North Fork Swan River

Breckenridge, Colorado (Summit County)

Last Updated: 07/13/2019
4.8 /5 ( 11 reviews )
Information
Nearby Trails
Status: Open
Typically Open: 05/20 - 11/23
Difficulty: 3-5
(MODERATE - DIFFICULT)
Length: 5.8 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: 354, 356
Management Agency: White River National Forest
District: Dillon Ranger District
Distance:
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Highlights

Highlight: North Fork Swan River
North Fork Swan River 4WD trail is one of the lesser known jewels of Summit County. The lower section offers a tight, rocky forest trail with loads of camping options and a few white knuckle moments. Above treeline, you'll find some excellent historical mining sites, and high alpine views that will take your breath away.

Video

Weather

7 day forecast for North Fork Swan River

Route Information

Advanced Rating System

Recommended Vehicle:
Stock SUV with High Clearance and 4 Low
Concerns:
Summary:
A large, embedded rock (about 18 inches tall) at waypoint 5 can be bypassed by smaller trucks. Full-size rigs will be forced over it. The V-notch at waypoint 6 has one really bad spot with a troublesome tree root on the driver's side (going up). Full-size trucks can get through, but there is a chance of body damage, especially if the trail is wet. The Rocky Hill at waypoints 11 and 12 has a more difficult option that pushes this trail's top-end rating to a 5.

Technical Rating: 3-5
(MODERATE - DIFFICULT)

Rocky or undulated road surface. Potential rocks and/or tree stumps less than 24" tall and/or vertical ledges less than 24" tall and/or near vertical ledges or waterfalls less than 54" inches. Tire placement becomes more difficult. Can be steep and off-camber.
Read more about our rating system

Description

Over all, North Fork Swan River 4WD trail is a bit tougher than its sister, Middle Fork. They both offer tight, rocky forest roads, a taste of mining history, and epic alpine views. While Middle Fork's crux has a much more challenging optional rock climb, North Fork is rougher throughout and has a couple of unavoidable obstacles. The two trails together, along with a short section of Saints John Road, make a fine loop. Or either of them can be combined with Saints John or Deer Creek to connect Breckenridge to Montezuma. North Fork Swan can be done in a good, high-clearance, stock truck with a skilled driver. The tallest rock obstacle (at waypoint 5) can be bypassed by narrower rigs, but full size trucks will have to clear the 18" rocker panel biter. Full size trucks will also need a bit more nerve to get through the V-notch (waypoint 6). And, naturally, wet or snowy conditions will bump up the difficulty a notch or two for everyone. 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! Cellphone signal will be spotty to nonexistent throughout this trail. 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. West Trailhead (0.00 mi)
North Fork and Middle Fork share an eastern 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. In 2018, the Forest Service added a seasonal gate here.
2. Large Campsite/Seasonal Gate (0.60 mi)
While there are many dispersed campsites along the lower, forested section of the trail, this is one of the few where large RVs and trailers will have plenty of room. The seasonal gate is officially closed from November through May, although the gate is often closed well into June and some parts of the trail can be impassible with snow as late as July.
3. Intersection with Closed Trail (1.80 mi)
The well established trail to the left winds its way for a couple of miles through the woods to the ruins of an old mine. Sadly, it is now closed to vehicles. Continue straight on FS 354.
4. Fork/Water Crossing, FS 356 (2.30 mi)
At the ruins of the mining camp of Rexford, follow FS 356 which forks to the right up Garibaldi Gulch. FS 354 continues up the North Fork of the Swan River. (North Fork Swan Extension trail coming soon.) Just after the fork is a water crossing. In Spring, the water can be fast and somewhat deep, but nothing to worry about. After this point, the trail becomes noticeably narrower, rockier, and more picturesque.
5. Large Rock (2.70 mi)
Here, a large, embedded rock blocks the trail. Narrow trucks might be able to just squeeze by on the left. Stock trucks that can't bypass left should stay to the right to minimize the chance of this guy biting your rocker panels. Shortly after this, a dead end spur forks to the left. Stay right to continue on FS 356.
6. V-Notch (3.10 mi)
Here begins a couple hundred yards of washed out v-notch. At one point (pictured) a stubborn tree will take a swipe at your mirror, but good wheel placement will get you through. Full size trucks can get by with skill (or a certain lack of concern for body damage). Naturally, if this section is wet, there is a greater risk of slipping to one side or the other, so use caution.
7. Cabin (3.40 mi)
To the left is a maintained emergency cabin that is usually stocked with basic survival supplies.
8. Mine Ruins/Switchback (3.60 mi)
Just as the trail breaks treeline, there are some mine ruins to the left with a small parking area. The trail takes sharp switchback to the right.
9. T-Intersection (3.70 mi)
At this well marked intersection, we recommend you take the short, optional spur to the right. This leads to the summit of Wise Mountain. Otherwise, turn left, subtract 0.4 miles from all subsequent points, and skip to waypoint 10.
10. Wise Mountain (Optional) (3.90 mi)
The summit of Wise Mountain is a popular photo op and lunch spot with fantastic views. Just below the summit are the ruins of a large shaft house. (Interesting to look at. Dangerous to explore! Seriously! There is a 1200 foot vertical shaft under there! They probably won't bother to fish out your body.) To the south, Breckenridge Ski Resort is spread across the Ten Mile range. To the east across the Middle Fork Swan Valley, you might be able to make out the summit of Georgia Pass on the shoulder of Mount Guyot. And to the north, your next obstacle awaits: the two forks of Rocky Hill. A maintained emergency cabin here is usually stocked with basic supplies. There's also a guest book, so stop in and leave your mark. [EDIT: See third pic. Sadly, after 140 years, sometime in early 2018, the floor of the cabin collapsed. It's no long safe. Please steer clear.] The summit can get crowded on weekends, so please be respectful. After you've got a good picture of your rig in front of the cabin, park elsewhere to give others a shot. And, above all, DO NOT drive on the delicate tundra grass! Stay the Trail!
11. Bottom of Rocky Hill (4.60 mi)
From this point, you should be able to see if any trucks are coming down the ridge line to your right. If so, it would be a good idea to let them come down before beginning your climb. The next few hundred yards are the most technical of North Fork Swan. The rocks here are very loose and get bigger as you climb. About half way up, the more difficult option forks to the right. It is very steep and the soft soil and bowling ball sized rocks offer very little in the way of traction. The easier left fork (represented in the GPX track) is less steep and the rocks are a bit smaller, but still challenging.
12. Top of Rocky Hill (4.80 mi)
If you are traveling from east to west, most of Rocky Hill is hidden from view below. The easier option is to the right. The ATVs pictured are descending the much looser and much steeper left fork. Take a moment to watch for traffic come up. There is no option for passing on the hill.
13. Scenic Overlook (5.30 mi)
This is the highest point of the trail, just over 12,600 feet. There are two points in the ridge line, maybe 100 yards apart. Each offer a small parking area and epic views. Just be sure not to drive on the tundra grass. On a clear day, you can just make out the summits of Santa Fe Peak and Red Cone to the east. Across the valley below, you can see a bit of Middle Fork Swan, and beyond that, the summit of Georgia Pass on the shoulder of Mount Guyot.
14. East Trailhead (5.80 mi)
After a short, rocky descent, the trail ends at Saints John Road, FS 275. To continue on Saints John down to Montezuma, turn left. Continue straight to meet up with Middle Fork Swan River and Deer Creek, FS 5.

Directions to Trailhead

Trailhead Coordinates: 39.513170, -105.947110

Starting Point: Breckenridge/Frisco

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. Right (east), and across a narrow bridge, is FS 6, Middle Fork Swan River.

Camping

Dispersed
Dispersed camping is allowed all along the route. The lower part of North Fork has several large, flat campsites that can accommodate small RVs. Further up are smaller tent sites. There are a few National Forest campgrounds at nearby Lake Dillon. More civilized lodging can be found in Breckenridge, Frisco, Dillon, and Silverthorne.
Camping: North Fork Swan River

Trail Reviews (18)

Author:
Status: Open
Offroaded on:
Rating:
Drove a 08 TRD Tundra *3" Lift, A/T tires, UCA's , Custom Exhaust thru rear fender 😶👍, Rest is basically Stock - I Began the North Swan Trail around 2pm, Slow Going Especially when you get to the 'Large Rock' - I risked going around this to the Left.. Very Sketchy as my rear Tires sort of slipped around this Rock towards the Loose and slippery Edge of the Trail, Powered onwards to stay on. V-Notch: Believe the Rumors, I stayed as Center of the Trail as possible, Both of the Rear view Mirrors got Pushed In by the sides of 'V'. I Kept throttle Steady in 4 Lo- and By the Skin of my Teeth - Made it Through. Very Nerve Wracking, especially since I hadn't prepared to undertake such a Dangerous Maneuver on this trail.. BUT No Damage, Not A Scratch. I would Not Take the Tundra through that again. Rest of the Trail was Easy Compared to the V. Rocky Climbs to the top, slow and in 4 Lo- also not Stopping , as this truck weighs 7 thousand pounds and I did struggle a bit. Overall it was an Exciting endeavor. A Winch would Certainly set the Mind at Ease. Finished down Saints John in Montezuma around 5:30 . Best of Luck to anyone taking a Full Size Rig through.. 😅

Author:
Status: Open
Offroaded on:
Rating:
I took Saints John up and over to the cabin, obligatory cabin pic, then down North Fork. As others have said...V-Notch...it's legit. I don't know how many more years it will last before full size rigs are just not going to make it without some damage. Not hating on them but I think the UTV's add a lot to this because they have narrower wheelbases that wallow the center out even more. Thanks to all who have posted pics and the off-camber is certainly in and of itself a little bit unnerving but as others have said, the side tolerances are just crazy...we're down to inches here and that's on my 3rd Gen 4Runner which is skinnier than a lot of full size rigs. I don't have a good pic because well...I was trapped in my rig. I lined it up, got a few inches on each side, pulled mirrors in, and rolled through as quick as I could. Looking at it closely the only answer for fixing this in the near future is building the one side up with some decent rocks. Crazy to think that it's wallowed away this deep over all these years. Anyway, if all this spooks you (and if you have a nice full size rig maybe it should), I'd take Middle Fork instead to get up on top. Until this gets fixed I won't take my rig through this anytime again soon.

Author:
Status: Open
Offroaded on:
Ran this trail on Sunday 8-11-19. Open all the way through. Saw some mountain goats at the top. The V-notch is legit. I was crawling up really carefully with less than an inch between the root sticking out and my 100 series land cruiser. Fun trail though

Author:
Status: Impassable
Offroaded on:
Open to the split at Waypoint 11. I saw one well equipped JKR make it down the left split, but neither of us were willing to go up it. He mentioned that he got stuck higher up and tried digging out for 45 minutes before a couple UTV's pulled him out. (Lots of fresh tracks on the tundra from people bypassing this area. We saw three UTV's make fresh tracks to the right and left of the split.) Lots of people have taken the bypass at Waypoint 8 due to the snow just past the mine ruins.

Author: Official Crew
Status: Impassable
Offroaded on:
The trail is very wet with runoff especially along the section between Waypoints 4 and 8. The Rocky Hill (Waypoint 11) is blocked with snow. (I flew my drone over it for the pics below.) The easy route is very nearly clear and maybe someone with more intestinal fortitude than me could try busting through. The hard route is buried deep and will be for a while yet. I got second-hand reports that the high tundra is blocked with a drift somewhere, but I could not verify this.

Author:
Status: Open
Offroaded on:
Rating:
I ran Georgia Pass and then North Fork Swan River. There was a bit of snow in Georgia Pass area but nothing along the North Fork Swan River trail. Amazing view from Wise Mountain to East Trailhead.

Author: Official Crew
Status: Open
Offroaded on:
Rating:
Gorgeous day. Awesome trails! Ran the big loop to Montezuma in our SxS. North Fork Swan, Saints John, Deer Creek, Middle Fork Swan. The cabin on Whale Mountain had some locals visiting. We followed the rules and didn't approach them, but they had no fear in approaching us! They seemed fascinated by our ride. We were VERY sad to see that the cabin floor has collapsed! Not sure how much longer it will last. Also, the seasonal gate has been moved to waypoint 1. Snowmobilers who used to camp at the old gate will be disappointed!

Author:
Status: Open
Offroaded on:
Rating:
Trail is open and clear of snow. Due to bad planning and stubbornness on my part, I did the gnarliest part of this in the dark last night. Not exactly the recommended method, but I made it. Camped at the summit and drove down Deer Creek in the morning. As is mentioned elsewhere, full size trucks not recommended, particularly in the notch. Also, do not attempt the spur trail around waypoint 4 in a fullsize, you won't be able get through unless you want to chainsaw some dead trees, and it's quite a ways to backup to where you can turn around. All in all, a beautiful trail. Highly recommended if you can hang with the v-notch and some challenging rocks.

Author: Official Crew
Status: Seasonal Closure
Offroaded on:
Rating:
Seasonal gate is still locked.

Author: Official Crew
Status: Seasonal Closure
Offroaded on:
Rating:
As of Memorial Day 2018, the gate is still closed.

Author: Official Crew
Status: Partially Open
Offroaded on:
Rating:
Summit County has had a couple of snow storms now. Most trails that go above treeline are blocked with snow.

Author:
Status: Partially Open
Offroaded on:
Didn't make it passed the V-Grove (step 6), stock Jeep Rubicon with winch, had to use the winch four or five times to make it up because deep snow (12+"). Eventually had to back down the vgrove and turn around.

Author: Official Crew
Status: Open
Offroaded on:
Rating:
We took our SxS up North Fork and looped around Saints John, Deer Creek, and Middle Fork. I guess since school has started the crowds are winding down. We only saw a handful of SxS's and and two trucks the whole day. We DID however, see a male and female moose hanging out in the willow brush. Even with some recent rain, the trails are pretty dry and sometimes dusty. Afternoon storms rolled in and made us nervous about lightning, but we only got a few sprinkles of rain. Over all, a great day!

Author: Official Crew
Status: Open
Offroaded on:
Excellent trail with amazing high alpine views! We ran the trail in the opposite direction of this guide. It was wet and the section around Waypoint 4, the V-Notch was slippery and lost traction for a brief moment on the descent.

Author:
Status: Partially Open
Offroaded on:
Trail still snow pack covered near top. A guy on an ATV Claimed he was able to bypass but I'm not sure he knew what he was talking about. It did not look passable. [T.O.: Thanks, Kevin! And, yes. "Bypass" is a dirty word when it comes to these conditions. STAY THE TRAIL!! It took me a while to figure out, but I believe that pic is from Middle Fork Swan. North Fork is open through.]

Author: Official Crew
Status: Open
Offroaded on:
The seasonal gate is open and the trail is clear from end to end including Wise Mountain. There is a little remaining snow blocking the right side of the "Y" between waypoints 11 & 12, but the left side is clear. As of June 24th, all other routes leading out of North Fork were either gated, or blocked by snow, so at this time, you must return the way you came.

Author: Official Crew
Status: Seasonal Closure
Offroaded on:
Rating:
Due to heavy snow in May, the Dillon Ranger District has kept the seasonal gates closed several weeks past the normal opening date. A ranger told me that, even though the road up to the gate is clear and dry, the trail has heavy snow further up.

Author: Official Crew
Status: Partially Open
Offroaded on:
Rating:
The late coming of winter in 2016 means that most of the high passes are still open in mid November. However, the lower, treed sections of North Fork Swan are extremely icy. Places were spring water crosses the trail have iced over forcing the spring water to run down the trail where it has frozen into an ice rink. Just before waypoint 5 the trail is pretty much impassible with ice. One could probably manage to winch past this section, but the risk of sliding into the creek or into a tree made it not worth the effort for our trip. The forest service will be closing gates on November 23rd, so there's only one weekend left anyway.

Questions & Answers (3)

Q: Just curious how the trail is after waypoint 4 if you stay straight...it kind of goes to a "hook" shape at the end. Thanks!
–Shawna (07/18/2019)
A: "North Fork Swan Extension" is on the list of trails to add soon. I haven't had any condition reports, but it only just reaches tree-line so it might be clear to the top.
–Trint Ladd (07/18/2019)
Q: So is it clear over to Wise Mountain? We'd love to check it out sometime this week. Thanks!
–Shawna (07/15/2019)
A: Thank you so much, Trint! Thinking of trying it on Thursday...maybe a day or two more will help dry it out a bit. Thank you for all your responses... You always go the extra mile to look into things and answer quickly...thank you for that :)
–Shawna (07/15/2019)
A: From the Tiger Road side, yes.
–Trint Ladd (07/15/2019)
Q: Can a full size F150 do this or would it be smarter to go from Montezuma?
–Nick Obletz (06/19/2018)
A: I made it through in a 2014 GMC 1500. The V-Notch was tough and the rain we encountered during the ride made the rocky hill extremely tough. But I'm happy to say not a single dent or scratch.
–Alan Kassen (07/16/2018)
A: I did it last night in a 98 4runner. I wouldn't want to do it in a full size. The V notch will suck. also there's some downed trees that have been cut back, but the space left to squeeze through is quite narrow. If you're in a full size I would do Deer Creek/Saints John instead.
–Colin (07/05/2018)
A: "Can it do it" is a very subjective question. The V-notch will be very tight and may cause body damage. If you're okay with that, then, sure. Personally, I'd avoid this in a full size, but I'm too old to consider dents cool.
–Trint Ladd (06/19/2018)

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 pretty Toyota Tacoma, but still feels the same way about superior engineering. 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.
For individual use only, not to be shared.