In Search of the End of the Road
For several weeks I have had the goal of pedaling from the gate marking the seasonal road closure on Highway 20 (near mile post 134) to the snow wall–where clearing of the snow-covered highway ends. Near the end of each winter season, the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) begins plowing the North Cascades Highway once the snow has ceased to fall and avalanche danger has subsided throughout the region. This typically occurs in March.
However, it’s a bit different this year as WSDOT was still plowing Steven’s Pass on Highway 2 well into the first half of April, and is still busy with avalanche control as another slide occurred just last week! With the recent heavy snowfall in spring and the majority of the state’s snow equipment on Highway 2, it’s been difficult for WSDOT to swiftly clear the North Cascades Highway. The pass on Highway 20 is usually open by now, but this year it will be a lucky day if it opens before Memorial day–the latest opening since the highway opened in 1972!
When WSDOT begins clearing Highway 20, they dispatch a snow-removal team on the east side of the pass and a team on the west side, with the goal that they will meet in the “middle.” The east side team has been stuck near milepost 167, clearing all of the remaining avalanche debris around the Washington Pass area. In one spot, WSDOT has recorded snow depth at 75 feet due to a massive avalanche. The westside team made it somewhere between milepost 152 just past Easy Pass andÂ milepost 155.
The most up-to-date information demonstrating where WSDOT crews have began snow removalÂ on Highway 20. Image courtesy of Washington State Department of Transportation.
I have attempted biking to the snow wall, where the west-side crew had stopped plowing, nearly three weeks ago. However, I had only ridden my bike twice since October. This did not weigh heavily in my favor. The first two times I tried biking to the snow wall my legs wouldn’t let me pedal toward my end goal.
BUT Sunday was different. I had no time limit, a partner who was convinced this was a good idea, and blue skies with temperatures hovering in the high 60s! It was time to go.
Imagine yourself pedaling on a road with incredibly smooth asphalt and no cars to be found. The only sound you hear is the wind moving through the trees and your own breath. You see only the road, six other bikers and hundreds of butterflies. The first four miles are a rolly up and down hill with a beautiful overlook of Ross Lake.
Snow-covered Hozomeen and Desolation peaks are seen in the distance from Highway 20, and a barren shore along Ross Lake suggests a lower lake level in preparation of the spring snow melt.
From the overlook you can see Hozomeen and Desolation peaks in the distance. The shore along Ross Lake appears bigger than normal, as the lake is reported to be approximately 95 feet below it’s average water level. Seattle City Light lowers the lake throughout the winter and spring in expectation of the spring melt, which will flood the lake if precautions are not taken. However, the spring melt this year might come in summer at the rate we’re going.
After spending some time at the overlook (near milepost 136) we began our journey up. You might never realize it in your car, but at Washington Pass, you are transported from an elevation of around 2,100 feet to nearly 4,600. This becomes much more apparent while cycling. Thankfully, the elevation gain of over 2,000 feet for this ride is marked by spectacular scenery that seems almost magical. Jagged, snow-capped peaks dot the skyline while waterfalls ripple down the rock faces of nearby cliffs. The walls of snow on either side of the highway begin to grow as you continue pedaling up in elevation.
Finally, after pedaling for about an hour and a half, we reached a beast sitting in the road, which also marked the end of our journey. The snow wall.
The snowy, mountainous landscape creates spectacular views along the highway.
My partner in crime, North Cascades Institute staff member Zach Montes, and I marvel at the steel jaws of the snow beast (i.e. snow blower) before deciding to set-out once again.
We tried to pedal for another quarter mile, but with remnants of snow and ice on the road, it did not seem safe. Returning to the snow beast, we deemed our trip successful. We turned our bikes around and enjoyed 2, 000 feet of downhill riding for the next 15 miles. I do not have a speedometer on my bike, but I can assure you I was going fast enough that tears were flowing from my eyes from the wind. We crossed the Panther Creek Bridge, where we had our last uphill battle–400 feet elevation gain to the Ross Lake overlook. Not that much of a climb, unless you just spent the past 1.5 hours pedaling uphill. But it went by quickly as I looked to my right and zoned out on the view of the Picket Range in the far distance.
We returned to the car a little over 2 1/4 hours later. We snacked on oranges and Sunchips and reflected on the ride. This is by far my favorite road ride, and I secretly hope the road stays closed just a little bit longer so I can continue to have my own private highway.
Zoning out on sunny mountain views made challenging stretches of the bike ride a bit easier during our trip to the end of the road.
*If you would like to follow the most up-to-date information regarding the re-opening of Highway 20, please visit WSDOT’s North Cascades Highway website.All photos courtesy of the author unless otherwise noted.