At first glance, the wild burros of Oatman, Arizona, seem to steal the whole show, what with their adorable faces, pushy ways, and high-pitched whinnies. But in this fascinating little almost-ghost town, they’re actually just the opening act.
Although the burros are an amusing curiosity, Oatman also boasts a remarkable namesake story, a raucous mining history, and a place on America’s most legendary road: U.S. Route 66. And that’s not even to mention its fun street scene that caters to everyone from shoppers to motorcyclists to sightseers.
With more than a half million visitors a year, Oatman is not exactly a hidden gem. But considering its harsh surroundings, it can feel like the middle of nowhere. And with just 96 residents, the small town is not far from being the ghost town it is often billed as.
Here are nine unique experiences to have in Oatman.
If you’ve heard about Oatman, it is probably because of the Oatman burros, also known as donkeys. Oatman is famous for them. When I visited in late October, more than a dozen burros were wandering the main street, sticking their heads through the rails along the wood-plank sidewalks, nudging people for treats, and otherwise delighting the kids and adults who were visiting.
A sign along the street notes that burros first came to Oatman with early gold prospectors. The animals were used inside the turn-of-the-century mines for hauling rock and ore and were also used outside the mines for hauling water and supplies. As the mines closed and people moved away, the burros were released into the surrounding hills.
Although today’s burros are considered wild, the ones I saw seemed fairly domesticated, bellowing at times for crackers from the shop owners.
Bags of burro food (feed pellets) are available for purchase at many of the stores along Oatman’s main drag. Opinions vary on whether people should be feeding the burros, and a foal that I spotted had a sign on its head asking people not to feed it.
Regardless, the burros definitely add to the town’s charm. You will find crowds of admirers patting their furry heads and taking selfies with the animals. Note that the burros are usually friendly, but they can be a bit cantankerous.
2. Route 66
Running right through the middle of Oatman is a stretch of the historic Route 66, the famous road that was the main highway route across the United States from the 1920s through the 1950s.
A big part of the experience of an Oatman visit is the knowledge that you’re walking on what was once America’s Main Street. And with the rustic buildings lining both sides of the street, it’s easy to imagine the days of jalopies traversing the country on Route 66’s Chicago-to-Santa Monica route.
Today, you’re more likely to encounter a stream of motorcycles, four-wheel-drive trucks, and classic cars. It’s all part of the Route 66 allure.
3. Oatman’s Mining Past
Oatman was founded in about 1906, according to a sign on the street, and by 1931, the area’s mines had produced more than 1.8 million ounces of gold. It became a gold rush boomtown from 1915 to 1917, but things soon slowed down, and in 1941, the U.S. government ordered all mining closed because of World War II.
For a look at a slightly spooky mine shaft, head to the Oatman Mine Museum, where you can walk a short distance into a shaft (admittedly, the shaft was decorated for Halloween when I visited, which made it even scarier), tour a replica Wild West saloon, and browse open-air shops.
4. Oatman Ghost Rider Gunfighters
Squaring off daily at 1:30 and 3:30 p.m. are the Oatman Ghost Rider Gunfighters, who regularly put on a free show in the middle of Route 66. The friendly performers ask the crowd to gather around in the street while they act out a heist, complete with loud gunshot blanks.
The shootouts involve cowboys insulting one another, a theft of bags of loot, and one gunslinger falling in the street. Sure, it’s a bit touristy, but the performers seem to put their hearts into it, and proceeds from the audience’s donations go toward good causes in the community.
5. The Original Oatman
Olive Oatman, the town’s namesake, was famous in the 1800s for being kidnapped by the Apache people, traded to the Mohave people, and later found not far from the site of the current town of Oatman.
The book The Blue Tattoo: The Life of Olive Oatman tells the story of 13-year-old Olive being orphaned and captured while traveling through the area with her pioneer family in 1851. Olive, originally from Illinois, lived for several years with the Mohave people, who reportedly tattooed her face in blue and raised her as their own. She became an instant celebrity when she was repatriated five years later.
The town of Oatman was named in her honor, and you will see images of Olive’s tattooed face around town. The Olive Oatman Restaurant and Saloon is named after her.
6. Quirky Stores
From biker gear to donkey puppets to shiny metal art, you will find it all in the shops that line Oatman’s main drag.
7. Oatman Hotel
Care to follow in the footsteps of Clark Gable and Carole Lombard? Well, the Oatman Hotel is the place to do it. Walk into the dollar-bill-papered lobby, and you will immediately notice the sign for the Clark Gable and Carole Lombard Honeymoon Suite. The famous movie stars were said to have stopped in Oatman on their honeymoon after getting married in Kingman in 1939.
Although the hotel no longer offers accommodations, the bar is available, as is an ice cream shop in the lobby.
Other places to stop for refreshments include Judy’s Saloon, which has a nice, shady patio, and the Olive Oatman Restaurant and Saloon.
8. Rugged Countryside
With the Black Mountains rising all around it, Oatman sits right amidst sharp-toothed ridges and forbidding rock formations. Route 66 in both directions from Oatman provides a tableau of the achingly desolate surroundings.
Driving southwest from Kingman, you will first encounter mostly flat, scruffy terrain. But soon, you will be in the middle of what could be a set right out of a Clint Eastwood Western. Watch for Thimble Mountain to the west of Route 66 between Kingman and Oatman, and Elephant’s Tooth to the east of town.
After Oatman, continue south on Route 66 for another 25 miles or so, and you will pass through Joshua tree-dotted ridges and needle-topped peaks before arriving at the marshy banks of the Colorado River at Topock. The route will add an hour or so to your trip, but it is a drive you’re sure to remember.
Pro Tip: Topock is located along Interstate 40 about an hour southwest of Kingman, so drivers can conveniently get back on the interstate after their venture along Route 66.
For a change of pace from the Old West atmosphere, consider having lunch on the breezy patio of the Topock66 Restaurant, Bar & Riverstore.
It would be hard to find a table without a view of the river, but I recommend taking a stool at the long bar that runs along the edge of the patio for unparalleled vistas of the water. There, you can enjoy a lunch or dinner of smoked pork, chicken, tri-tip, or baby ribs while watching colorful speedboats pull in and out of the marina.
Another popular attraction, especially in the hot summer months, is the restaurant’s swimming pool, which is open to anyone who stops by. The spot is known to be a lively party scene during hot-weather weekends. Topock66 also features a cool indoor bar and a store selling river-themed supplies and souvenirs.
What To Know Before You Go
When To Visit
It’s best to get an early morning start on your trip to Oatman. Parking places are limited in the town and tend to fill up before noon. Arriving by 10 or 11 a.m. and staying through 2 or 3 p.m. will allow you to wander among the burros, have an ice cream cone, browse the shops, and watch the gunslinger show.
The best seasons to visit Oatman are spring and fall. October brings average high temperatures in the mid-80s, while November has highs in the 60s. March and April are lovely in the desert, with average highs in the 70s and 80s. Unless you enjoy temperatures in the 100-degree-plus range, it’s best to avoid Oatman in the summer. May and September also tend to be hot, with highs well into the 90s. The winter months of December and January average in the high 50s, while February posts average highs in the mid-60s (Fahrenheit).
How To Get There
Oatman is located in western Arizona along an old stretch of Route 66 about 45 minutes southwest of the Mohave County Interstate 40 town of Kingman. It is also within a 2-hour drive of Las Vegas, just over 3 hours from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon National Park, and about 4 hours and 30 minutes from Los Angeles — making it a perfect road trip destination from numerous major tourist centers.
In addition, Oatman is an easy day trip of less than an hour’s drive from nearby Colorado River towns of Bullhead City, Arizona; Laughlin, Nevada; and Needles, California. The little gold-mining town is also right in the middle of some of the most rugged beautiful deserts you will find anywhere, and getting there is definitely part of the fun.