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It took a full seven weeks to find the North Cascades Highway beneath what, in places, added up to 60 feet of snow. Crews and drivers celebrated at noon Thursday, as both east and west side gates swung open just in time for a forecasted sunny spring weekend and Winthrop's annual 49'er Days festival.
Washington State Department of Transportation crews began the clearing process on State Route 20, the North Cascades Highway, on March 26, two and a half weeks earlier than La Nina allowed crews to start last year. Despite 8 more feet of total snow this winter and an extra day of clearing work, crews met their target opening date.
"The crews are really pleased that the highway is open for this weekend's 49'er Days festival in Winthrop," said Don Becker, WSDOT Twisp Maintenance Supervisor. "We all live up here and know how great it will be to have the highway open this year."
The noon reopening allows crews necessary time to "sweep" the entire 37-mile winter closure zone for sand, rocks and debris between milepost 134, seven miles east of Diablo Dam on the west side of 4,855-foot-high Rainy Pass, and milepost 171, nine miles west of Mazama below 5,477-foot-high Washington Pass.
"Opening the gates at noon gives us the margin we need so the first drivers over the passes make their trip safely," Becker said.
The first drivers on the North Cascades Highway today found the road conditions bare and dry or bare and wet across the entire route with high temperatures in the 60s and a freezing level of 6,500 feet. Forecasts call for even better weather through the weekend.
Today's reopening is the fifth latest since the highway first opened 40 years ago, on Sept. 2, 1972, but three of those late openings were recorded in the four years immediately after 1972. Last year's May 25 reopening was the second latest on record. The latest reopening was recorded on June 14, 1974; it reopened on May 16 in 1975 and on May 21 in 1976.
Two years ago, in 2010, crews opened the road on April 16 after only three and a half weeks of clearing work.
The highway closed for the winter on Nov. 15, 2011. It typically opens between the last week in March and the first week in May. The earliest opening ever was March 10, 2005. One drought year, four years after the highway first opened in 1976, it remained open all winter.
For more information, including a history of opening and closing dates, visit the North Cascades web page www.wsdot.wa.gov/traffic/passes/northcascades
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