Mount Hopkins, Arizona, December 2020

On Thursday, December 3, I hiked to the summit of Mount Hopkins in the Santa Rita Mountains of Southern Arizona. The Santa Rita mountains form the southern border of the Tucson basin. The highest peak of the range, Mount Wrightson, rises about 7000 feet above Tucson. It is accompanied to its west by lower Mount Hopkins. Both peaks are quite visible from bicycle routes in Tucson. I had hiked Mount Wrightson in March 2015, but had not yet visited Mount Hopkins. So it was past time to do so.

Mount Hopkins from the Super Trail (2015-03-10)
Mount Hopkins from the Super Trail (2015-03-10)
Mount Wrightson from the Agua Caliente Trail
Mount Wrightson from the Agua Caliente Trail

I drove to Madera Canyon and parked at the end of the road with access to several trails. I followed the Old Baldy, Vault Mine, and Agua Caliente Trails to a saddle below Mount Hopkins on its east side. It was quite windy and cool in the morning, but I was sheltered from most of the wind while climbing up the steep north side of the peak.

The summit observatory comes into view from the saddle at 7300 feet
The summit observatory comes into view from the saddle at 7300 feet
The view towards the summit from the brushy ridge. The trail intersects the summit road at the structure above on the ridge.
The view towards the summit from the brushy ridge. The trail intersects the summit road at the structure above on the ridge.

From the saddle I followed an unmaintained trail up a brushy ridge to intersect the paved summit road. I was fortunate to have this trail leading through the dense brush. A car passed by just before I reached the road.

The view of the summit from where I gained the road
The view of the summit from where I gained the road

I hiked up the paved road towards the summit. I passed a road construction site but saw no one there. No other cars passed by as I climbed the road.

The Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory plaque near the visitor parking lot
The Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory plaque near the visitor parking lot
The FLWO building on Mount Hopkins rotates as needed
The FLWO building on Mount Hopkins rotates as needed

The Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory (FLWO) is located beside the remaining summit of Mount Hopkins. As I passed observatory buildings I exchanged waves with the driver of a parked car. The support buildings I passed were closed, but the observatory itself had cars parked outside and some activity inside. I saw no other visitors.

The Tucson Basin to the north from the FLWO
The Tucson Basin to the north from the FLWO
Looking west from the FLWO. Baboquivari Peak is the tower left of center on the skyline. Kitt Peak is just right of center on the skyline.
Looking west from the FLWO. Baboquivari Peak is the tower left of center on the skyline. Kitt Peak is just right of center on the skyline.

I took many photos from near the observatory building. Afterwards, I found the highest natural point remaining of the peak and tagged it. I stopped for a solitary lunch at a picnic table just below the buildings and noted a few white-breasted nuthatches in the trees nearby.

Mount Wrightson to the east from near the summit of Mount Hopkins. I accessed the road at the hairpin turn below.
Mount Wrightson to the east from near the summit of Mount Hopkins. I accessed the road at the hairpin turn below.
An Arizona Yellow-eyed Junco (Junco phaeonotus ssp. palliatus) beside the the FLWO road
An Arizona Yellow-eyed Junco (Junco phaeonotus ssp. palliatus) beside the the FLWO road

As I descended the road I paused for many photos, including some of Arizona Yellow-eyed Juncos (Junco phaeonotus ssp. palliatus).

Alligator Juniper (Juniperus deppeana) at the saddle
Alligator Juniper (Juniperus deppeana) at the saddle

I returned to the unmaintained trail and descended it back to the saddle. From there I descended the Agua Caliente and Carrie Nation Trails back to my Jeep, passing only two other hikers on my way.

It was a pretty, if breezy, day and I had almost all of it to myself. I learned that evening that the summit road and observatory have been closed to the public since March. I’m glad I had not done my homework and got to enjoy my visit in ignorance and solitude.

Paul McClellan

About Paul McClellan

I had the good fortune to have spent most of my life in the Pacific Northwest, where I discovered the joys and addiction of hiking and climbing in the Cascade Mountains and other mountain ranges in the Western United States.
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