The Mount Hopkins Road to the Observatory

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by Richard A. Zidonis   Contact Rich

My wife said: "Look at that!"

I said: "I'm busy."

I didn't check her facial expression to gauge whether or not she thought me abrupt, but if she considered our circumstances, she would have to conclude that perhaps I said two words too many.

As she spoke, our eleven-year old 4x4 happened to be positioned on a ledge road a few hundred feet above the surrounding terrain, and there was nothing, literally, to prevent us from being where we were - on a flat surface, to where we didn't want to be - on a vertical surface going down, down, down.

Such sets the scene for driving the Mount Hopkins Road to the Whipple Observatory.

Here's how the road is described on the web: "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."

Like I said during our ascent, "I'm busy."

Here's more: "The Mt. Hopkins Road is an unpaved, winding mountain road, one lane wide in a number of places. Extreme caution must be used 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."

Perhaps "I'm busy" is an understatement.

In the fact check department, I can offer this:

1. The views are breathtaking. My wife said so.

2. A passenger car can make the trip.

3. The surface is indeed dirt.

4. The road is mostly one lane with occasional wide spots, but don't read too much into my use of the word "wide."

5. The description above mentions "without guardrails," and that is mostly true. I don't know the proper definition of the word "guardrail," but those in use on this road are not substantial. In fact, in a few places, the guardrails are losing their own battle to gravity. Will they stop your vehicle? I don't want to know.

6. Yes, driving up and down did require my full attention. Limited site distance? You bet. The road is more or less a series of switchbacks. The turns are sharp, and oncoming traffic does not always present itself in advance. Although the road was not slippery the day we journeyed forth, adding water - or snow - to the mix, would make the trip, well, more challenging. Although we traveled the dirt road in late April, there was still a trace of snow at higher elevations.

7. We traveled on a Sunday. We met one car coming at us on the way up, and two cars coming at us on the way down.

Speaking of which, let's visit the theme of that last sentence: you're going up, the other guy is going down, and you both meet on a nasty, one-lane section of the road. Quick, who does what? The resolution is somewhat universal throughout the United States. I found this particular version of The Rule in the California Driver Handbook, and I quote that source because the information is succinct and well written:

When two vehicles meet on a steep road where neither can pass, the vehicle facing downhill must yield the right-of-way by backing up until the vehicle going uphill can pass. The vehicle facing downhill has the greater amount of control when backing.

I'll drink to that... but not while I'm driving. I've tried both, and I can conclusively say that the road looms larger in one's rear window when backing up a hill than when backing down. One problem with The Rule is that the other guy might not know about it. Now what do you do?

So, how do you get there?

It was a lazy, beautiful, late April Sunday when my wife suggested we travel up Mount Hopkins Road to view the Ocotillo in bloom. There's quite a population of the plant along the road. The Ocotillo's fluorescent orange flags are just brilliant and beautiful in the Arizona sun.

You access Mount Hopkins Road from Elephant Head Road. From the north, exit I-19 at Canoa Ranch Road. Pass under I-19 to the EAST Frontage Road. Turn right. Travel about three miles to Elephant Head Road. Turn left. Mount Hopkins Road is about two miles down on the right. Make that right turn and continue on. Just past the Observatory's Visitors' Center, the road turns to dirt, and that can only mean that your adventure has begun.

Near the Observatory's Visitor Center, you will see a sign informing that the "road ahead is single-lane, unpaved, and steep." And for those with a number superstition, the sign adds that there is a "Locked gate at kilometer 13." What? Couldn't they have put the gate at kilometer 12 or 14? I'm just saying....

There is a parking area at the locked gate. From the parking area, there is a tremendous view to the east, and it is possible to continue on past the gate on foot to a number of vantage points presenting an equally spectacular view to the west.

Enjoy. And remember, it's not the fall that kills you. It's that sudden stop.