State Route 20 in Washington
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State Route 20 is a state route in the U.S. state of Washington. The road forms a very long east-west route through the north of the state, from Discovery Bay on the Olympic Peninsula with a ferry service across Puget Sound and on through the North Cascades to Newport to the border with Idaho. It is the longest numbered road in Washington with a length of 702 kilometers (excluding ferry service). The road is listed as the Most Beautiful Mountain Highway in the State of Washington.
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State Route 20 begins at an intersection with US 101 at the hamlet of Discovery Bay on the Olympic Peninsula, about 31 miles east of Port Angeles. State Route 20 then forms a single-lane road across the forested Quimper Peninsula, partly along Discovery Bay. The height differences in this area are limited. The main town in this region is Port Townsend, from where a ferry service runs across the Puget Sound to Coupeville on Whidbey Island. State Route 20 uses this 10-kilometer ferry service.
Island County & Skagit County
The bridges over Deception Pass.
State Route 20 then meanders north as a quiet single-lane road across Whidbey Island, located in the Puget Sound. The island has no major differences in height and is partly urbanized. The main place on the route is Oak Harbor. State Route 20 winds around Naval Air Station Whidbey Island. On the north side of the island, State Route 20 crosses the Deception Pass strait with two bridges and a small island. This consists of two monumental arch bridges, the Deception Pass Bridge.
One then arrives at Fidalgo Island, where the larger town of Anacortes is located. Anacortes is approached from the south as a single-lane road, but State Route 20 turns east shortly before Anacortes, forming a rural 2×2 divided highway through flat terrain to Burlington. A bridge crosses the Swinomish Channel to mainland Washington. In the city of Burlington there is a connection to Interstate 5, more than 80 kilometers north of the metropolitan area of Seattle. After Burlington the road continues through Sedro-Woolley, before entering the narrow valley of the Skagit River.
North Cascades Highway
The rugged mountain landscape around the North Cascades Highway.
Then follows a long stretch through the North Cascades, an area with high mountains, with the 3,286 meter high Mount Baker as the highest point. The mountains look alpine and are permanently covered with snow. State Route 20 is a quiet single-lane road through the valley of the Skagit River, there are no significant places on the route for a great distance. The road follows a spectacular route through the North Cascades National Park. The road has quite long but limited ascents, although the mountains in the immediate vicinity are more than 2,000 meters high and have snow cover. In particular, around Newhalem, State Route 20 struggles through narrow canyons. The road then leads past three dams, after which a larger ascent starts, but the road is not very winding on this stretch. The road leads here over the 1,669 meter high Washington Pass.
There are no other roads in this entire region except for a few forest service roads, so all traffic on State Route 20 has a through, or mainly touristic character. State Route 20 approaches the border with Canadahere to 30 kilometers away and in this section is the northernmost and essentially only road in Washington. East of Washington Pass the landscape changes, it becomes noticeably drier and barer. State Route 20 descends into the valley of the small Methow River. Here are some small villages. The road descends to 470 meters at Winthrop, but then branches out of the valley and leads through woodland over the unfamiliar 1,225-meter high Loup Loup Pass. The mountains in this region are not much higher. Then one descends to the valley of the Okanogan River, the town of Okanogan is located at an altitude of 250 meters.
The Kettle Falls Bridge over the Columbia River.
State Route 20 then doubles for approximately 50 kilometers with US 97 north from Okanogan to Tonasket, along the Okanogan River. The landscape here is more barren and dry, with low mountains. In Tonasket, more than 20 miles before the border with Canada, State Route 20 turns east again and forms a solitary route through remote mountain country. The road here leads over the 1,699-meter Sherman Pass, in an area with mountains up to 2,100 meters. The area here is quite densely wooded. There are hardly any villages on this part of the route.
State Route 20 then descends into the great valley of the mighty Columbia River. The road descends here to about 400 meters above sea level at Kettle Falls and crosses the Columbia River via the Kettle Falls Bridge, this section is double-numbered with US 395 to nearby Colville. Further east, State Route 20 leads through a forested mountain area, with low mountains to about 1,500 meters. The road rises here again to almost 1,000 meters above sea level, but not through a pronounced mountain pass. On the east side is a somewhat steeper descent into the valley of the Pend Oreille River.
From here, State Route 20 heads south through the valley of the Pend Oreille River. The landscape consists of forested mountains between 1,600 and 2,000 meters that barely rise above the tree line. The Pend Oreille River is a fairly wide river and the valley is therefore quite wide. State Route 20 ends in the town of Newport, located on the border with the state of Idaho. The US 2 then continues to Sandpoint, Idaho.
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From 1937 the western part of the Olympic Peninsula was a branch of Primary State Highway 9. In 1964 this became part of State Route 113. In 1973 State Route 20 was extended westwards from Burlington to Discovery Bay, although the ferry service was formally only was part of State Route 20 from 1994.
After the opening of the North Cascades Highway, the much longer State Route 20 became a reality by renumbering existing state routes in 1973 when it replaced a number of routes west of Burlington to Port Townsend, as well as State Route 294 between Tonasket to Tiger and the State Route 31 between Tiger and Newport. This created the longest numbered road in Washington.
The North Cascades Highway was also previously known as the North Cross State Highway, as it is the northernmost east-west connection in Washington. This is also a Washington State Scenic Byway and a National Forest Scenic Byway.
State Route 20 is the longest numbered road in Washington, although US 12 extends east and west in total, but does so on a shorter route.
Since 1964, the State Route 20 Spur has also existed, a 13-kilometer branch of State Route 20 to the city of Anacortes. The State Route 20 Spur provides access to the ferry services to the San Juan Islands.
North Cascades Highway
The Washington Pass.
Plans for an east-west route through the North Cascades Mountains began in the late 1800s. The Washington Pass was not considered the biggest problem, especially the canyons of the Skagit River to the west of it were problematic to build a road connection through, preference was given to the Cascade Pass further south. The road was built over the Cascade Pass in 1897, but almost the entire road was swept away from the Cascade River during flooding, so it was determined in 1905 that all the money for the Northern Cascades Highway had been wasted.
At the beginning of the 20th century it was decided that the road would run via the more northerly Hart’s Pass, which is approximately 1,900 meters high. This joined the Methow River valley, rather than further south along Chelan Lake. The eastern section of this route was completed in 1909.
In the 1920s, the Skagit River Hydroelectric Project began construction of a series of dams on the Skagit River. The three dams were completed in 1940, although the Ruby Dam was later raised. It was then decided that these dams were suitable for tourism and that there was a need for an east-west connection through northern Washington. The northernmost road link at the time was Stevens Pass from US 2, meaning there was no road link between east and west on the 140 kilometers north of Stevens Pass to the Canadian border.
Construction of a road across Washington Pass and along the Skagit River dams began to materialize in the 1950s and construction began in 1959. The road eventually took 13 years to complete and the North Cascades Highway was completed on September 2. Opened to traffic in 1972. This was one of the last new long-haul roads in the United States built.
State Route 20 is one of four state routes in Washington that has a winter closure. Washington Pass and nearby Rainy Pass fall between 4 and 5 meters of snow in winter. Avalanche danger is another problem. State Route 20 has no fixed closing times, depending on the weather. The pass route usually closes in late November and usually reopens in the second half of April. The road was not closed during the very dry winter of 1976-1977. When State Route 20 is closed, the nearest alternative route is the Stevens Pass of US 2. Between Burlington and Okanogan this is a detour of approximately 150 kilometers, for destinations closer to the closure the detour is considerably larger.
Port Townsend – Coupeville Ferry
State Route 20 uses a ferry service across the Puget Sound between Port Townsend and Coupeville. This ferry service is publicly run and part of the Washington State Ferries. On average, about 1,000 vehicles use this ferry service and reservations are recommended.
Every day 5,500 vehicles travel to the start point on US 101 in Discovery Bay, rising to 11,000 vehicles a day in Port Townsend. 10,000 to 20,000 vehicles per day travel across Whidbey Island, with 17,000 vehicles crossing the bridges of Deception Pass. The 2×2 section between Anacortes and I-5 has 30,000 to 35,000 vehicles per day, the busiest portion of State Route 20.
Between Burlington and Sedro-Woolley there are 17,000 vehicles per day, east of which the intensities drop rapidly in the Skagit River valley, at 5,000 vehicles to Concrete and 1,000 to 2,000 vehicles per day through the North Cascades National Park. About 1,000 vehicles per day pass through Washington Pass. Intensities increase slightly to 2,000 vehicles at Winthrop and 1,500 vehicles over the Loup Loup Pass to Okanogan.
The long stretch from Tonasket to Kettle Falls has fewer than 1,000 vehicles per day, while the double-numbered US 395 between Kettle Falls and Colville is a lot busier with 9,000 vehicles per day. The quietest part is the mountain stretch between the Columbia and Pend Oreille River valleys, with only 600 vehicles per day. This rises again to 1,000 vehicles per day in the Pend Oreille River valley and 3,000 vehicles at Newport terminus.