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SR 20 - North Cascades Highway - History

From Forging a Trail to a Paved Highway

The first state funding to explore a possible route through the Cascade Range was appropriated in 1895. The North Cascades Highway was completed September 2, 1972, connecting the Skagit River Valley with the Methow Valley.
Read a detailed history of the North Cascades Highway in a  North Cascades Grand Opening brochure (pdf 4 MB) published by Washington Highways in September 1972. 

An excerpt from the brochure:
"The following pages illustrate what has been left in the wake of man's effort to build the highway through the North Cascades. It is a tribute to all the men who were involved whether they simply walked along the footpath through the North Cascades until it became a well-worn, easily defined trail for horses, or actually worked to enlarge the horse trail into first a wagon road and then the modern highway it is today."

Timeline: 1896 - 1972

Prior to the completion of North Cascades Highway, Native Americans used this corridor as a trading route from the Eastern Plateau country to the Pacific Coast, for over 8,000 years. Beginning in the mid 1800's white settlers arrived in search of gold, fur bearing animals, and the possibility of finding a new home.

  • 1896 The State Road Commission, after surveying possible routes in the upper Skagit, concluded that the Skagit gorge was not a practical route. They settled upon the Cascade Pass route. In 1897 a road up the Cascade River was roughed out as far as Gilbert Landre's cabin. Although the wagon road never went any farther, it was shown on maps as State Highway #1 or the Cascade Wagon Road.
  • 1897 Floods took out most of the newly completed work along the Cascade River. 
  • 1905 Joseph M. Snow, the first State Highway Commissioner, reported that almost all the money appropriated to that time for a road had been wasted. 
  • 1905 State designated a highway to be built along the Methow River from Pateros to Hart's Pass. 
  • 1909 The road was completed to Hart's Pass. 
  • Sept. 14, 1924 Gorge Dam went into operation.  
  • Nov. 1936 Diablo Dam started producing power. 
  • Aug. 18, 1949 Ross Dam was formally accepted 
  • 1940 Highway promoters broke the stalemate about routings across the North Cascades that had persisted since the days of Alexander Ross (1814). L.D. Holloway persuaded other boosters to go along with the Forest Service and State Highway Department in scrapping forever the Cascade Pass highway idea and agreeing on a route across Rainy and Washington passes. 
  • 1953 The North Cascades Highway Association was formed. Boosters made plans for promotional and political campaigns. During the 1950s, requests were made for huge timber sales along the highway corridor. These proposals were used to support the need for a highway. 
  • 1958-1959 The State appropriated funds to build a highway from Diablo to Thunder Arm and to improve access roads on both sides of the mountains. Construction began in 1959. 
  • Jan. 6, 1966 The North Cascades Study Team report was released. Its proposals included new wilderness areas and a North Cascades National Park. The Study Team envisioned the new road as a scenic highway, not an access for logging, mining or development. 
  • Sept. 1968 A rough pioneer road was completed. On September 29, hundreds of four-wheel drive vehicles formed a caravan to make the first crossing and celebrate at the summit of Rainy Pass.  
  • Oct. 2, 1968 President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the North Cascades National Park bill. 
  • Sept. 2, 1972 North Cascades Highway officially opened. 

Timeline information gathered from the Alpenglow Ski Mountaineering History Project.