Located at the base of Mt. Hopkins in the Santa Rita Mountains, 56 kilometers (35 miles) south of Tucson and just within the boundary of the Coronado National Forest, the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory Visitors Center features displays and exhibits on astronomy and astrophysics, natural science, and cultural history.
Exhibits include models of the original 4.5-meter and converted 6.5-meter Multiple Mirror Telescope, a three-dimensional model of galaxy distribution in the universe, and a touchable topographical map of the Santa Rita Mountains.
Other displays trace the history of optical telescope development from Galileo to the new instruments planned for the 21st Century, recount the many Smithsonian research projects in Arizona during the past century, and describe current investigations in gamma-ray astronomy. A natural history exhibit examines those animals active in the nighttime, and features a large color transparency of the night sky over southern Arizona.
All exhibits and public areas are accessible; and, major exhibit titles have been translated into Spanish. (A full-text, bilingual guide to selected exhibits is available.)
In addition to the interior exhibits, the Visitors Center complex includes an outdoor patio with a Native American petroglyph discovered on site during construction, interpretative signage describing desert flora, and stunning views of the surrounding Santa Rita Mountains.
Two spotting devices, a 20-power telescope with an individual adjustable focus and a set of wide-field binoculars with automatic focusing, are installed on the outdoor patio of the Visitors Center. Manufactured by SeeCoast, Inc. and acquired through a Smithsonian Institution Special Exhibition Fund grant, the telescope and binoculars allow public visitors to capture close-up views of the MMT Observatory on the distant summit of Mt. Hopkins, as well as to view natural features of the surrounding Santa Rita Range of the Coronado National Forest and to see the telescopes of the Kitt Peak Observatory located some 50 miles to the west.
Most important, the binoculars are mounted on a wheel-chair-accessible base. The addition is the latest in a series of features incorporated into the Whipple Observatory Visitors Center designed to make the facility accessible to broader audiences. For example, a rest and recreation area at the entrance to the site has a ramp leading to a wheel-chair accessible picnic table and cook-stove as well as rest rooms; and, a major part of its nature trail has a hardened surface. Presentation videos are open-captioned; and, for guests from nearby Mexico, a guide to exhibit and display text is available in Spanish.
The wheel-chair-accessible binoculars at the Whipple Observatory Visitors Center have also proven very popular with small astronomers.
The Visitors Center is open 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. (Please note that the Visitors Center is closed on Federal Holidays.) Special Star Parties, featuring lectures and telescopic viewing, are held quarterly at the Center on a Saturday, starting late in the afternoon.
A trailhead, rest rooms, and picnic area developed by the Forest Service and located just outside the main gate are open 24 hours a day. There are benches, grills, and a hardened path that leads to vantage points overlooking Montosa Wash, a deep drainage running parallel to the site. A kiosk at the trailhead provides information about camping and hiking as well as other public programs. (The rest rooms and one picnic area are designated as accessible.) The picnic area is a perfect stopping-off spot for tours of other Arizona attractions, including Tumacacori National Historic Park, the San Xavier Mission, Tubac, or Nogales.
Amateur astronomers are invited to bring their telescopes to the "Astronomy Vista," a special observing site with concrete pads and benches along a knoll at an elevation of 1524 meters (5000 feet) approximately 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) east of the Visitors Center on a paved road. Here, within sight of the Multiple Mirror Telescope, amateurs may take advantage of the same clear, dark, Arizona skies so important to professional astronomers. (Access to telescope pads requires climbing a short, but somewhat steep, unpaved trail.)
Touring the Observatory
The Observatory conducts guided tours for the general public on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays from mid-March through November. Tours originate at the Observatory's Visitor Center (which opens at 8:30 a.m.). A video presentation begins at 9 a.m. The bus leaves the office at 9:30 a.m. and returns by 3 p.m. Reservations are required and may be made in advance by calling or writing to the Visitor Center.
The summit elevation of Mount Hopkins is 8,550 feet (2,606 meters). Persons with health problems affected by high altitude should consult their physician beforehand. Some uphill walking, stair climbing, and standing for 15-20 minutes at a time are required in the course of the tour.
The road from the office to the summit is a 10-mile, single-lane dirt road with few guard rails. Person unaccustomed to mountain roads of this type should consider this trip carefully.
To make reservations, call the public information office at (520) 879-4407. Reservations are on a first-come first-served basis up to the 30 visitor maximum each tour day. Because of the duration of the tour, children under six years of age are not permitted. Tickets are purchased on the day of the tour.
- Adults, $7
- Smithsonian Associates (with membership card), $6
- Children (ages 6 to 12), $2.50
There is no charge for schools, youth educational programs and scouting groups.
Group tours (parties of six or more) must pay in full one week prior to the tour date. The unfortunate frequency of last-minute cancellations or no-shows by groups has caused us to adopt this policy.