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Annual clearing of North Cascades Highway begins this week

The spring clearing of the North Cascades Highway begins this week, after being closed since November 2020 due to the risk of avalanche and snow.

Northwest Avalanche Center’s 1970s origins

The Washington State Department of Transportation refers to this annual clearing as a “telltale sign of spring in the Pacific Northwest.”

State Route 20 is the northernmost route across the Cascade Mountain Range in Washington state, commonly referred to as the North Cascades Highway. It’s part of the Cascade Loop, a 400-mile driving tour through the Cascades.

The North Cascades Highway is closed when weather, snow conditions, and avalanche danger threaten the safety of drivers and maintenance crews, typically between late November and mid-December. In 2020, it closed on Nov. 13.

This year’s snow levels were slightly higher than average, WSDOT says, and the Liberty Bell avalanche chutes still hold a substantial amount of snow.

“This presents a potential safety hazard for reopening crews, so allowing for additional melt off makes more manageable and safer conditions for workers,” WSDOT notes.

Roughly 7 feet of snow will be removed from the highway. Crews use specialized equipment, including a larger bulldozer and a “blower” that gathers snow and shoots it off the road.

“During the work the crews must be attentive to avalanche danger and watch for rocks, tree limbs and other debris that can damage the machinery and delay the clearing,” WSDOT writes. “Once the roadway is cleared, crews will repair guardrail, signs, and pavement damaged by snow slides during the closure.”

Hikers, skiers, and other recreationalists are able to use the highways on weekends once clearing begins, but it will be limited during the week. Those planning to go behind closure points should be prepared and aware of avalanche danger.

Ski resorts experiencing both outdoor enthusiasm and challenges

WSDOT will update its photo gallery of the reopening effort on Flickr here.

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