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Ready to head east? Here's when the North Cascades Highway will finally reopen

Five facts about the North Cascades Highway

The Washington State Department of Transportation clears the North Cascades Highway each spring to allow travelers access to the high road that links Whatcom and Skagit counties with Okanogan County. Here are five facts about the highway.
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The Washington State Department of Transportation clears the North Cascades Highway each spring to allow travelers access to the high road that links Whatcom and Skagit counties with Okanogan County. Here are five facts about the highway.

North Cascades Highway is reopening at 10 a.m. Friday, after state road crews spent seven weeks clearing snow from the scenic route.

And that's good news for Whatcom County residents who want to head east to play in the Methow Valley or visit other places that are part of the Cascade Loop.

The work on what also is known as State Route 20, part of which is in Whatcom County, usually takes four to six weeks, according to the Washington State Department of Transportation.

But soft spring snow and avalanche conditions created challenges and added time to this year's effort.

During a trip to assess conditions in late March, avalanche and maintenance crews found nine feet of snow near Rainy Pass and deep snow levels on Liberty Bell avalanche chutes.

"Often times chutes would dump snow onto portions of the road that were previously plowed. Although clearing took longer than usual, the gates are still opening in time for this weekend’s '49er Days in Winthrop," the agency said in a news release.

The 73rd annual event is a big celebration of Winthrop's Western and horse history. It runs Friday to Sunday.

The seasonal snow-clearing effort takes two state Department of Transportation crews, one working from the west and the other from the east until they meet near Rainy Pass.

A 37-mile stretch of the highway, between Diablo and Mazama, has been closed to vehicle traffic since Nov. 10 because of snow and avalanche danger. The east-west connector provides another way across the Cascades, reconnects U.S. Bike Route 10 and improves access to North Cascades National Park.

The highway, 5,477 feet at its highest point, usually opens for spring between late March and early May.

And while the route has reopened, there's still plenty of snow in the mountains and motorists should pay attention while traveling in the mountains.

"There's still always changing conditions in the mountains," said Andrea Petrich, Department of Transportation spokeswoman.

Drivers also should keep an eye out for bicyclists while on the route.

And if you're heading off into the mountains to play in the snow, remember that while road crews cleared that stretch of the highway, they don't clear all of the parking for recreation areas.

"There is still a lot of snow in areas," Petrich said, so that means parking might not be available unless people get to their spots early.

Since the 1970s, Tootsie Clark had made the spring reopening of that stretch of the highway a celebratory affair — passing out coffee and her famed cinnamon rolls glazed with a whiskey sauce to drivers heading east.

Sadly, she won't be at this year's opening.

Clark died last year at age 95, but her family and others plan to be there at the opening to continue the tradition, with cinnamon rolls in hand, according to the Seattle P-I.

Kie Relyea: 360-715-2234, @kierelyea
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