Photo by Adam Brayton.

Splendor and Solitude: Winter on the North Cascades Highway

Breathtaking views of snow-white peaks, brisk mountain air kissing your face, and the gentle swishing of skis through fresh powder under your feet. Perhaps you cross the tracks of a deer or snowshoe hare and stop to let your mind muse on the story it tells in the snow before you. In this winter world, sounds fall silent beneath a blanket of white that shimmers and shines as you grin with a satisfying realization that in this moment, it is all for you.

State Route 20, often called the North Cascades Highway, is the northernmost through road in the Cascade mountains from Western to Eastern Washington. Those who have traveled this splendid band of asphalt in summer know it as a winding odyssey of unparalleled mountain scenery, jagged peaks, tortoise lakes and thundering waterfalls. It is little wonder that the road attracts hundreds of thousands of travelers every year. Yet, due to deep winter snow-pack and high avalanche frequency, the road closes to vehicle traffic between late November and early May, returning the land to a rugged, impenetrable wilderness, and offering opportunities to enjoy this unique resource in a more intimate way.

When the snow piles up and the gates swing closed, the northern and southern units of the North Cascades National Park Complex are connected and combine with surrounding wilderness areas to become the largest contiguous road-less landscape in the Lower 48. This much wild country provides ideal habitat for some of nature’s best snow-adapted species such as Lynx and Wolverines. Yet, for outdoor enthusiasts, North Cascades adventures do not have to end when the highway closes, and if winter recreation is up your alley, this can be an ideal time to be in the mountains.

Without the constant buzz of rolling wheels and motor engines, a peaceful calm descends on State Route 20. The land takes on a sullen, silent character, and the winter traveler can revel in relative solitude while taking in the quiet subtleties of the mountain landscape. Gently shuffling around the bends and curves, gazing at distant peaks or admiring spires of ice clinging to cliff faces is an altogether unique experience that few take advantage of. As national park visitation has increased in recent years and trails and campgrounds get more crowded in summer months, winter can be the ideal time to seek the solitude that draws us to these special places.

Unfortunately, this year’s winter weather has been a mixed bag. Warmer temperatures have brought more rain than snow so to the lower valleys of the North Cascades, making snow-pack on Highway 20 less consistent than previous years. However, a current storm cycle is expected to bring several inches of fresh snow to our region this weekend. While this may seem inconvenient for travelers, the snow provides essential winter water storage that our ecosystem depends on to keep our rivers and streams flowing and our forests green through the dry summer months. It also serves as a welcome reminder that winter is far from over, and there’s still plenty of time to get into the mountains for some snowy fun!

Your Blog Writer, Matt Ferrell enjoying the snow!

Typically, the winter closure is set at milepost 134 on the West side and milepost 171 on the East, giving snowshoers, cross-country skiers, fat-tire bikers and snowmobilers exclusive access to the 37 miles of un-plowed roadway. However, due to this weekend’s winter weather forecast, Washington Department of Transportation has set the closure back to milepost 130 near Colonial Creek, closing off an extra 4 miles. Check out the WSDOT Blog for more information.

If you do choose to venture up to the North Cascades this winter, we encourage you to do so safely. Drive carefully, carry chains or snow tires and make sure you have up-to-date road, weather and avalanche information before venturing out by using these resources:

Washington Department of Transportation

National Weather Service

Northwest Avalanche Center

Stay safe and enjoy the snow!

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