Survey History of the North Cascades Highway

If you have driven over the North Cascades Highway from Marblemount to Winthrop, you may have marveled over the feat of engineering required to construct the highway.  Indeed, the route is remarkable in places with the road clinging to rock faces and passing through tunnels.  The terrain is so rugged that the highway cannot be kept open year round.  Heavy snowfall creates avalanche danger and the highway is buried under many feet of snow under avalanche chutes which continually release their loads directly onto the roadway.

The highway officially opened for automotive travel in 1972, but few realize that efforts to open a North Cascades route started as far back as 1895.  Work continued for over a year to open a route between East and West for commerce.  That route was opened in 1896, but much of it was passable only by foot or horseback.  It followed a more southerly route than the present highway.  From Marblemount, the original road followed the Cascade River to the headwaters of the Cascade River below Cascade Pass.  Over the pass, the “road” was barely a four foot wide trail to the headwaters of the Stehekin River where it joined the Stehekin River Road built to access the Black Warrior Mine in Horseshoe Basin.  The route followed the Stehekin River to its confluence with Bridge Creek.  From there it turned to follow Bridge Creek upstream (present day Pacific Crest Trail) almost to the location of the present highway.  The route turned East up McAlester and Dagger Creeks, over Twisp Pass and down the Twisp River into the Town of Twisp where it rejoins the present highway.  This route holds special interest for me since I have hiked or driven most of it on the forest roads and trails which at one time were to have become the North Cascades Highway.

North Cascades Highway - 1895 and Present Routes

One can only imagine how the opening of this original route might have changed the nature of the Stehekin Valley, a charming mountain valley community inaccessible by road.  “No roads lead to Stehekin.”  Had the 1895 route been adopted for the North Cascades Highway, Stehekin would have been opened to vehicle traffic and undoubtedly heavily developed.

The surveyors who opened this early route were rugged individuals who worked in difficult conditions for long months.  Although our tools and techniques are modern and sophisticated, surveying still often requires a rugged, pioneering spirit.

Read more about the history of this cross mountain route at