State transportation crews will start clearing snow from North Cascades Highway on Monday, March 16, and a low snowpack means the scenic highway could be reopened in a month or less.
A stretch of the highway, part of which is in Whatcom County, has been closed for winter since Nov. 24 because of snow and avalanche danger.
The highway, 5,477 feet at its highest point, usually opens for spring between late March and early May.
The annual snow-clearing effort takes two state Department of Transportation crews, one working from the west and the other from the east.
The east side work will begin Monday, while clearing on the west side will start a week later on March 23.
Work to stabilize a rock slope west of Rainy Pass should be completed soon, allowing for the snow clearing to start.
Washington State Department of Transportation crews went out on a snow cat March 10 to assess conditions and measure how deep the snow was at two dozen sites, according to a department news release.
There wasn’t as much snow as last year.
At the summit of Washington Pass, the snow was just 5 feet deep — half as much as it was in 2014.
A year ago, snow on the highway below the three Liberty Bell avalanche chutes was measured at about 35 feet deep each. This year, they were 20 feet, 15 feet and 30 feet deep.
“At the lower elevations, there was a lot less snow,” DOT spokesman Jeff Adamson said, adding that you have to get up to 5,000 feet “to find winter.”
The highway, also known as Highway 20, began operating in 1972. It boasts a wide array of beautiful scenery, goes past North Cascades National Park and is part of a 400-mile driving tour through the Cascades.
The winter closure is usually from milepost 134 to milepost 171 — between Diablo and Mazama.
Last year, crews started clearing the stretch March 31, and the highway reopened to motorists May 8.