Helical junctions are ubiquitous structural elements that govern the folding and tertiary structure of RNAs. The tobacco ringspot virus hairpin ribozyme consists of two helix-loop-helix elements that lie on adjacent arms of a four-way junction. In the active form of the hairpin ribozyme, the loops are in proximity. The nature of the helical junction determines the stability of the hairpin ribozyme tertiary structure [Walter, N. G., Burke, J. M., and Millar, D. P. (1999) Nat. Struct. Biol. 6, 544-549] and thus its catalytic activity. We used two-, three-, and four-way junction hairpin ribozymes as model systems to investigate the thermodynamic basis for the different tertiary structure stabilities. The equilibrium between docked and extended conformers was analyzed as a function of temperature using time-resolved fluorescence resonance energy transfer (trFRET). As the secondary and tertiary structure transitions overlap, information from UV melting curves and trFRET had to be combined to gain insight into the thermodynamics of both structural transitions. It turned out that the higher tertiary structure stability observed in the context of a four-way junction is the result of a lower entropic cost for the docking process. In the two- and three-way junction ribozymes, a high entropic cost counteracts the favorable enthalpic term, rendering the docked conformer only marginally stable. Thus, two- and three-way junction tertiary structures are more sensitive toward regulation by ligands, whereas four-way junctions provide a stable scaffold. Altogether, RNA folding and stability appear to be governed by principles similar to those for the folding of proteins.