What It’s Like Driving the Swift Trail in Arizona

Swift Trail Arizona

Arizona has a ton of beautiful routes spanning across its lands but only a handful lead visitors up to one of the Sky Islands and out of the 100 degree heat. The Swift Trail is one Scenic Byway that does just that!

Located in the South Eastern part of Arizona, the Swift Trail climbs 6000 feet to the top ridge of the Pinalenos Mountains which sit at 9,000 feet. Visitors pass through five biotic communities- from desert scrub to conifer forests- in a single day’s journey!

If you’re looking for a summer drive to cooler temperatures or hunting for fall colors, look no further.

In this post I go over travel information, camping, and hikes along the Swift Trail. Buckle up because it is going to be a beautiful ride!

Quick Info

Distance: 34 miles one way.

Start & End Points: Turn right at the Swift Trail Junction off highway 191 onto State Route 366 and drive to Riggs Flat Lake or as far as you please. Turn around and head back down the way you came.

Drive Time: 1.5 hours one way without stops.

Road Conditions: Paved until the last 11 miles. 4×4 not required.

Seasons: Year round except for a portion closed during winter.

Fees & Permits: None unless you plan on stopping at the campgrounds for day use or camping. $8 for day use and $20 per night.

About The Swift Trail

Designated as one of Arizona’s Scenic Byways, the Swift Trail is a 34 mile long route that climbs 6000 feet to the top of the Pinalenos Mountains in the Coronado National Forest.

Originally this mountainous route could only accommodate horses and mules, but was later widened so wagons and larger vehicles could transport lumber.

In the 1920’s the route was further improved and named Swift Trail after Thomas T. Swift, the first supervisor of the Crook National Forest. In 1953 the forest was re-named Coronado National Forest which is what we know it as today.

We truly owe thanks for recreational access to the Civilian Conservation Corps, who during the Great Depression began constructing roads, trail systems, and campgrounds!

facilities

The Swift Trail travels up into the mountains in a remote area. Therefore there are no services such as stores or accommodations. You can find campgrounds and day-use recreational sites that host vault toilets, but that is the extent of what is offered off this road!

best time to visit

Summer and fall are the best seasons to drive the Swift Trail! Summer temperatures in the Pinalenos Mountains are usually 20 degrees cooler than down below where it reaches 100. At this elevation the weather can be a bit unpredictable and scattered thunderstorms are common. You’ll want to be very careful for flash floods and rockslides along the road if it does rain.

During fall the leaves change colors as you drive up in elevation. If you’re wanting to see some fall color this would be a wonderful drive to take!

The road is open during winter depending upon the weather. Along the way there are several gates that will be closed if the route is deemed too dangerous. A portion of the dirt road leading to Riggs Flat Lake is closed during winter every year, meaning you won’t be able to reach the lake and campground during this season.

For up to date information on area closures and forest restrictions visit this website.

Driving the Swift Trail

Vehicle Requirements

The Swift Trail is a paved two lane road for a majority of the way. It is in great condition so I would not be worried about which vehicle or bike travels up it.

However the last 11.1 miles are dirt and if you plan on driving all the way to Riggs Flat Lake I suggest at the very least driving an SUV and not a sedan. The dirt portion is surprisingly well maintained so 4×4 or high clearance is not required.

As for the size of RV’s and trailers- I saw plenty of drivers towing trailers full of side-by-sides and small campers. I also saw small RV’s camped in some of the campgrounds so I’m assuming they travel just fine on this road. However large trailers and buses would have a difficult time with the hairpin turns and sizes of camping spots, so I would not recommend these!

Love scenic drives and Western towns? Visit the Old West Town of Tortilla Flat, Arizona.

Driving The Swift Trail

Many visitors travel up the Swift Trail to stay at one of the many campgrounds or hike one of the trails. Most, however, will make the scenic drive up and back down in one day. This can easily be done and is worth it in my book!

What is so special about this Scenic Byway you may be wondering? Well, for starters it climbs 6000 feet in elevation leading visitors through five different biotic communities, or different vegetation.

Not only that but the Pinalenos Mountains are considered one of the highest Sky Islands in Arizona. A Sky Island is basically a tall area of lush forest that juts out of the surrounding desert land, making it unique.

Swift Trail

To experience this for yourself you’ll travel down a long, straight and flat portion of road that passes by a prison and some run-down neighborhoods before the base of the mountains. This area is the first biotic community known as Sonoran Desertscrub, but it quickly gives way to the Semidesert Grassland, the second biotic community. The difference between these is almost unnoticeable to the average eye.

As you begin gaining elevation and driving through a series of hairpin turns you’ll notice the vegetation transitioning to the third biotic community- Madrean Evergreen Woodland. Think Juniper trees! This happens at roughly 5000 feet and only lasts a couple miles.

Along the side of the road are few pull-off spots where you can stop to take in the views and peer at the winding road below.

Swift Trail AZ

Once you reach 6000 in elevation the biotic community transitions to the fourth and main one you’ll travel through for the remainder of your trip- Rocky Mountain Montane Conifer Forest. This is where you’ll witness the tall Ponderosa Pines towering above you!

When I drove the Swift Trail I had arrived just after a July rainstorm passed through. The ground was wet and the fresh 60 degree air mixed with wet pine only added to my experience. There even was some snow on the ground!

At 9,000 feet you’ll have traveled to the top ridge of the mountains. The rest of the Swift Trail follows along the ridge, twisting and turning deeper into the wilderness past more campgrounds.

Wildlife you may spot along the way include red squirrel, elk, deer, black bear, wild turkey, and mountain lion.

Swift Trail Arizona

You have the option to take a right hand turn and drive to the top of Mount Graham, the tallest peak which hosts an observatory lookout at 10,713 feet. Here you can witness the fifth biotic community- Rocky Mountain Subalpine Conifer Forest– which occurs above 9,000 feet in elevation.

I opted out of this and decided to travel the entire Swift Trail to the Riggs Flat Campground!

The last 11.1 miles turns into a well maintained dirt road. I was surprised at the condition of it considering the rainstorm that just passed through. You’ll notice that the road narrows to one lane which is typical for unpaved mountain roads.

Swift Trail AZ

The dirt road continues to wind through the forest past a few campgrounds and the National Forest Service Visitor Center. Past the visitor center in the last campground and final destination on the Swift Trail- the Riggs Flat Lake and Campground.

I parked here to walk the dogs around the lake and through the campground loop, enjoying the cool weather. We had lunch before heading back down the Swift Trail!

Riggs Flat Lake Campground
Riggs Flat Lake at Riggs Flat Campground

Swift Trail Campgrounds

Cost: Day use $8, camping $20 per night. Bring cash!
Availability: April 15 – November 14, first come first serve

Reaching the Swift Trail could be a full day of driving for many. Luckily there are several campgrounds along the route that you can plan on staying at to make the trip more worth your effort. I highly suggest planning on camping during your visit because once you reach the cooler temperatures and forest full of fresh air you’ll find yourself wanting to stay.

Below is a list of campgrounds in order as you drive up the Swift Trail. Plan on arriving early to secure a spot because all campgrounds do fill up on prime camping weekends and holidays!

  • Arcadia Campground – 20 sites, vault toilet, tables and fire grills
  • Shannon Campground – 11 sites, vault toilet, tables and fire grills
  • Hospital Flat Campground – 10 sites, vault flush toilet, tables and fire grills
  • Cunningham Campground – 10 sites, fire grills
  • Columbine Corral’s Campground*
  • Soldier Creek Campground* – 12 sites, flush toilet, tables and fire grills
  • Riggs Flat Campground* – 32 sites, vault toilets, tables and fire grills

The last 3 campgrounds marked with an asterix (*) are accessed off the dirt portion of the Swift Trail. Riggs Flat Campground is 11.1 miles from pavement and hosts Riggs Flat Lake which is a beautiful area to stop at for a picnic if you’re on a day trip.

Don’t forget the Leave No Trace principals! Pack out what you pack in and put our your fires fully.

Hiking Trails Off The Swift Trail

For those who want to stop and explore on foot there are several trailheads along the Swift Trail. Ever since the last wildfire swept through the area, though, the trails have been neglected and therefore become overgrown.

I did not stop to attempt any of these trails myself, however recent reviews have stated that they were very difficult to follow. If you do attempt one of these hiking trails below please be sure you have a GPS system and/or map!

  • Arcadia- 5.1 miles
  • Clark Peak- 6.7 miles
  • Bear Canyon- 6 miles
  • Deadman- 3.4 miles
  • Cunningham Loop- 5.6 miles
  • Ash Creek- 8.2 miles
  • Frye Canyon- 2.8 miles
  • Grant Creek- 5.5 miles
  • Grant/Goudy Ridge- 6.4 miles
  • Ladybug- 5.9 miles
  • Round the Mountain- 15 miles
  • Shake- 5.1 miles
  • Webb Peak- 2.8 miles

Utilize Gaia GPS to stay on trail and know where you’re at! The small annual fee unlocks all features and map layers to elevate your backcountry safety.

Final Thoughts on The Swift Trail

As summer hits Phoenix it is difficult to get outside and enjoy the outdoors, especially with dogs! My trip to the Swift Trail was a long day trip that took 12-13 hours round trip.

It was worth it to me because our German Shepherd and Alaskan Malamute were able to enjoy the 60 degree weather and actually walk around outside!

The drive up in the mountains was scenic and fun. Arizona is so diverse and I enjoy traveling around to witness the different landscapes and environments it offers. Next visit I plan on camping in one of the campgrounds and attempting one of the hikes!

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I’d love to hear from you!

Have you driven the Swift Trail already, or have you ever heard of it before? Share in the comments below!

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