The folding pathways of large, highly structured RNA molecules are largely unexplored. Insight into both the kinetics of folding and the presence of intermediates was provided in a study of the Mg(2+)-induced folding of the Tetrahymena ribozyme by hybridization of complementary oligodeoxynucleotide probes. This RNA folds via a complex mechanism involving both Mg(2+)-dependent and Mg(2+)-independent steps. A hierarchical model for the folding pathway is proposed in which formation of one helical domain (P4-P6) precedes that of a second helical domain (P3-P7). The overall rate-limiting step is formation of P3-P7, and takes place with an observed rate constant of 0.72 +/- 0.14 minute-1. The folding mechanism of large RNAs appears similar to that of many multidomain proteins in that formation of independently stable substructures precedes their association into the final conformation.