North Cascades Highway clearing to begin March 25

If the weather cooperates, the scenic roadway could be open by May Day.

As it has for the past half-dozen years, the effort to reopen the North Cascades Highway will begin just after the first day of spring. But state officials are optimistic that State Route 20 could be open before the first of May this year, which hasn’t happened since 2010.

On Tuesday, Washington State Department of Transportation avalanche-control specialists Mike Stanford and Harlan Sheppard ventured up and over the North Cascades on snowmobiles from the Early Winters information center to Rainy Pass. Along the way they stopped to measure snow depths at more than two dozen avalanche chutes and other sites.

“There’s still more winter coming- I expect we’ll have more snow by the end of March,” said Stanford. “But we found much less than we had at this time the past two years- and at some locations, almost half as much.”

Snow depths at the summit of Washington Pass measured about 5 feet compared to 7.5 feet last year, while snow was 5.5 feet deep at Rainy Pass compared to 8 feet last year. Snow piles in the Liberty Bell avalanche zone ranged from 25 to almost 40 feet compared to 35 to nearly 60 feet in 2012.

WSDOT closed the highway for the winter last November 20. WSDOT typically is able to reopen the roadway early the following May, depending on conditions. The earliest recorded opening was March 10, 2005.  Under drought conditions in 1976, it remained open all winter. Due to avalanches in 2011, WSDOT couldn’t begin clearing the road until April 11 and didn’t reopen it until May 25. Last year, work started March 26 and WSDOT reopened the highway May 10.