black jeep wrangler parked on mount hopkins road in southern arizona overlooking mountainous landscape

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How many times have you noticed an unfamiliar road and thought to yourself, “I wonder where that goes?”

One of the many things to love about Arizona is if it isn’t military, mining, or private property, you’re encouraged to explore the vast amount of public lands.

Open roads are irresistible invitations to adventure. 

So when we saw a path winding up the southwest side of the Santa Rita Mountains leading to an observatory on Mt. Hopkins, we accepted that invitation.

We started our exploration using exit 56 on I-19 south on the frontage road just before Amado, Arizona. From there, we turned east on Elephant Head Road and followed brown signs for Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory.

We turned right on Mt. Hopkins Road and arrived at a visitor’s center and picnic area.

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Prickly pear cactus and layers of mountains on a sunny February day in southern Arizona • Author’s photo

Established in 1966, the Whipple Observatory (FLWO) is named after Fred Lawrence Whipple, an American astronomer known for his comet research. 

Today, FLWO is an astronomical research center operated jointly by the University of Arizona and the Smithsonian.

The visitor’s center was closed for renovations when we stopped. Set to reopen in 2024, the new center will showcase astrophysics exhibits and information about FLWO’s history, instrumentation, and discoveries. 

While that was disappointing, it was interesting to check out what we could see of the facility and take a break at the picnic area. Several well-kept informational signs there educate you on the Santa Rita Mountains and the number of telescopes found at the summit of Mt. Hopkins.

Not only is the scientific work being done in this corner of Arizona fascinating, but the drive up Mt. Hopkins Road is a real trip. 

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Driving up Mt. Hopkins Road in Coronado National Forest • Author’s Photo

The narrow, winding path led us to an elevation of 8,585 feet, offering astonishing views of the seemingly endless mountain ranges of southern Arizona. 

Besides the picnic area, just up the road, they offer an amateur astronomy area with concrete pads for setting up telescopes. It’s easy to see how this location, obscured from Tucson’s city lights, provides ideal conditions for stargazing. But as we were there during the day, the only inhabitants of the area were free-range cattle.

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The closest you’ll get to having a guard rail on Mt. Hopkins Observatory Road • Author’s photo

I’m not usually bothered by heights, but I’d be lying if I said the road didn’t make me nervous. The narrowness, blind corners, serious lack of a sturdy guardrail, and switchbacks up the mountain make it, as the U.S. Forest Service calls it, “a drive that will require your full attention.”

Luckily, planners thought the road out well and included many pull-offs to stop and appreciate the scenery or to let traffic pass safely.

With each turn along the ascent, we felt a growing anticipation for what we’d find. The landscape changed as we climbed higher, from the desert scrub at the base to the forests and snow near the summit.

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Top: Part of the Multiple Mirror Telescope (MMT) facility on the summit of Mt. Hopkins | Bottom: Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory visitor’s center • Author’s photos

On our way up, we only passed four cars and two bicycles. So if you want to enjoy one of southern Arizona’s Sky Islands without encountering crowds, this is an excellent place to visit.

The road starts paved, transitions to dirt, and then transitions back to pavement as you near a locked gate at the Multiple Mirror Telescope (MMT) facilities near the summit of Mt. Hopkins. 

The MMT was a groundbreaking concept when it was conceived and was the third-largest telescope in the world at the time. It was also the first telescope housed in a rotating building supported on ball bearings.

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Mt. Hopkins Road winding its way up to the MMT facility • Author’s photo

Today, it’s a hub for astronomers from around the world. Managed by a dedicated team of engineers, technicians, scientists, and administrators, it continues to make discoveries and advancements in astronomy

The observatory’s location reduces atmospheric effects on image quality, making it an ideal spot for deep space exploration.

Although you can’t explore the MMT facility without a scheduled tour, this trip was still worth our time. You can drive the road in a passenger car, but I’d be mindful of the weather, as rain or snow could make the road hazardous quickly.

I wish I’d known more about the area before I explored it on a whim. But that just means I’ll be a little more informed when we go back. Because that is definitely happening.

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The Whipple picnic area and trailhead in Coronado National Forest • Author’s photo

Mt. Hopkins Road and the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory are fun destinations for those looking for adventure in the unforgettable landscape of southern Arizona.

This winding road ended up taking us on an unexpected adventure with dazzling views of vast swaths of the desert landscape and led us to a fascinating astronomical research facility. 

I’ve never been to a place that made my body seem small while making my brain feel bigger. Whether you’re a space nerd, a curious traveler, or both, a trip up Mt. Hopkins Observatory Road is worth the effort.

Things to Know Before You Drive Mt. Hopkins Observatory Road

If you’d like to explore Mt. Hopkins, here’s a few important things to know before you head out:

  • The road is narrow and winding, with only one lane in some sections. So you should be prepared to pull over to let oncoming traffic pass.
  • Weather can change quickly, and snow and ice are not uncommon at higher elevations, so check the weather forecast before driving up the mountain.
  • The road is subject to closures during periods of high fire danger or inclement weather, so you should check with Coronado National Forest or the observatory website for updates.
  • Be mindful of scientific operations and follow any posted signs to avoid disrupting their research.
  • The area is remote, with the nearest towns being Amado, Rio Rico, Nogales, and Green Valley, Arizona. Gas up, take water and food, and be prepared to not have cell signal in a few places.

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