Oatman is a guilty pleasure. I’ll explain that remark in a paragraph or two after I tell you what it is and where it’s located.
Oatman is an authentic Old West mining town located in the Black Mountains of northwest Arizona, not far from the glittering casinos of Laughlin, Nevada. Unlike most mining towns that boomed when riches were discovered, Oatman survived the inevitable bust by reinventing itself as a tourist stop that attracts over half a million visitors every year.
It’s blatantly tacky, with shops selling the kitschiest souvenirs you can imagine. It tends to attract the tank-top-and-tattoo crowd, including lots of bikers, mixed in with senior citizens and families. It’s also a favorite destination for tour buses bringing guests on day trips from the Laughlin casinos. Despite Oatman’s lowbrow vibe, people enjoy the place. It’s so tacky that it’s charming.
That’s why I call it a guilty pleasure. I enjoy it, too.
Clark Gable slept here
Now for the obligatory history lesson. I’ll keep it short. Gold has been mined in the Black Mountains since at least 1863. The strike that propelled Oatman’s boom occurred in 1915. The town soon had over 3,000 people. As in most mining boomtowns, however, prosperity was short-lived. What saved Oatman came when transcontinental US Highway 66 was routed through town. US 66 was known as the “Mother Road” and popularized by a song and a TV show. Oatman survived by catering to travelers. In 1960 the highway was re-routed around the southern end of the mountains – the route used by present-day Interstate 40. US 66 was decertified in 1985.
Two factors kept Oatman going. First, there’s a tremendous nostalgic interest in old Route 66. And second, the explosive growth of Laughlin fueled Oatman’s popularity. It’s the most popular day trip promoted by the casinos. Another claim to fame is the Oatman Hotel, where Clark Gable and Carole Lombard spent their wedding night in 1939.
Gunfights and burros
What you’ll find here today is a three-block-long collection of shops and attractions with weathered buildings, wood plank sidewalks, and shops selling low end merchandise. Santa Fe, this ain’t. But, as P.T. Barnum once said, “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public.” You want Route 66 kitsch? You want a statue of a jackalope? You want a souvenir T-shirt? No problem. It’s fun to browse. I always come home from Oatman with something. Last week it was an Arizona “Route 66” license plate.
On a busy weekend day, the street is crowded with visitors . . . and burros. Burros? Yes. Wild burros that live just outside town show up to beg for food. You can buy “burro food” in just about every shop. Warning: These are wild animals, and they can be aggressive in pursuit of handouts. Unfortunately, I had to leave by noon on Saturday, 1/23, to get home by dark, and the burros hadn’t shown up yet.
Mock gunfights are held on the main drag every day at 1:30 and 3:30. And there are several special events held throughout the year. Check the Chamber of Commerce’s website — www.oatmangoldroad.org
Oatman is at its best on a busy weekend or holiday. It’s remote enough that it can’t be done as a day trip unless you live in Las Vegas. Otherwise, you’ll need overnight accommodations. Best bets are Laughlin on the west and Kingman to the east. The Oatman Hotel no longer offers lodging. The best weather is from October to May, although lots of people come in summer, when temperatures regularly reach three digits.
From Laughlin, cross the bridge to Arizona, turn right on SR 95, and drive about 15 miles to Boundary Cone Rd. Turn left, drive 11 miles to Oatman Highway, then turn left again and go about three miles. Coming from California on I-40, take the first exit after crossing into Arizona, go north a couple of miles, then bear right on Historic Route 66, which will take you to Oatman. Lastly, from Kingman, take Exit 44 on I-40, and follow Historic Route 66 about 25 miles. Warning: The last 8 miles are steep, narrow and twisting (see photo). You’ll find two restaurants in Oatman, but the most popular food stop on hot summer days is the ice cream stand.
Lastly, parking is limited, so plan to arrive before noon – earlier on a holiday weekend. Be sure to park near the south end of town if you’ll be leaving that way. Between the crowds, the burros and the gunfights, it can be very difficult to get through town in your car.