Latest news from the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center

UPDATE March 13, 4 pm: After WSDOT successfully reopened one lane of Highway 20 today, the Henry M. Jackson high school students, teachers and parent chaperones were able to leave the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center to return home! This is our last update. Read below for chronology of events.

On Friday morning, March 10, the Washington State Department of Transportation closed Highway 20 seven miles west of the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center due to a large avalanche across the road. This incident blocked the school buses that were due to pick up students from Henry M Jackson High School in Mill Creek, WA, who were participating in our Mountain School residential environmental education program. Forty-two students, seven teachers and parent chaperones and 21 Institute staff and graduate students are currently at the ELC until WSDOT crews can reopen the road; they are doing an assessment on Monday.

The North Cascades Environmental Learning Center is a modern facility with 92 beds in three comfortable lodges, a dining hall, classrooms and other amenities, and we have plenty of food and supplies to get through the weekend. Everyone on site is safe, warm, well-fed and in good spirits. The Environmental Learning Center was deliberately sited away from avalanche paths and is not at risk for avalanches. We have two Emergency Medical Technicians on staff and our instructors are trained Wilderness First Responders. We are in close contact with our partners in the National Park Service and Seattle City Light and have contingency plans if any emergencies arise. Extreme weather conditions are a part of life in the mountains and North Cascades Institute has established procedures and risk management training to get through incidents like this.

Mountain School is a nationally-recognized residential environmental education program offered in cooperation with North Cascades National Park that brings local students to the North Cascades to learn about the ecosystems, geology and natural and cultural history of the mountains. Mountain School was recently profiled by National Geographic and The Seattle Times calls it " a national model for wilderness education on public lands."


Contact WSDOT for more information about the road closure at (360) 707-5055 or visit We will post updates to this webpage, on our Facebook page at and on Twitter at

Monday 3/13

WSDOT road clearing

9 a.m.: Conditions have stabilized and WSDOT crews have started work to clear a lane of SR 20 east of Newhalem.

12:25 p.m.: The eastbound lane of SR 20 is open for emergency vehicles and school buses to transport students.

HMJ students last day

HMJ students buses leaving

4 p.m.: The students, teachers and parent chaperones have left  the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center for home!

Coverage of the end of the road closure incident in the Skagit Valley Herald, Everett Herald, KING5 News and KOMO News.

Sunday 3/12

It is the third day of Henry M Jackson High School's "extended vacation" at the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center. Students, teachers, parent chaperones and Institute staff and graduate students continue to be safe, well-resourced and in good spirits. Institute educational staff are leading weekend activities including a scavenger hunt, mini-Olympics, microscope lab, board games, taxidermy and even optional yoga and meditation! Interest in this unique story is rising in the media, and we've been contacted by CBS, ABC and Good Morning America. Teachers and students were interviewed by way of video this morning for tonight's CBS Evening News.

The avalanche forecast was downgraded today to “moderate.” The weather forecast for the North Cascades is “Increasing moderate to heavy rain or snow north and rising snow levels.” Monday’s forecast is for “Periods of moderate to heavy rain or snow and rising snow levels.” You can follow the mountain weather and avalanche forecasts at www.nwac.usWSDOT will evaluate avalanche conditions and potential road opening on Monday, March 13, 2017. The WSDOT North Cascades Highway hotline is (360) 707-5055. 

We'll continue to post updates here and on our Facebook page at Thanks for all your well-wishes and support!

Saturday 3/11

— Kayleigh Sedlacek (@KayleighSedlace) March 11, 2017

Friday, March 10, 2017, 10 am: We woke this morning to news that the North Cascades Highway is closed in the Skagit Gorge east of Newhalem due to an avalanche. From Washington State Department of Transportation: “On SR 20 eastbound & westbound near Gorge Dam (MP 123) there is an incident blocking all lanes.” WSDOT has determined that conditions are not stable enough to begin clearing the avalanche today and they plan to reassess the situation on Monday. Consequently, there will be no travel to or from the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center until WSDOT clears the road. 

Road closure story in the Skagit Valley Herald