Oatman, Arizona, is a quaint mining camp nestled at the foot of the black mountains. You'll be greeted by friendly shop owners, townsfolk, and Oatman's most famous residents—wild burros!
The story began in 1851 when lucky prospectors struck a rich vein of gold in the Black Mountains of Mohave County. Several miners and prospectors set up a mining camp below Elephant Tooth Rock. A gold rush between 1910 and 1915 caused the camp to become a boomtown.
On February 17, 1916, the boomtown incorporated. Oatman was named in honor of Olive Oatman, a young pioneer woman kidnapped by Native Americans near Gila Bend and traded to the Mojave tribe close to the townsite.
In the decades following incorporation, Oatman grew. Families came to the area to settle down. A restaurant, post office, church, school, and a fire department served the near 10,000 residents. Most of these buildings are still standing despite a horrible fire that ravaged Oatman in 1921.
Oatman enjoyed continued growth and success, even during the Great Depression. However, on October 8, 1942, War Production Board Limitation Order L-208 forced the mines to stop production.
Businesses shuttered, people moved away, and Oatman was left to decay in the desert. When the miners left, they turned burros they relied on as pack animals free. The burros reproduced, and the descendants of these first burros now call Oatman home.
A few tough desert dwellers stayed after the mine closures and maintained and restored the buildings and boardwalks. They also began feeding the wild burros. Route 66 brought tourism to Oatman. Not only could tourists get a bite to eat, but they could interact with the burros who seemed to rule the town.
Today, there are 128 full-time residents in the former mining town and thousands of burros. Oatman has 500,000 visitors annually, who come to see the burros and do a little shopping.
Oatman Burro do's and Dont's
Feeding the wild burros is, hands down, the number one activity in Oatman. You can purchase hay cubes from nearly any vendor in town. Whatever you do, please do not feed the burros who have a sticker on their forehead. These are babies who only need their mother's milk. They can, and have, choked to death on solid food.
Also, only feed the burros hay cubes purchased in town. Carrots, apples, and other treats are too sugary. The burros become obese and unhealthy from such snacks. Also, they can become aggressive when you run out.
You will notice that locals know each burro by their name and wonder how the burros are wild if they have names. Each time a burro is born, the first person to see the baby gets to name it. If you should see a brand new baby, rush over to the post office and let them know the name you've chosen.
The burros are mostly friendly. Certain behaviors might cause them to become pushy. For instance, never put yourself or your child on a burro's back. It seems like a no-brainer, but it happens every day. The 400 to 500lb burro will buck you off and possibly trample you. Not only that, but it is a federal crime to harass the burros and comes with a hefty fine.
Do not bring your pets to town. Oatman loves animals. However, coyotes and burros are natural enemies. If your dog should get too close to one, the whole herd will get spooked and attempt to trample your pet. If yours is a service animal, keep away from the burros at all costs.
Lastly, do not stop on the road to feed the burros. Doing so often causes them to congregate on the highway. Many burros have died in this way.
With all of this in mind, you are welcome to enjoy the burros and feed them hay cubes. Pro-tip: The burros hate being squirted with water. If they become too pushy and you need to get away, it helps to have a water bottle handy.
Hauntings and Honeymoons
Although Oatman Hotel no longer lodges guests, it appears at least one has never checked out. In the hotel lobby, you can see photographs of unexplained ethereal mists and orbs. The photos, staffers claim, document the resident ghost who they've named "Oatie."
Oatie is a prankster who lives in one of the upstairs rooms. He's known to fill the hotel with bagpipe music, drop coins throughout the hotel, and pull the blankets from beds. Legend holds that in life, Oatie was a miner of Irish extraction who resided in the hotel until, one day, workers found him deceased behind the hotel.
Oatie isn't the most famous hotel guest. That honor would go to Clark Gable and Carole Lombard, who allegedly spent their honeymoon there after their wedding at St. John's Church in Kingman. Visitors can view the room they occupied through a plexiglass window. Aside from a few collectibles, the room appears much the way it did when the couple checked out.
The first-floor lobby houses many artifacts and mining implements from Oatman's early days. Here, the hotel offers ice-cold, hand-scooped ice cream.
The bar at Oatman Hotel is truly a sight to behold. In the old days, a miner would write his name on a bill. The bartender would pin their money to the wall, and the patron would drink until his tab ran out. This tradition of writing your name on a bill and fixing it to the wall is alive and well. The entire bar and restaurant are covered floor to ceiling in autographed dollar bills.
A newer attraction to enjoy is the Jail Break Escape Room. You pay for the pleasure of being locked inside and have around 40 minutes to try and escape.
Of course, there was an actual jail in Oatman. You can visit that, too. The historic jail is located behind the Convicts Giftshop Jail and Museum, where you pay the price of admission.
There was no jail big enough or bad enough to hold Oatman's Ghost Rider Gunfighters! The group enacts shootouts daily at 1:30 PM. If the weather isn't too hot, there is a 2nd shootout at 3:30. After the fight, the Ghost Riders collect donations that help maintain Oatman's public restrooms, amongst other local charities.
Aside from gunfights, the Ghost Riders perform shotgun weddings in the street. If you should need such a service, make sure to visit their website for reservations and current pricing.
Know Before You Go
Oatman can get hot. How hot, you ask? So hot that every Independence Day, children attempt to fry an egg on the sidewalk for fun. Some of them succeed.
The heat can be dangerous and hard to escape since not all of the shops have air conditioning. Make sure to know where to go if you need to cool off. The restaurants and bars, for instance, stay cool and sell water.
There are very nice public restrooms in the parking area. Near the bathrooms, you'll find picnic benches shaded by large trees.
Visit Oatman all year round! Turn east at Boundary Cone Road from Highway 95 in Ft. Mohave, Arizona. The road there is reasonably straight and well maintained. But be on the lookout for burros. They're everywhere!