Become Best Friends with a Burro in Oatman

The burros own the town

No trip to Laughlin is complete without a detour to Oatman, a Route 66 ghost town in Arizona that has become a bit more touristy over the years. The new escape room at the local jail is fun. The Oatman Hotel is a great stop for lunch. The restaurant has killer buffalo burgers and the walls (and even parts of the ceiling) are covered with dollar bills.

Oatman © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But the real draw is the burros roaming Oatman whose ancestors were brought in to work during the mining days. A few unwritten rules to follow: first—burros and dogs don’t mix. Second—don’t feed the burros carrots which are high in sugar and do a number on the digestive tract. You’re more than welcome to feed them alfalfa squares, sold in bags for a dollar.

Finally—when the burros are in the middle of the road (which they frequently are), they have the right of way. Cars have to wait, no matter how long it takes. No honking, revving engines, or doing anything else to encourage them to move along.

Oatman © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

They know how to have fun in Oatman where good-humored shops line the street and the burros contribute to the annual fall Burro Biskit Toss.

More than 500,000 visitors are drawn annually to Oatman’s gold mine history as well as the legend of its namesake. Olive Oatman is entrenched in western lore as a woman who was kidnapped by an Indian tribe, then sold to a friendly local tribe before being freed to her family near what became Oatman.

Oatman © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Oatman was sparsely settled starting in 1863 when a small bit of gold was discovered in the surrounding Black Mountains. Not much came of the discovery until two lucky prospectors struck it rich in 1915 with a 10 million dollar claim. The town grew rapidly after that, and in the course of a single year the tiny tent village became a town of 3,500 people. In the 1920s and ’30s, the population grew to around 10,000. In 1921, a fire swept through the town destroying most of Oatman’s buildings.

Oatman © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Oatman certainly prospered during a decade-long gold rush, but when the mines dried up, so did everything else. The town’s biggest mine closed in 1924, and by 1941, the government ordered the closing of Oatman’s remaining mining operations as part of the country’s war efforts.

Because of its location on Route 66, local commerce shifted toward accommodating motorists traveling between Kingman, Arizona and Needles, California. From 1926 to 1952, the Mother Road coursed through the heart of Oatman, sustaining a healthy tourism business. Interstate 40 bypassed Oatman in the early 1950s, however, and by the early 1960s, the whole area was all but abandoned.

Oatman © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A revitalized interest in historic route 66 saved Oatman from demise, and while it may not be thriving, it’s got a lot to offer visitors looking for that kitschy slice of Americana. Oatman is often described as a ghost town, but that is not quite accurate. The current human population is 128. The burro population is close to 2,000.

The town prides itself on maintaining a Wild West feel, down to the wooden sidewalks, staged shootouts, and kitschy shops. (You can even adopt a wild burro and take it home!)

Oatman © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Clark Gable and Carole Lombard allegedly honeymooned at the 1902 two-story adobe Oatman Hotel after marrying in nearby Kingman. Some say the lovebirds’ spirits as well as other former lodgers still vacation there. The hotel remains open as a museum and restaurant.

Oatman is surrounded by Bureau of Land Management wilderness which is also home to desert bighorn sheep. Outdoor activities include hiking, camping, hunting, photography, and rock climbing.

Oatman © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Oatman is a day trip full of surprises—of ghost towns and ghost roads and wild burros. And one of the most scenic drives in the state. Now that’s something to bray about.

Worth Pondering…

So many ghosts upon the road,
My eyes I swear are playing tricks;
And a voice I hear, it’s Tom Joad,
Near Oatman on Route 66.

—Dave MacLennan