will the highway open?
  2. How long does it take to open the highway?
  3. When will the highway close?
  4. Can you notify me when the highway opens and closes?
  5. Why not keep the highway open all winter?
  6. Why not let the snow melt instead of plowing it?
  7. Why don't you plow the parking lots and trail heads?
  8. How much does it cost to reopen the highway?
  9. Is it legal to ride a bicycle beyond the gates?
  10. Is it legal to cross country ski beyond the gates?
  11. Is it legal to snowmobile beyond the gates?
  12. Do I need anything special to drive the highway?
  13. Are there traffic cameras?
  14. What is the weather forecast supposed to be like?
  15. Where can I find snowfall data?
  16. Why do you move the winter closure gates?
  17. How steep are the grades over the highway?
  18. What is the height clearance through the tunnels?
  19. Where are the avalanche zones?
  20. What are the bamboo poles in the guardrail for?
  21. Where can I get the famous cinnamon rolls?
  22. Can I take rocks from the side of the road?
  23. Can I reserve the Washington Pass overlook?
  24. What happens if the highway closes while we're parked at a trailhead?
  25. How can I get into a career that involves avalanche assessments and highway clearing operations?


 

1. When will the highway open?

Our avalanche crew will take a field trip to assess the snow pack and avalanche conditions in late February or early March. This gives us an idea of when we could possibly start clearing the highway. We typically start sometime in March, once the avalanche chutes have emptied and/or stabilized. On average, it takes anywhere from four to six weeks to clear all the snow and reopen the highway between mid April and early May.

For a history of when we've opened the highway for the last 30-plus years, visit our opening and closing history page.

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2. How long does it take to reopen the highway?

Every year is different and brings its own unique set of challenges. It's hard to give an exact period of time for how long it takes. Some years, we find the road has been damaged from flooding or avalanches. Other years, the snow has turned to ice and it's extremely difficult to get the snowblowers and plows through it. Sometimes, the snow is just extremely deep. With that said, our experienced crews usually manage to open the highway within four to six weeks.

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3. When will the highway close?

We will close the highway in the winter when weather, snow and avalanche danger threaten the safety of drivers and maintenance crews. 

For a history of when we've closed the highway for the last 30-plus years, visit our opening and closing history page.

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4. Can you notify me when the highway opens and closes?

The best way to stay informed about the status of the highway is with our email updates. In the spring, when we're clearing the snow from the highway, you'll get regular updates with pictures and stories of the work we're doing and how we're progressing. In the winter, we'll let you know as soon as the highway closes. It's simple to subscribe, unsubscribe and/or update your email address.

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5. Why not keep the highway open all winter?

We did keep it open one winter - the drought of 1976-77.

We cannot physically keep the North Cascades Highway open all winter. The North Cascades Highway has avalanche chutes that are more than 2,000 feet long. Even if a couple inches of snow slides, the chutes can dump a 20-foot-deep avalanche on the highway in a matter of minutes. (The avalanche chutes on Stevens and Snoqualmie are all well under 1,000 feet long.) Couple that with the fact that the highway has among the most avalanche chutes of any mountain highway in the country, and there's no way anyone could provide a safe highway, short of putting the route in a tunnel (which would eliminate all of its appeal, even if someone had that much money).

When the legislature paid for the construction of the North Cascades Highway (which opened in September of 1972), it established SR 20 to be as much of a benefit to the entire state as any other state highway. The people who use the North Cascades Highway pay the same taxes as everyone else.

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6. Why not let the snow melt instead of plowing it?

The businesses in the Skagit and Methow valleys are heavily dependent on the North Cascades Highway for their livelihood. The gas tax money that we spend (under the mandate from the Legislature and Governor)  opening the highway is every bit as important as the money we spend rebuilding a floating bridge, buying new ferries or maintaining I-5.

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7. Why don't you plow the parking lots and trailheads?

This is a frequent request, but one that we legally can’t accommodate. We cannot clear areas outside our right of way unless the agency that owns the property pays for it. We won't clear U.S. Forest Service or National Park Service facilities, like Blue Lake or the road to the Washington Pass Overlook, unless they contract us to do so. They'll remain buried under snow until the Park or Forest Service has them plowed. You may wish to contact them. 
 
We have contracts with other county, state and federal agencies to clear Sno Parks, for example, but for the past several years none of the other agencies have had funds for this purpose.

For now, the closest thing to public parking we can provide is several hundred feet of the access road to the Washington Pass Overlook (which is on our right of way). There may be other locations every mile or so between the gates that have been widened so we have space to turn those giant snow blowers, loaders, graders and caterpillars around.  As the clearing progresses, we also clear space to park (stage) those big pieces of equipment instead of driving them all the way back to the closure gates each night. That saves fuel and time.  It also provides a little safety and security from Thursday afternoon until Monday morning for both the equipment and recreational users of the highway while we're not there.  Those turnarounds and staging areas may or may not be at trailheads. Bridge Creek is a pretty common "wide spot" that we plow for a turnaround and staging area. Due to safety and operational purposes, we can use some of the property adjacent to our right of way, and the owner gets to do a little less clearing than they'd otherwise have to, after we open the highway.

As tempting as it is to use our cleared emergency pullouts for recreational parking, State Troopers do write citations for vehicles that are parked in one, but not experiencing an emergency.

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8. How much does it cost to reopen the highway?

Typically, the price tag is in the ballpark of $150,000 to reopen the highway. However, the final cost is completely dependent on the kind of winter we have. Here's what it cost to reopen the highway in recent years: 2006 - $135,000; 2007 - $130,000; 2008 - $195,000; 2009 - $135,000; 2010 - $100,000; and 2011 - $160,000 (6+ weeks).

The total budget to keep the highway open for as long as we safely can is approximately $200,000 to $250,000. That includes the cost of plowing and de-icing in the winter before avalanche conditions become too dangerous to keep the road open.

For comparison purposes: It costs approximately $2 to $3 million to keep Snoqualmie Pass open all winter and $800,000 to $1 million to keep Stevens Pass open.

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9. Is it legal to ride a bicycle beyond the gates?

When we close the highway, we close it to licensed motor vehicles. Only the roadway is closed: The National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service lands along the highway, though, are open to the public year-round. Bikes are legal past the closure gates, but may still be prohibited from passing through the actual work zones during the hours crews and equipment are working. 

IMPORTANT NOTE: If you want to bike the highway while the clearing work is under way, please plan to go when we're not working, for your safety and ours! We work four 10-hour days, Monday through Thursday. We highly suggest you plan your trip for Friday, Saturday or Sunday; then you won't risk conflicting with any of our equipment. We run dump trucks, graders, snowblowers, snocats, trucks and lots of other equipment all up and down the highway in a full-fledged effort to clear and open the highway. Oh, and we also do quite a bit of avalanche control, which includes heavy artillery and avalanches across the highway - something we're sure you'd rather avoid.

We strongly suggest that you check with the NW Avalanche Center or one of the agencies just mentioned before venturing into the back country. There's a reason the road is closed; sometimes it's dangerous!

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10. Is it legal to cross country ski beyond the gates?

When we close the highway, we close it to licensed motor vehicles. Only the roadway is closed. The National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service lands along the highway are open to the public year-round. That means that skiers and snowshoers can venture past the closure gates all winter. 

We strongly suggest that you check with the NW Avalanche Center or one of the agencies I just mentioned before venturing into the back country. There's a reason the road is closed! Sometimes it's dangerous.

Just so you know, we work four 10-hour days, Monday through Thursday, when we're working to clear and reopen the highway. We're not out there on Fridays, Saturdays or Sundays.

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11. Is it legal to snowmobile beyond the gates?

When we close the highway, we close it to licensed motor vehicles. Only the roadway is closed. The National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service lands along the highway are open to the public year-round. That means that snowmobilers can venture past the closure gates all winter.

We strongly suggest that you check with the NW Avalanche Center or one of the agencies I just mentioned before venturing into the back country. There's a reason the road is closed! Sometimes it's dangerous.

Just so you know, we work four 10-hour days, Monday through Thursday, when we'r working to clear and reopen the highway. We're not out there on Fridays, Saturdays or Sundays.

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12. Do I need anything special to drive the highway?

You should prepare your vehicle like you would for any other mountain highway in the state. We have some helpful tips on our Ice and Snow website.

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13. Are there any traffic cameras?

Well, there are two cameras on either side of the passes, but they don't exactly show you the road conditions.
- National Park camera in Newhalem
- Winthrop camera

Most of our traffic cameras are paid for with federal grants which are prioritized by traffic count and congestion data or by distance from maintenance facilities (allowing supervisors to check conditions without having to send a truck). In the case of the North Cascades Highway, since it’s closed from December through April, it fails to qualify under either criteria.

At the same time, we can’t justify the expense from our regular budget either. Installation and operation of cameras there would be very expensive. There is no electricity available. Solar panels don’t produce adequate power for camera-image transmission as opposed to simple weather-station data, which we already have available. Solar panels covered with snow don’t recharge batteries very dependably, and during the winter the number of hours of sunlight is significantly less and sometimes fails to provide even enough power for the Washington Pass weather station. While the power issue could be dealt with as we do at, say, the top of Blewett Pass – with a propane generator – there isn’t a tank that would last a whole winter, and we can’t send a propane truck up to Washington Pass (like we do on Blewett) in January to refill the tank, since the road is closed by avalanches. There’s also no telephone service or even dependable cell phone service available at Washington Pass, which means we’d have to send the picture and data transmission via satellite and that is VERY expensive.

Finally, the majority of the demand for cameras comes from recreational users who want to see what the sky and snow conditions are off the road. Recreation is not within the Legislature’s mandate for us, so we can’t expend tax dollars for that exclusive purpose.
 
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14. What's the weather forecast supposed to be like?

Check the National Weather Service forecasts for the west slopes and the east slopes of the Cascades. Check the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center. Check the Washington Pass weather station to see what the most recent data looks like.


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15. Where can I find snowfall data?

Since the highway closes in November or December and doesn’t reopen until April or May, nobody is up there to take measurements, like we do on the passes that are open all winter.
- Washington Pass weather station

For more details, you might contact either the National Weather Service or Northwest Avalanche Center.

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16. Why do you move the winter closure gates?

East side winter gate
The winter-closure gate on the east side is called Silver Star Gate because it’s near Silver Star Creek. It is at milepost 170.6, about 14 miles west of Mazama. In winters when the snow gets too deep for a single snowplow truck to push or to turn around at the gate, we move the closure point to the Early Winter’s Information Center at milepost 178, which has off-highway parking available.

West side winter gate
The winter-closure gate on the west side is called Diablo Gate since it (sort of) overlooks Lake Diablo. It is at milepost 134, about 14 miles east of Newhalem. Some winters, the closure point has been moved down to Newhalem due to rockslides, washouts and avalanches that covered the highway west of the gate.

Rainy Pass summer gates
There are two gates west of Rainy Pass where mudslides, rock slides and forest fires have historically occurred, forcing us to close the highway. Using the winter-closure gates for these "summer" incidents cuts off access to many trails and campgrounds that may not be affected by the incident. Grade, elevation, narrow shoulders and no parking make the summer gates unacceptable as winter-closure points.

The eastbound gate at milepost 146.75 is about 13 miles east of Diablo Gate, which is about 10 miles east of Rainy Pass. The westbound gate at milepost 156.7, is just a mile west of Rainy Pass. From the west side, this provides access to trailheads at East Creek, Canyon Creek, Panther Creek, Eastbank and Happy Creek. From the east side, the gates open 14 miles of highway providing access to trails and campgrounds at Lone Fir, Cutthroat Creek, the Washington Pass Overlook, Blue Lake, Bridge Creek and Rainy Pass. 

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17. How steep are the grades over the highway?

The grade is a little more than 6 percent at Rainy Pass and 7 percent in places at Washington Pass.

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18. What is the height clearance through the tunnels?

There are two tunnels located between Newhalem and Diablo on the west side of the passes. In the tunnel furthest west, the lowest clearance is 18 feet 3 inches. In the tunnel furthest east, the lowest clearance is 16 feet 7 inches.

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19. Where are the avalanche zones?

We have been asked many times to put signs along the highway to locate the avalanche zones, but we've thought better of it because they'd only last until the first avalanche. If you're curious where they are, it’s pretty much a matter of looking up. (Side note: We wouldn't suggest stopping in these areas if you're driving the highway; after all, they are avalanche zones. Rocks have been known to come down.)

The Cutthroat Ridge avalanche zone (CR #1) begins about one-tenth of a mile below milepost 166, and CR #11 and #12 dump almost exactly across from the milepost 165 sign at the beginning of Spiral Gulch. From there, you can look across the gulch at Liberty Bell Mountain and easily count the chutes: chute #1 is on the far left; #2 and #3 are big and just to the right (uphill) from #1 in about the middle of the mountain. Four is less noticeable because it’s not as big; it is canted a bit to the right because it’s just about where the highway turns around the mountain and heads toward Washington Pass.

Liberty Bell #1 is about milepost 164; LB #4 is about milepost 163, and Washington Pass at 162.5.

Even when they don’t have snow in them, most of the avalanche chutes become waterfalls during the spring runoff, so you'll find them as you’re driving after the highway opens. 

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20. What are the bamboo poles in the guardrail for?

People often assume that the poles are there to help measure the snow. They're really there to help guide our crews when they're running the snow plows and snowblowers. They're the key to keeping our crews and equipment on the roadway when the snow is higher than the guardrail.

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21. Where can I get the famous cinnamon rolls?

Every spring, Tootsie Clark, the matriarch of Clark’s Skagit River Resort  (near Marblemount), drives her Cadillac up to the west-side closure gate near Diablo, opens the trunk and serves cinnamon (Tootsie!) rolls and coffee to those waiting in line for the gate to open. It’s a tradition she has been carrying on since the 1970s.

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22. Can I take rocks from the side of the road?

We do not allow rock collection along our road sides. In the past, we issued free permits to individuals to collect rocks for personal use. Concerns were raised regarding safety and liability. More concerns were raised by landscaping businesses about unfair competition and improper use of public resources. At the same time, more concerns were also raised about landscapers collecting free "public" rock and then selling it. As a result, we can no longer grant permits for rock collection along state highways. 

We do stockpile and use fallen rock for highway repairs and pavement, should and slope erosion, as well as stream or culvert failures. 

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23. Can I reserve the Washington Pass Overlook?

The Overlook belongs to the U.S. Forest Service, which allows activities such as weddings and reunions, but the facility must remain open to any visitor during such events. Contact the Twisp Ranger District with the Wenatchee/Okanogan National Forest

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24. What happens if the highway closes while we're parked at a trailhead?

Our crews leave notes on the vehicles describing the closure location, along with a phone number to call when you get within range of a cell tower, so that we can open the gate. 

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25. How can I get a job with the avalanche crew?

From our Avalanche Control/Forecast Supervisor: 
"Most of those working jobs in forecasting and control have a background from the ski industry simply because those businesses do a lot of avalanche control and their employees get the training needed - Ski Patrol personnel, backcountry guides, etc." 

WSDOT requires a minimum of five years experience in forecasting/control/explosives work and a class A commercial license with a hazmat endorsement for any forecasting positions.

Here is an informative link to an article entitled "So You Want An Avalanche Job?"  http://www.avalanche.org/avijob.php  
Here's the organization's website: http://www.avalanche.org/


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