Kitt Peak is the highpoint of the Quinlan Mountains, a small range with dramatic rise over the desert-scape about an hour west of Tucson. Its reliably calm and clear weather and its distance from populated areas makes it a prime location for the study of astronomy. In 1958, the Kitt Peak National Observatory (KPNO) was founded and today over 20 separate optical and radio observatories stand out among the peak’s broad summit and subsidiary ridges.
Kitt Peak is easily visible from Tucson and from various vantage points including the many mountaintops in southern Arizona, and even distant views from along Interstate-10 south of Picacho Peak. The peak stands out even from a long distance due to the Mayall 4-Meter Optical Telescope, which is housed in a huge building sitting very near the true summit of the mountain; even from 50+ miles distant, the hulk of this building stands out against the ridgeline, making it obvious you are looking at Kitt Peak.
Kitt Peak from the AZ86/386 junction (Jan 1, 2007, in snow)
Kitt Peak is named after Philippa Kitt, sister of George Roskruge, surveyor for Pima County in 1930 (The nearby Roskruge Mountains are named for him). The peak sits on the Tohono O’odham Nation, who call the peak Iolkam
. Kitt/Iolkam is leased from the Tohono O’odham by the National Science Foundation; the site will probably at some point in the future be rendered unusable for astronomy due to light pollution, but most expect for the astronomers to be able to use the peak for at least another 50 years.
State highway AZ-386 winds 12 miles up to the summit region of the peak, and many people make the drive to visit and walk among the observatories. The peak is "open" daily from 9 am to 4 pm, mainly to coincide with the visiting hours above. A gate spans the highway near the base at the junction with AZ-86, but it likely will be open even outside of these normal hours. It is possible to participate in evening tours and shows atop the peak, for which you must make advanced arrangements.
Although the sign says the road is open daily, I can state from personal experience that it is shut on Christmas Day and New Year's Day.
The public has essentially unfettered access to the actual summit although I suspect very few people actually bother to scramble the last 40+ vertical feet through boulders and juniper to tag the top. Kitt Peak ranks 60th on the Arizona Prominence list with just under 2,100 feet of prominence. Bear in mind the peak is sacred to the Tohono O'odham, so be respectful of the lands. However, there appears to be no prohibition against hiking and visiting the summit. For those who want a hike, a jeep road comes in from the northeast and makes for a good 10-mile, 2,900-foot gain of a hike, with great views the whole way up.
The following links may be useful:
The main Kitt Peak National Observatory (KPNO) page
A little background on the peak (pdf)
The summit and the Mayall Telescope from about the half-way point of the hike up the jeep road.
From Interstate-19 in Tucson, take Ajo Way (State Highway AZ-86) and head west. (The Ajo Way exit is 1.25 miles south of the interchange with I-19 and I-10).
Drive 38 miles, entering onto the Tohono O'odham Nation, to the junction with AZ-386 and a large sign announcing Kitt Peak. You'll be able to see the peak for pretty much the whole drive out.
The first few miles of driving is in the city, but soon everything thins out to open desert and scattered homes. The junction town of Robles Junction (Three Points) is about equidistant from Tucson and the 86/386 junction. It's the last best place for gas and supplies. Allow about 40 minutes to make the drive barring traffic.
There appears to be no stated prohibition against hiking to the summit nor along the jeep road.
There is no camping available on the Tohono O'odham Nation. The best place to camp (I think) is at the Gilbert Ray campground in the Tucson Mountains Park, which adjoins the Saguaro National Park West Unit.
Gilbert Ray Campground Information and Rates
There are many ways to get here from Tucson. It's an easy 10-minute drive back onto Ajo Way and on to Kitt Peak.
You have essentially two options to gain the summit of Kitt Peak:
Drive AZ-386 to the top.
Make a hard right onto the side access road near the Mayall Telescope, and drive up to a small visitor's lot. The summit is in the rocks to the north of the giant building, marked by a small antenna.
Hike the Jeep Road.
From the 86/386 junction, proceed south on AZ-386 two miles. Just before mile-marker 2, bear left onto a wide dirt road that continues straight. Drive this road about a mile. It will make a left turn, pass a fence near some interesting rocky formations, and come into an open 'borrow' pit. Most vehicles should be able to get here. A sign below mentions the road should only be driven in an emergency but does not prohibit normal access otherwise.
If you park here you'll be at 3,900 feet elevation. The road continues, east then bending back westerly. You can see the jeep road etched into the side of the hills. After about two miles of hiking and 1,300 feet of gain you come to the ridge and an open gate. Now the road is on the south-facing slopes and is much drier and sparser than before. However, your first views of the giant Mayall Telescope now come to view. The size of this scope will make you think you're closer than you actually are. Simply stay on the road as it enters into a scraggly juniper forest, then switchbacks past some various junk to eventually meet with the main highway. Walk by sight to the highpoint.
To gain the summit, walk up to the Mayall Scope, then hang left near the railing. Walk about 40 feet along a scant path to the base of the rocks. Turn left and walk through a small cleft to some conduit and guy-wiring. Scramble up the rocks to the top; juniper trees either get in the way or help with the holds. The USGS BM "Kitts" is embedded in a small depression between three rocks of about equal height.
Looking east is the giant hulk of Coyote Mountain. Further east are the Catalinas (Mt Lemmon), Rincons (Mica and Rincon), Sierritas (Keystone) and Santa Ritas (Wrightson). South is the big pillar Baboquivari. Looking north you can see Gu Achi, which is the prominent gentle-humped peak immediately north, and Table Top, off on the horizon. Looking west is the vast expanse of the Tohono O'odham Nation.
The summit observatory complex
Note about access via Pan Tak and Uhs Kug:
the map shows a road and a trail from the southeast side via Pan Tak/Uhs Kug, but (a) a sign near Pan Tak kindly asks that visitors keep out and that access to Kitt Peak is not available this way, and (b) I saw no hint of any trails or roads that would match the description on the map.
: It may be wise to leave a note in your dash explaining that you are hiking the peak, in case the BP wonders why a vehicle is stashed in this out-of-the-way place.
Looking east at Coyote Mountain
Kitt Peak gets its share of summertime thunderstorms, usually July-September. As with any high peak, lightning is a very real hazard. Go early in the day to increase your chances as the storms usually build in the afternoon. Just be observant and use common sense.