DNA hairpins produce ionic current signatures when captured by the alpha-hemolysin nano-scale pore under conditions of single molecule electrophoresis. Gating patterns produced by individual DNA hairpins when captured can be used to distinguish differences of a single base pair or even a single nucleotide [Vercoutere,W.A. et al. (2003) Nucleic Acids Res., 31, 1311–1318]. Here we investigate the mechanism(s) that may account for the ionic current gating signatures. The ionic current resistance profile of conductance states produced by DNA hairpin molecules with 3–12 bp stems showed a plateau in resistance between 10 and 12 bp, suggesting that hairpins with 10–12 bp stems span the pore vestibule. DNA hairpins with 9–12 bp stems produced gating signatures with the same relative conductance states. Systematic comparison of the conductance state dwell times and apparent activation energies for a series of 9–10 bp DNA hairpins suggest that the 3′ and 5′ ends interact at or near the limiting aperture within the vestibule of the alpha-hemolysin pore. The model presented may be useful in predicting and interpreting DNA detection using nanopore detectors. In addition, this well-defined molecular system may prove useful for investigating models of ligand-gated channels in biological membranes.