Monday, March 27, 2023

Ring the bells and sound the horns, SR 20 North Cascades clearing has begun

By Lauren Loebsack and RB McKeon

When our crews traveled on snowmobile past the closure gate at Early Winters on March 1 to check conditions and snow levels on State Route 20 North Cascades Highway, the snow was 100 inches deep at the Washington Pass summit. A few weeks later there was still 82 inches at the summit, but with warm weather in the lowlands and a spring-like forecast in the coming weeks, on Monday, March 27, crews began the annual spring clearing of one of our state’s most scenic highways.

The North Cascades Highway is approximately 33 miles of SR 20 through Rainy and Washington passes. It is sometimes referred to as the “North Cross,” being the northern most east-west cross-state highway over the Cascade mountains. Last year marked the route’s Golden Jubilee, 50 years since the highway first opened to traffic in 1972.

Our team that does the assessment of the SR 20 North Cascades Highway gets some pretty decent views ahead of the early spring work to open the pass.

Due to significant risk of avalanche – there are dozens of avalanche paths that get jam packed with heavy snowfall – this is one of three mountain passes that closes each winter, typically in mid-to-late November (SR 542 Road to Artist Point at Mount Baker and SR 504 Spirit Lake Memorial Highway near Mount St. Helens also close but aren’t passes). When the worst of the winter weather has passed, an assessment crew heads up to check snow depths, take snow samples and make a plan for the spring clearing work. Winter closure and spring opening dates from past years are listed here.

While crews from the east side work their way through the most challenging avalanche areas of the pass, crews from the west side push their way up from the closure gate at the Ross Dam trailhead. Both teams work their way up until they meet, usually a little west of Washington Pass.

The initial assessment of conditions on SR 20 North Cascades Highway by our crews showed 100 inches of snow near the Washington Pass summit.

How do they do it?

Snow depths and samples help the crew plan equipment needs. Snow deeper than 6 feet or filled with rock and woody debris from snow slides will overwhelm or damage the blowers that shoot snow off the roadway. When that is the case, Snow Cat machines with a plow and excavators are used to break down the snow pack and clear out debris before the blower clears the snow. Plows and graders clear compact snow and ice from the road and open up lanes. Luckily, most of the avalanche paths are south or southeast facing and get plenty of sun, so we expect there will be plenty of melt off in the coming weeks as crews make their way to the summit. It’s quite a team effort and just one example of how we coordinate efforts and resources to keep people and goods moving across the state.

Clearing work typically takes about 6-8 weeks. This also includes repairs to the road, signs and guardrails. Once the road is open, those traveling on the freshly cleared highway will find winter conditions with few pull outs or amenities. We do not clear trailheads or Forest Service facilities, which typically remain closed until late May or June. We advise those traveling across early in the season to be prepared.

Our crews on the west side of SR 20 begin clearing near the Ross Dam trailhead and work their way east, meeting up with the eastside crews about 6-8 weeks later near Washington Pass.

Can we bike on it?

But what about a bike day?

There is a persistent urban myth that North Cascades Highway is open to bikes prior to opening for motor vehicles and we know many bicycle riders look forward to this opportunity. Some years, the clearing has been complete a day or two prior to the announced opening and bicycles have been able to ride the road before the gates open, but the fact is, this route is essential for freight and residents, so when the highway is ready to open, we open it for all users. If and when the timing works out to give bike riders a short heads up that the road is clear but the gates are still closed, we will share that information in our SR 20 North Cascades Highway e-newsletter and on social media.

In the meantime, bicyclists and anyone else looking for recreation are free to use the area inside the closure gates. Now that clearing has started, we ask that you go on the weekends as it will be a live work zone and not safe during the week. If you’re traveling behind the closure points to recreate in the back country, you should also check in with the Northwest Avalanche Center for avalanche conditions. And remember that there is little to no cell service along that stretch of SR 20.

Be aware of work leading to the pass

The blanket of snow that covers the highway each winter also means that summer is the narrow window of time our crews can do repairs or maintenance on the highway, so if you are traveling on SR 20, there is a good chance you will run into some maintenance or construction along the way.

We begin early on the west side, with some remaining work to finish up from the 2022 construction season. As the weather warms up, contractor crews will complete striping on the SR 20 Rocky Creek to Granite Creek preservation project which extends for 48 miles along SR 20 between Rockport and 45 miles west of Winthrop.

Additionally, we still have contractor crews working to finish the soldier pile wall between mileposts 113 to 114 between Marblemount and Newhalem. Traffic continues to flow through a single lane, controlled by a temporary traffic signal. This project is expected to be completed by the end of June.

West of the SR 20 pass, drivers will find multiple work zones with traffic control this summer as we do multiple projects, from road repairs, to paving, to culvert replacement work.

Beginning in June, contractor crews are expected to start on the second culvert replacement on the SR 20 Skagit River Fish Passage project. This project site is located just outside the town of Concrete. Traffic will be shifted onto a temporary bypass and will operate in a single lane with alternating two-way traffic controlled by flaggers or a temporary traffic signal. Pedestrians and bicyclists and other rollers will be accommodated using the shoulder.

New projects along SR 20 North Cascades Highway this year include the Red Creek fish passage project located just outside the town of Sedro-Woolley and SR 20 Olsen Creek Unnamed Tributary to Skagit River fish passage project, where crews will replace culverts between Concrete and Marblemount. For updates on projects on the west side of the pass and what travelers can expect make sure you are following @wsdot_north on Twitter.

Throughout the summer, maintenance crews will also be crack sealing and chip sealing, repairing potholes and guardrail, and striping.

It’s a beautiful trip, but you should expect to encounter several work zones, depending on how far your travels take you. If you are stopped due to road work, take a minute to soak in the view and make sure that you practice good work zone behaviors. Check our real time travel map any time before heading out on a cross state trip. As always, we will continue to share updates on Flickr, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.


Unknown said...

Thanks for all the details! FYI that the link to previous opening dates doesn't have last year's dates (i.e. 2022 is missing):

Richard said...

Bring Floyd out of retirement!!

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