Middle Fork Swan River

Breckenridge, Colorado (Summit County)

Last Updated: 10/26/2021
4.9 / 5 ( 23 reviews )
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Status:
Seasonal Closure
Typically Open: 05/20 - 11/23
Difficulty: 4-6
( MODERATE - DIFFICULT )
Length: 7.59 miles
Highest Elevation: 12600 feet
Duration: About 1 hour, 30 minutes
Shape of Trail: Straight Through
Best Direction to Travel: East
Nearest Town: Breckenridge
Nearest Town w/ Services: Breckenridge
Official Road Name: 6, 6.2, 5
Management Agency: White River National Forest
District: Dillon Ranger District

Highlights

Highlight: Middle Fork Swan River
The Middle Fork Swan River 4WD trail follows the river up its valley through picturesque pine forest and onto the high alpine tundra between Whale Mountain and Wise Mountain. From the high saddle, there are spectacular views with Breckenridge Ski Resort visible to the west, and the iconic Red Cone descent to the east.

Video

Route Information

Advanced Rating System

Recommended Vehicle:
Stock SUV with High Clearance and 4 Low
Concerns:
Summary:
The crux of this trail is a very rocky hill climb just above treeline, Tombstone Hill. This climb has several variations. A good stock truck, with good driving technique, taking the right line, can summit. However, a built rig, taking the hardest lines will find plenty of challenge. Note: The shelf road that serves as the easy bypass at Tombstone Hill is where snow lingers latest. It can be blocked with snow, especially at the top, well into July. If you're not sure, it's best to make the arduous hike up to check for snow before driving up this shelf road. You may not enjoy backing down it!

Technical Rating

MANDATORY
4
MODERATE
OPTIONAL
6
DIFFICULT
Typically, more rock or undulated road surface. Potential rocks and/or tree stumps less than 18" tall and/or vertical ledges less than 18" tall and/or near vertical ledges or waterfalls less than 36" inches. Tire placement becomes more difficult. Can be steep and off-camber.
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Community Consensus

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Description

The Middle Fork Swan 4WD trail begins as a tight, rocky, but easy road. The crux of the trail is a very rocky hill climb just above treeline, Tombstone Hill. This climb has several variations. A good stock truck, with good driving technique, taking the right line, can summit. However, a built rig, taking the hardest lines will find plenty of challenge. Note: The .gpx track offered here takes the easiest route. As noted in the waypoint descriptions below, there are some more challenging lines that will deviate a bit but should end up back on the track after the obstacle. Enjoy the challenge, but please stay the trail! After summiting at a high saddle, Middle Fork Swan traverses high tundra to intersect with several other, popular trails. Because of the challenge of Tombstone Hill, Middle Fork Swan is usually run from west to east, beginning near Breckenridge. Connecting to North Fork Swan River makes a loop. Continuing on Deer Creek or Saints John leads down to Montezuma. Cell service is nonexistent in the Swan River Valley and only spotty on the high tundra. The nearest emergency room is at St. Anthony Summit Medical Center (970-668-3300), located just off CO-9 south of Frisco. Summit County Sheriff office (970-453-2232) is on CO-9 in Breckenridge.

Waypoints

1. Trailhead (0 mi)
Middle Fork and North Fork Swan River share a western trailhead at a well marked fork. North Fork Swan is FS 354 to the left. Middle Fork Swan is FS 6 to the right across a narrow bridge. There is a small parking area to the right.
2. Georgia Pass (0.4 mi)
After passing a snowmobile and sled dog business on the left, FS 355, Georgia Pass, departs to the right. Continue straight on FS 6.2.
3. Seasonal Gate/Georgia Pass Shortcut (1.2 mi)
To the right are the ruins of an old bridge and a water crossing. On the other side are some great camp sites and quick access to Georgia Pass. Note: During Spring run-off, this water crossing can be more than floorboard deep and very fast. Just around the bend is the seasonal gate. This gate is closed from November through May, although some parts of the trail can be impassible with snow as late as July.
4. SOB Hill (2.4 mi)
SOB Hill, FS 258, forks to the right and continues up to Glacier Ridge and the summit of Georgia Pass. Continue left on FS 6.
5. Bypass (4.2 mi)
The right option is a bit rockier, but not difficult. The left option is smoother. A couple more such bypasses have been blocked off. Remember to stay the trail! Immediately after this, an unmarked and rough trail to the left leads up to some ruins of old Swandyke.
6. Swandyke Cabin (4.6 mi)
Update: Tragically, the record-breaking snow of the winter of 2018-2019 was too much for the old cabin. See the 3rd pic for the carnage. The large cabin on the left is nearly all that remains of the booming mining camp of Swandyke. The population peaked at 500 in the late 1890s. The camp was home to a 75 bed hotel and even had stage coach service to Jefferson via Georgia Pass. An avalanche destroyed the ore mill during the brutal winter of 1898-99, after which the population fell to about 20. None the less, mining around Swandyke continued for another 30 years. Exploring the woods in this area, you'll find many artifacts, including a mysterious buried vehicle. No one knows how it got there, although it seems likely it was left by the hippies who took up residence along Swan River in the 1970's much to the chagrin of the Forest Service.
7. FS 325 (4.9 mi)
FS 325 forks off to the left. This easy trail goes up over the ridge line and dead ends at the tailings of a small mine. Continue on FS 6 to the right.
8. Rough Spot (5.7 mi)
Some large, embedded rocks protrude form the middle of the trail. This is the first spot where stock vehicles need to take care. Larger rigs will hardly notice. This spot is also known to be blocked with snow as late as July. There is no bypass here. Let's keep it that way! Stay the trail!
9. Rock Shelf (5.7 mi)
Just as the trail breaks above treeline, a couple of switchbacks are interrupted by a small rock shelf. Stock vehicles should have no problem if they chose their line carefully. It's not as bad as it looks (as seen in the video above at 3:19). Notice the fresh, illegal shortcut to the right. Please do not take this line! Stay the trail!!
10. Tombstone Hill (6 mi)
The next quarter mile is what gives Middle Fork Swan a high-end rating of 6. Taking the easiest bypasses up the hill, you will only face the low-end rating of 4. Those easy bypasses are, from the bottom, right crossing to the center at waypoint 11, right at waypoint 12, and then, above the hill, right at waypoint 14. Coincidentally, all of the easy bypasses are also where the snow lingers longest. While the harder side of waypoints 12 and 14 will be clear of snow by early July, the easy routes can still be covered for two or three weeks longer. See the video above beginning at 3:55 to see both the hard and easy routes.
11. Tombstone Hill, 1st Bypass (6 mi)
The difficulty of the rock ledges to the left depend, somewhat on wheelbase. Longer trucks, like the Jeep JK Unlimited, will find both front and rear wheels hitting ledges at the same time. In early Summer, this section will be even more difficult as it will be wet with snow run-off. To avoid this set of rock ledges, take the easy bypass to the right, then cut back across to the center line, passing just to the left of the "Tombstone" rock. Staying to the right leads through a more rocky patch, but ends up in the same place.
12. Tombstone Hill, 2nd Bypass (6.1 mi)
The trail widens out a bit above the "Tombstone" rock, allowing a few trucks to wait and watch the show as folks tackle the next section. Although it might be tempting, please do not "pose" by driving up onto the Tombstone. The rock isn't all that stable. The next section is much longer. The left side has a couple of ledges separated by a 100 feet or so. These ledges are bigger than the set on the previous section. Additionally, this section of trail is less embedded rock and more loose dirt and stones, making traction harder to come by. The right side is easily passable by stock trucks, although the very narrow, rocky stretch does have some pucker factor. This shelf road has the latest lingering snow drifts, sometimes lasting into late July.
13. Top of Tombstone Hill (6.2 mi)
After tackling Tombstone Hill, take a breather here and take in the stunning views of Glacier Ridge to the south and, on a clear day, Breckenridge Ski Resort to the west. This is also a nice spot to wait for the rest of your party to catch up. If traveling east to west and thus descending Middle Fork, the right option here leads to the harder side of the hill described above. The left fork goes to the easy bypass. The same is true for the next fork a few yards further down. Stay left for the easiest route.
14. Bypass (6.3 mi)
One final fork here separates an easier route to the right and a moderately harder to the left. The right fork may be blocked with snow well into July. The left is loose, so traction can be tough to find, especially if you lose momentum, but it's not that difficult.
15. Summit (6.9 mi)
This high saddle has a well marked T-intersection. A short, out-and-back trail to the right runs along the shoulder of Whale Mountain. It's worth the time for this short side trip. More often than not, there will be several mountain goats grazing near the trail. This route, sadly, shows the serious consequences of leaving the trail to drive out on the tundra. Please stay the trail! Go left and continue on to FS 5. There are two options up this small hill. The easier is to the left. While you're here, don't miss out on the great views! Red Cone can be seen to the east just beyond Handcart Peak and Hall Valley below.
16. Deer Creek/Saints John (7.6 mi)
Middle Fork Swan ends at a three-way intersection. To the right, FS 5 continues down Deer Creek to Montezuma, with a connector to the top of Radical Hill. To the left, FS 275, Saints John Road, connects to North Fork Swan River, then makes its way down to Montezuma.

Directions to Trailhead

Starting Point: Breckenridge

On CO-9, between Frisco and Breckenridge, turn northeast at the traffic light onto Tiger Road/Shores Lane. Pavement ends after approx. 3 miles. Continue on Tiger Road past dredge tailings and a wide parking area on the right. At an obvious fork in the road, reset mileage. Left (north) is FS 354, North Fork Swan River. Right (east), and across a narrow bridge, is FS 6, Middle Fork Swan River.

Camping

Dispersed
Dispersed camping is allowed along all but a small section of Middle Fork Swan. This section is private land and is well marked. There are a few large, flat sites suitable for small RVs early on the trail. However, once the trees close in, the remaining sites are all small tent sites and there are few places to turn around with a trailer. In 2017, the Forest Service demolished many of the camp sites near the river siting "riparian impact." More RV acceptable sites can be found on North Fork Swan River. There are a few National Forest campgrounds at nearby Lake Dillon. More civilized lodging can be found in Breckenridge, Frisco, Dillon, and Silverthorne.
Camping: Middle Fork Swan River

Trail Reviews (40)

Questions & Answers (1)

Q: Does anyone know if these trails have opened at least part way. Middle north and Georgia pass?
–Kevin (05/22/2020)
A: Hey trint, I actually called the non emergency number up there today and a cop told me he went wheeling on Georgia pass and middle last week. He said about 1 to 2 miles in there's a bunch of snow but he confirmed the gates are open
–Kevin (05/23/2020)
A: The gates will be closed for a while yet. I don't know about the conditions before the gates. I plan to call the Dillon Ranger District on Monday for an update.
–Trint Ladd (05/23/2020)

Writer Information

Trint Ladd

Mapping Crew - Colorado

Trint grew up riding dirt bikes in the creek beds of the Texas Panhandle. While attending college in Colorado in the late 1990's, he saw a magazine article about a Ford Explorer four-wheeling club. He never saw his Explorer as an adventure vehicle before, but quickly joined up and caught the bug. With his engineering background, Trint has always respected the factory design of a good truck (and recognized when manufacturers put cheap parts into something marketed for off road use). "A good driver, with a well built, stock truck can do trails that would break a $50k, built-up rig with an inexperienced driver." He put that 1st gen Explorer though hell and it always held up, earning great respect from the "big dawgs" in the club. (And earning the nickname, "The Idiot Stocker.") The truck was christened "BamBam" because of the frequent sounds ringing out from the factory skid plates. Now that Trint is "grown-up" (quotation marks intentional), he's a bit less inclined to dent up his 2011 Toyota Tacoma, but still feels the same way about superior engineering. The "Stocko Taco" wheeled for over 10 years with no mods other than trail armor. In 2021, it finally got a couple of inches of lift... and a new name: "Taco Supreme." Trint's love for the mountains was ingrained at a very early age. 8mm film exists of 18-month-old Trint in a backpack on his dad's back while riding dirt bikes through the mountains of Red River, NM. Although Trint does enjoy a good, tough, technical rock trail, he can often be found on easier, winding, Alpine roads just taking the glory of God's country.
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