The hairpin ribozyme is a prototype small, self-cleaving RNA motif. It exists naturally as a four-way RNA junction containing two internal loops on adjoining arms. These two loops interact in a cation-driven docking step prior to chemical catalysis to form a tightly integrated structure, with dramatic changes occurring in the conformation of each loop upon docking. We investigate the thermodynamics and kinetics of the docking process using constructs in which loop A and loop B reside on separate molecules. Using a novel CD difference assay to isolate the effects of metal ions linked to domain docking, we find the intermolecular docking process to be driven by sub-millimolar concentrations of the exchangeinert Co(NH3)63+. RNA self-cleavage requires binding of lower-affinity ions with greater apparent cooperativity than the docking process itself, implying that, even in the absence of direct coordination to RNA, metal ions play a catalytic role in hairpin ribozyme function beyond simply driving loop-loop docking. Surface plasmon resonance assays reveal remarkably slow molecular association, given the relatively tight loop-loop interaction. This observation is consistent with a “double conformational capture” model in which only collisions between loop A and loop B molecules that are simultaneously in minor, docking-competent conformations are productive for binding.