Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Golden Jubilee of the North Cascades Highway

By Lauren Loebsack and RB McKeon

On Tuesday, May 10, the gates swung open and the State Route 20 North Cascades Highway opened for the season, as it does every year. A group of loyal SR 20 fans gathered to celebrate the opening with our hard-working crews. But this year was a little more special.

Washington Pass celebrates its Golden Jubilee this year – that’s 50 years of providing recreationalists, families, drivers, adventure seekers and tourists with connection between the east side and the west side of the state across SR 20 North Cascades Highway.

So what makes this highway so special that people gather each year to watch the closure gate open, sharing stories, legendary treats and memories? Let’s take a look.

Where it started

Talk of building an east-west route across the Cascades took place well before Washington was even a state. But the history of Washington Pass is rooted in the late 1800s when many came to the area along what is now SR 20 with the hope of mining gold and other precious metals. Several locations were considered but given the unique terrain across the Cascade Mountains, each possible route came with its own insurmountable odds.

This picture was included in the Sept. 1972 official opening ceremonies program for SR 20 North Cascades Highway.

Originally called the North Cross-State Highway, work began on a 5.3-mile stretch from Diablo to Thunder Arm in 1959. A rough dirt road was finished in 1968. When the highway that is today’s North Cascades Highway was complete, it looked nothing like any of the original routes. The official opening of the North Cascades Highway took place on September 2, 1972, with Governor Dan Evans presiding over three ceremonies in Winthrop, Newhalem and Sedro-Woolley.

A Seattle PI picture shows Governor Dan Evans and Lee Holloway of Twisp cutting the ribbon to officially open the North Cascades Highway on Sept. 2, 1972.

A beautiful trip

Today, the North Cascades Highways is beloved by many who prefer a more scenic alternative to Interstate 90 for travel across the state. It also serves as the most direct link between the Skagit and Methow valleys and provides an essential link for timber freight. Road-trippers drive through miles of old growth forest in Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. Motorcyclists enjoy a twisty road with sweeping corners, complete with many pull outs and overlooks to take in some of the best views of the Cascades. Recreationalists and outdoor enthusiasts plan annual trips and take advantage of the magic of North Cascades National Park including an abundance of wildlife, camping and hiking opportunities.

People traveling over the SR 20 North Cascades Highway see some of the most spectacular views our state has to offer.

Battling the weather

Few things are as consistent as Mother Nature and for all 50 years, weather has played an important role in the activities along SR 20, whether it is snow and avalanche danger in the winter or wildfires in the summer.

Each year usually around mid-November, our maintenance crews close the highway for the winter as heavy snow and avalanche danger threaten the safety of drivers and workers. Hikers, skiers, snowmobilers and other recreationalists access the closed portion of the highway during the winter season at their own risk. Once the weather warms, our maintenance and avalanche control crews begin clearing from both the west and the east side, meeting in the middle. This includes working with the U.S. Forest Service to safely remove trees that potentially could be hazardous to drivers. It can take as few as four weeks or as many as 10 weeks to fully clear the highway and reopen it to the public.

Crews from the east and west sides of the pass work to clear the roadway in the spring, eventually meeting
in the middle. Here they are meeting just a couple weeks ago.

Tootsie

For many, the spring opening has become a yearly tradition. For years, the reopening of the highway was marked by Tootsie Clark, a.k.a. The Cinnamon Roll Lady, who would faithfully make her famous cinnamon rolls with whiskey sauce and pass them out to crews and drivers waiting for the pass to open. Tootie’s husband was part of the original highway crew that worked to build Washington Pass. Over the years, the number of cinnamon rolls Tootie brought to the opening grew from a dozen to hundreds. Sadly, Tootsie passed away before the 2018 reopening, but her family continues her tradition of attending the reopening of the pass.

Tootsie Clark was a regular at the North Cascades Highway openings since 1972 until her passing four years ago. She was famous for her incredible cinnamon rolls.

Getting it open

Maintenance superintendent Don Becker has been a part of the spring clearing work in some way for 28 years. For several years he worked out of the Brewster maintenance shed and came up to help the core spring clearing crew as needed. Later, as the lead tech at the Twisp shed, the job of clearing fell to him. He admits he was pretty green and was called to the region office in Wenatchee in late winter before the spring opening to meet with his boss, Don Senn. Senn’s advice on having a successful spring clearing? “Open as safely and economically as possible. Use your team’s expertise.”

Becker took that advice and over the years the crews have adjusted tactics and incorporated different equipment into the mix.

The crew has also supported some special requests, including filming crews for commercials and television. Becker shared a memory of working with the “Ice Road Truckers” production just one day before a spring opening. The production crew wanted to film a truck losing control eastbound on Washington Pass. To accomplish the shot, Becker’s crew added snow back on the road and assisted the production team with a catapult they used to film the truck “tumbling” over the guardrail into a ravine. However, the snow was still so thick that when the truck was launched, it simply stuck in the snow and the crews were never able to get the shot. “Keep that in mind when you watch the show.”

This spring reopening was Don Becker’s last, as he plans to retire later this year. He admitted feeling a little bit of nostalgia as his family gathered with him and he connected with Tootsie’s family and other opening regulars one last time. “They thought I was retiring last year so they made a cake. I decided to keep it in the freezer and we had it this year.”

Don says he will miss doing “the last sweep” (he has been the crew member to drive through the cleared road to open the gate for over 20 years), because now it feels like a tradition.

Maintenance superintendent Don Becker poses with his family in front of the west side closure gate this year,
celebrating is final North Cascades opening.

Help us celebrate

With 50 years of history, there are certainly more stories of traveling the North Cascades Highway to share. We hope that you will share your best memories from the past 50 years with us on Twitter @wsdot_east using the hashtag #NCH50 or share them on our Facebook page. Share your pictures, memories, favorite things to see and do on SR 20 North Cascades Highway, we’d love to hear from you!

Lauren Loebsack, our communicator out of our Wenatchee office, poses with her brother Isaac on a family trip
over the North Cascades to Anacortes in the summer of 1986.