Mount Hopkins #184 Scenic Drive

Area Status: Open

Mt. Hopkins Road and Observatory map

The Mount Hopkins Road twists and climbs its way to the upper reaches of the second highest peak in the Santa Rita Range. This narrow, winding mountain road provides access not only to magnificent views but also to the Smithsonian Institution’s Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory, home of the third largest optical telescope in the world. The 4.5-meter Multiple Mirror Telescope, or MMT, is jointly operated by the Smithsonian Institution and the University of Arizona. Views all along this mountain-climbing route are breathtaking, but because the road is a twisting single lane of dirt without guardrails, the drive will require your full attention. The first few miles of the route leading to the mountain, have been paved to provide access to the Whipple Observatory Visitor Center. There, you can learn some interesting facts about the MMT and about observatories in general. You can also make reservations for a day-long field trip that not only takes you up the mountain but offers a tour of the astrophysical site as well. If you choose to drive up the mountain, you won’t be able to get to the observatory or the summit of Mt. Hopkins, since the last three miles are open for guided tours only. Although the open portion of the road does provide dramatic views, there are few turnouts to stop and enjoy them. One of the best overlooks is at the turnaround at the observatory gate where the vista encompasses much of southeast Arizona. There is an amateur astronomy vista along the road at the base of the mountain where concrete pads and benches provide locations for setting up small telescopes. Interpretive signs offer information about astronomy in the Santa Ritas and the area’s geology, plants and animals.

At a Glance

Open Season: Year-round
Closest Towns: In the Santa Rita Mountains south of Tucson
Operated By: Nogales Ranger District

General Information

Directions: From Tucson, take Interstate 19 south to the Canoa Interchange. Leave the highway and drive south on the east frontage road 3 miles to Elephant Head Road. (Or, drive north from Nogales on Interstate 19 to the Arivaca-Amado Interchange. Exit and go north on the east frontage road to Elephant Head Road.) Take Elephant Head Road past the railroad tracks to the Mt. Hopkins Road, then turn right to the F. L. Whipple Observatory Visitor Center and, if you choose, up the mountain.


Scenic Driving

Only road to high reaches of Santa Ritas. Great views, east, west and to the heavens. World famous observatory (guided tours only). Visitor Center and amateur star-gazing area. Mileage/Driving Time: It’s 10 steep, winding miles from the Forest boundary to the point where the road is closed at the Observatory gate (3 miles from the summit). Allow one hour each way. The Mt. Hopkins Road is an unpaved, winding mountain road, one lane wide in a number of places. Extreme caution must be used here due to limited sight distance. At any point the road can be slippery due to loose gravel or a wet surface. Passenger cars can make this trip, but expect to encounter on-coming trucks and other large vehicles from observatory operations. To schedule an Observatory tour, call the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory.