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State Route 20 reopens for the year

The challenges (and opportunities) of a mountain pass’ early opening

An elevation sign near the summit of SR 20’s Washington Pass near Gilbert, Wash., on March 5, 2024. WSDOT measured 40 inches of snow on the road and began clearing it on March 25. // Photo by WSDOT

This story has been updated to clarify the role El Niño plays in affecting changes in precipitation patterns. The clarification was added because the story previously did not touch on this important factor.

State Route 20 opened for the season on April 19. Lower-than-average snowfall in the Cascades contributed to a smooth spring clearing process for the Washington Department of Transportation’s crew in its North Central Region.

The stunning views on SR 20’s route through Washington Pass also make it popular with cyclists, especially after the road has been cleared for the season and before it opens to cars.

“Sometimes it can be kind of brutal during the winter, and that's why they close it,” said Corey Chaplin, a cyclist with experience riding the highway. “But when you get a sunny day, it's exceptional up there. When you get up there without traffic going by, it really makes for a somewhat unique bicycling experience.”

Chaplin said he noticed significantly less snowfall on the route this year compared to his previous visit in May 2021.

“[There was] only about less than five feet of snow on the top, which is really unusual,” Chaplin said.

The lower-than-average snowfall isn’t wholly atypical, however.

“There's been a couple of winters where it didn't close all winter, just due to lack of snow,” said Harlan Sheppard, the avalanche control manager for the Washington State Department of Transportation’s North Central Region. “This was, you know, a little quicker than average. We got it open in three and a half weeks, something like that.”

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On March 5, 2024, a WSDOT crew member checks the snow and ice pack on the roadway between mileposts 134-171 on SR 20 near Gilbert, Wash., to assess when to start spring clearing. // Photo by WSDOT

Each year, WSDOT takes great care to ensure the route is safe for travel. From late February to early March, WSDOT crews assess the depth and distribution of snow on the road and surrounding mountains.

“This spring was a little below average-snowfall, and so we didn't have as large of crews or as much equipment up there,” Sheppard said. 

This year, WSDOT recorded a cumulative 308 inches of snowfall at Stevens Pass, where the WSDOT North Central Region is based. Sheppard said WSDOT looks at snow levels and short and long-term climate outlook models to determine an opening date for SR 20. 

“Typically, the last week in March is when we get started up there, and then it's anywhere from two to six weeks to clear the road, to do avalanche mitigation work and to clean up any damage,” he said. 

Dr. Crystal Raymond is a climatologist at the University of Washington and co-author of a research paper identifying strategies for federal agencies to adapt Washington’s roads to climate change. She said this year’s short snowy season could have an impact on the mountain ecosystem.

“There's certainly been years where [SR 20] opened earlier,” said Dr. Raymond. “But a few weeks makes a difference, and it's not just the snowpack.” 

She said that many species in the ecosystem rely on environmental triggers for certain behaviors. Early snowmelt can interfere with high-elevation plants’ abilities to produce flowers at the right time for pollination.

“If it happens one year, things can probably adjust,” she said. “But when you have a consistent pattern and it keeps getting earlier and earlier, as we expect with climate change, then it starts to have more of a significant impact.”

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A WSDOT vehicle working from SR 20’s west side makes it to milepost 148 near Granite Creek, Wash., on March 18, 2024. Each year, the western crew clears Rainy Pass while the eastern crew clears Washington Pass, until they meet in the middle and can reopen the route between mileposts 134 and 171.  // Photo by WSDOT

Federal agencies, including WSDOT, the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service are aware of the changes caused by climate change and are working to address them. 

“They're really thinking consciously about how to adjust their operations, how to adjust infrastructure to accommodate climate change,” Dr. Raymond said.

While Washington Pass and Rainy Pass saw an early spring this year, Sheppard said it was to be expected during an El Niño year. 

“This year was El Niño, and it's pretty typical that we're going to have lower-than-average snowfall, near-average precipitation and warmer temperatures,” he said.

Sheppard says the risk of inclement weather still hasn’t passed.

“One of the challenges of opening up early is we're still getting winter weather,” he said on April 30. “The 10-day forecast models are showing a foot to two feet of snow up there in the next 10 days. If we get that, we might have some avalanche problems still in some of the chutes on the path.”

Sheppard and Chaplin both recommended keeping track of conditions before planning to travel up SR 20.

“People need to check out Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center,” Sheppard said. “They put out an avalanche forecast and track those problems because there are times when, even in the spring in a maritime snowpack, the avalanche activity can increase quite a bit.”

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A drone shot of avalanche paths along SR 20 near Gilbert, Wash., on March 15, 2024. Sheppard said there are 20 avalanche paths on Washington Pass that keep them “pretty busy during the spring opening.” // Photo by WSDOT

WSDOT sends out a newsletter that contains travel advisories and other relevant information. Chaplin said it was a good resource for people planning a trip on SR 20. 

“The main thing [is] to get on this email list. It's simple to do that,” Chaplin said. 

A newsletter sent on April 12 alerted cyclists to ideal conditions for biking the pass before reopening. 

“We know many of you look forward to the opportunity to bike the passes, and with the roadway cleared all the way through Rainy and Washington, this would be [the] chance to take a bike ride prior to the highway reopening,” the newsletter read. “If you’re thinking about making the ride, remember that the road is closed for a reason and remains essentially unmaintained between mileposts 134 and 171.”

Chaplin rides with the Barkley Village Bicycle Group and the Café Velo Bicycle Group. He says people should never ride SR 20 or other mountain passes alone.

“We always welcome new riders to come join us,” Chaplin said. “We ride primarily on Tuesdays and Saturdays, departing at 9 a.m. from Barkley Village. The Café Velo group rides on Thursdays and Sundays … at 10 a.m., and on Tuesdays [we] leave from Ferndale Senior Center at 10 a.m.”

Sheppard said that large avalanches are less frequent on Stevens Pass than they were in the 1970s, when a big slide would happen about once per year. Now, they’re seeing them once every three to five years.

“It's kind of hard to judge if that's … an effect of long-term climate or different cycles like La Niña or El Niño,” he said. “On our other slide paths, we are not seeing a decrease in frequency or magnitude."

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A snowcat clears a path through a snow slide on SR 20 near Gilbert, Wash., on March 5, 2024. The clearing process begins with snowcats cutting inroads through the snowpack. // Photo by WSDOT

There are many factors that go into determining changing avalanche risks.

“In general, we're talking about less snowpack overall for the mountains in Washington,” Dr. Raymond said. “If you have less snow, you have less of a chance of avalanches in a lot of ways.”

However, risk depends on specific regional factors. 

“There's some aspects of it where I think there's reason to believe that it wouldn't actually get worse with climate change. But that depends on the kind of area and what elevation you're at,” she said.

People planning to travel through the passes should still take precautions. There is no cell service in the North Cascades, and even a small avalanche can be dangerous. 

“It doesn't take a very large avalanche to injure somebody on a bike,” Sheppard said. 

SR 20’s early reopening offers the opportunities of an earlier recreation season, as long as travelers take appropriate precautions. However, because of decreased snow levels, recreation access may be limited later in the season.

“If there's more wildfire, you actually start to get the recreation season maybe shorter come the end of summer or fall because people are not able to access places or recreate if there's a lot of wildfire or smoke limiting it,” Dr. Raymond said. 

Chaplin says the route’s iconic beauty is worth the visit.

“Everyone should put it on their bucket list to do it once if you're an avid [cyclist],” Chaplin said.

Oren Roberts

Oren Roberts (they/them) is a city news reporter this quarter at The Front. They are a third-year completing an interdisciplinary concentration in Trauma-Informed Journalism through Fairhaven College. They fill their free time with fermentation projects, paddleboarding and tending to their houseplants. You can contact them at

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