The Many Driving Conditions of Mount Washington

When you hear the words Vancouver Island you probably think of February flower counts, storm watching in Tofino and salmon fishing in Campbell River. But, did you know that Vancouver Island is also home to some pretty amazing ski hills? That’s right; as if this little jewel of an island wasn’t precious enough, Vancouver Island ski hills (like Mt. Washington Alpine Ski Resort), routinely boast some of the highest annual snow base in North America. That’s great news if you like to celebrate the snow gods by hurtling yourself down a mountain, but it can also mean a challenging drive for folks heading up and down said mountain. If you are heading up to Mt. Washington, there are some things you should know before you go.

About the Strathcona Parkway

The Strathcona Parkway runs from the Inland Island Highway (BC Highway 19) to Mt. Washington Alpine Ski Resort and provides access to Paradise Meadows in Strathcona Provincial Park. The Parkway is roughly 18 kilometres long and has an elevation difference of approximately 1000 metres from top to bottom. This means that the temperatures can be several degrees different at any given time on the bottom than they are at the top. Freezing temperatures halfway up the mountain can mean that the rain you start out in could turn into a blizzard closer to the top. Weather can also be sunny and beautiful up on top of the mountain with blizzard conditions in effect coming down.

We work closely with Mainroad North Island Contracting, our local maintenance contractor, to keep things running smoothly. They do a great job of routinely salting, sanding and clearing snow from Strathcona Parkway. But when snow storms hit at lower elevations they have to work extra hard to keep on top of the Inland Island Highway and the Strathcona Parkway. Crews will work around the clock until the roads are clear, but drivers need to be prepared to chain-up or change their plans on a moment’s notice.

Elevation, temperature and condition differences around Mt. Washington.

These two images were taken on the same day travelling up Mount Washington.

What can you do to be prepared?

Don’t be deceived by fair weather. Drivers MUST use good winter tires, carry chains and know how to use them when travelling on the Parkway in the winter. Snow on Vancouver Island is usually wet and can become very slippery when packed down, so good traction is essential. All-season tires and four-wheel drive cannot be counted on when the conditions are bad.

When chain-up signs and lights are activated the use of chains is mandatory for all vehicles (regardless of whether a vehicle is capable of using chains or not). Waiting too long to put on chains or trying to put chains on between designated areas can be very dangerous. There are chain-up areas at the bottom of the hill (at approx. 0.5 km), at Anderson Hill (6 km) and at Ramparts Creek (10 km). If you are heading down the mountain, you should chain-up in a parking lot beforehand. Mt. Washington also runs a shuttle bus service which means that if a vehicle is not capable of driving up the mountain, users can park at the base and use the shuttle service.

So, there you have it – the Mount Washington/Strathcona Parkway rundown. The next time you pack your car and head for the hill be prepared for a little bit of everything. That way you can be sure that the only tales of epic snow you share with your friends are slope side not road side. Do you have a question about this, or anything else the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure does? Let us know in the comments below.

(originally published Apr 12, 2012)

Share this page:SharingFacebookTwitterLinkedInCopy Text

Page 1 of 29 comments on “The Many Driving Conditions of Mount Washington”

Leave a Comment

  1. the provincial government needs to be firm and consistent on the wording and acceptability of winter tires. there is no way a tire with only the m&s symbol is safe for any bc highway in the winter. we need the provincial government to make it mandatory for all drivers to have winter tires on a vehicle in those months. a tire with only the m&s symbol has harder rubber compounds compared to a true winter tire, that has the 3-peak mountain and snowflake. this means the m&s tire will go hard like a hockey puck and the winter tire stays softer for better traction and gripping. these are proven facts and it is not something to take lightly. when you think about it, there are only four small patches of rubber that are actually touching the ground. would you not want the safest option…..for everyone involved?

    this feed has outdated information and suggestions. please people….just buy winter tires.

    • Hi Julie – thanks for your comment – we appreciate your concerns. We take the safety of the travelling public very seriously. Due to a more temperate winter climate in the Lower Mainland and southeastern Vancouver Island, drivers are not required to use winter tires in many areas along the coast. We strongly recommend that drivers travelling outside the Lower Mainland and Southern Vancouver Island during the winter months use winter rated Mountain Snowflake tires or at the very least carry and know how to install chains for better traction. We also encourage drivers not travel during winter weather events unless it is necessary to do so.

  2. Parking urgently needed on this rd. especially during Covid & the huge increase in snow sports this season. There are lots of potential parking areas . They just need to be plowed.

    • Hello Peter,

      Thanks for your comment. We encourage you to share your concerns directly with the mountain operator themselves, as they will be able to work with ministry staff (if required) to identify more parking options.

  3. More parking is urgently needed with the surge in mt. interest since Covid. How about plowing the large existing parking areas at 10 k. that used to be plowed.? Also 9k & many other rd. aprons like the old mt. Washinton rd. could be utilized. These would alleviate the extreme pressure we’re
    seeing on Ramparts chain up area. There are many snow fans here who would use these parking areas & appreciate them.

    • Hi Peter,

      Thanks for your comment and suggestion. We encourage you to share this feedback with Mainroad for their consideration.

      Mainroad Mid-Island Contracting LP
      1 877 215-6006

      Twitter: @MainroadMIsland
      Facebook: @MainroadMIsland
      Instagram: @mainroadgroup
      YouTube: Mainroad Group

      Ministry contact:
      Vancouver Island District Office – 250 751-3246

      • A recent post on FB recently stated that the Ramparts Chainup area was solely for the use of snowmobilers and that funds were paid to the snowmobile club to have that area cleared by Mainroad Midisland. The poster felt that therefore that area was solely for 5he use of snowmobilers. Could you please clarify the status of this area, is it open for the public to park. I’m not looking to make this an issue , just for clarification of where public parking is allowed.

        • Good morning, Lois

          Thanks for your message. Our staff in the area will know more about the details of this location and we ask that you connect directly with them for more information. Here is the contact information for our central island area office:
          Courtenay Area
          550 Comox Road
          Courtenay, BC V9N 3P6

  4. I have traveled extensively throughout Washington State and British Columbia and It’s really frustrating to have very poor pavement markings on the roadways of BC compared to the road markings in Washington State. Washington State markings at night are highly reflective and it makes driving so much safer. Are the contractors in BC trying to save money by not using highly reflective paint?
    In some areas of BC it’s almost impossible to see the markings at night in the rain. This is a very dangerous situation and needs to be addressed. With the 5 year contracts coming up for review in Dec 2018 I believe this issue should be addressed by the Minister. Lets stop saving dollars and save lives

    • Hi John and thanks for your comment. We understand your frustration.
      We take our commitment to providing a safe and efficient transportation network very seriously, and clear road markings for drivers are an important part of this commitment. As you are likely aware, changes in environmental regulations have meant a move away from more resilient acrylic paints we used in the past, to waterborne latex paints that are less harmful to the environment. These paints are less durable than previous paints and we are working with paint manufacturers on solutions to the issue.
      We have minimum retro-reflectance standards for all types of pavement markings and these standards are similar for all transportation jurisdictions around the world (retro-reflectivity is the term used to describe the night visibility of pavement markings and is crucial to highway safety.) We also use a state of the art mobile retro-reflectometer to delve more deeply into the performance of our new line marking paint in places where durability and visibility have been a problem.
      Our line painting contractors repaint over 30,000 kilometres of centre and lane lines every year across the province, at a cost of over $11 million annually. Each year $2 m worth of durable long line is placed throughout the province – primarily in the South Coast Region.
      Our neighbours to the south are funded federally for their transportation and infrastructure improvements, whereas our budget is determined provincially. We are happy to say that the recent announcement of the 2018 budget includes operating expenditure increases of $46.5 million for our ministry. Of those additional funds, $12 million has been allocated for road and bridge maintenance and electrical maintenance, as well as specific provisions for enhancing pavement marking.
      As part of our efforts to find the best paint solution, we also share research information and testing results with our neighboring highways organizations in Alberta, Alaska, Washington and Idaho. These jurisdictions most closely match our geography and climate which are far harsher than most – if not all – other North American jurisdictions. We hope that this helps answer your concerns.

    • Hi Ken,
      Winter tires are required across the majority of the province, including ski hill roads and we think carrying chains is always a good idea. Mt. Washington poses a special problem with its wet and slippery snow and drivers who aren’t as familiar with winter driving conditions.Hope that this helps.

  5. Further to this – can you please clarify if this “recommendation” is mandatory – the mountain staff regularly turn back cars without chains – however, our manufacturer (Subaru Legacy) specifically states our model is not capable of using chains – we have studded winter tires – are they still legally able to deny access to this public road?

    • Hi there Kevin –

      When the chain up lights are on chains are mandatory for ALL vehicles, regardless of whether the vehicle is capable of using chains or not. Mt. Washington runs a shuttle bus so if a vehicle is not capable of driving up the mountain, users can park at the base and use the shuttle service.

      Typically the chains up lights usually come on less than 5 times per season (this depends on the season). However, when these lights do come on Emcon works incredibly hard to get the road back to an acceptable standard and turn the lights off as soon as they safely can. Usually when there is a delay in turning the lights back off again it is due to drivers continuing past the lights without chains and spinning out or ending up in the ditch which blocks the plow trucks and adds time to the cleanup efforts. Hope that this helps.

      • Just noticed there was a reply to this – just cant let this one go – as far as i can determine, there is no legal avenue to bar someone from using this public road if they have tires with the M&S symbol — this is a hold-over from the days when it was a PRIVATE unpaved road. We have full studded tires on an all wheel drive car – more than adequate – can you provide links to the relevant regulations that allow contractors or mtn staff to bar public access to a provincial road?

        • Hi Kevin,

          Yes, we are sorry but our system doesn’t seem to send a notification when we respond. Further to your question above, Strathcona Parkway is a public road under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure. It is a class 4A and the maintenance contractor maintains it as such. Section 208 of the BC MVA, specifically section 2 and 3 quoted below, outline the language which referenced in prohibiting access to the road during inclement weather causing dangerous driving conditions.
          Winter tires and traction devices
          208 (1) For the purpose of this section, “winter tire” means a tire that meets the standards and specifications prescribed for winter tires.
          (2) The minister responsible for the administration of the Transportation Act may, by public notice or by placing signs, prohibit any vehicle or a class of vehicles from being driven or operated on a highway, unless the vehicle is equipped with chains, winter tires or traction devices, or a combination of these, that the minister responsible for the administration of the Transportation Act considers adequate in view of prevailing road conditions.
          (3) A public notice or sign under subsection (2) may provide differently in relation to specified dates, prevailing weather conditions or any other criteria the minister responsible for the administration of the Transportation Act considers necessary or advisable.
          (4) A person who drives or operates a vehicle in contravention of a prohibition made under subsection (2) commits an offence.

          We hope that this helps.

          • Hi Rron,

            Studded tires are an acceptable additional traction device on BC highways between October 1 to April 30. If you are using studded tires, you should have them on all four wheels for even traction. If using studded tires on the front of the vehicle they MUST be used on the back of the vehicle as well. Read the changes in the Act and the Regulations to get details on permissible studded tires below.

            7.164 (1)A person must not use studs as a traction device on tires unless the studs

            (a)do not protrude more than 2.0 mm from the tread or traction surface of a tire,

            (b)do not have a hollow centre, and

            (c)are safely and securely embedded in the tire by the manufacturer or a person in the business of selling tires so as not to cause damage to the roadway.

            (2)A person must not use studded tires on the front wheels of a motor vehicle unless the back wheels of the motor vehicle have studded tires.

            (3)Despite subsection (1) (a), a person may use studs that protrude more than 2.0 mm but less than 3.5 mm from the tread or traction surface of a tire if

            (a)the tire was manufactured on or before August 31, 2016, and

            (b)the total number of studs in the tire does not exceed the following:

            (i)130 studs if the motor vehicle has a gross vehicle weight of 4 600 kg or less;

            (ii)175 studs if the motor vehicle has a gross vehicle weight of more than 4 600 kg.

            [en. B.C. Reg. 177/2015, App. s. 3.]

  6. When you say “must carry chains and good winter tires”, does that mean that you must have tires with the snowflake on them and chains, or can you also have M+S tires with >3.5mm of tread and chains? Thanks