February, 2016 – As soon as posted that I was going to be staying in Needles, CA (Needles Marina RV Park), my friends started telling me not to dare miss visiting nearby Oatman, AZ. I liked it so much, I ended up going three times! I even wrote about some of the amazing encounters I had with the residents here on my blog: Open Hearts.
Not only is the town totally cool, you can go via Historic Route 66 from Oatman to Kingman, a wonderful drive not only to get there, but past it to Kingman is one of the most scenic drives through a desert environment I’ve ever seen.
I had read that this old mining town was an authentic western ghost town and mining camp and “takes pride in keeping its town as authentic as possible.” So I admit being a tad disappointed at first that cars parked on both sides of the road and power lines everywhere spoiled that vision for me.
But I was won over by the town’s most famous “residents” – the wild burros that come down from the mountains each day looking for handouts from the local businesses and tourists. These burros are direct descendants from the pack animals the gold miners used until the mines were shut down, then they were set free to fend for themselves. I thought that a bit rude given what I’d read on one of the signs: “Burros were extremely strong and sure footed and carried everything the miners needed, as well as a loyal friend who always seemed to make sure their owner somehow made it over the next hill.” I have to say that’s not the way to treat a friend, whether human or animal, but it looks like they’ve been doing ok here in Oatman:
The town is only about 4 blocks long, but it can take a while to get through by car if the burros are in no hurry to get out of your way. They obviously have the attitude that it’s their town and you’re just the visitors (hopefully with food) and they’re not shy about approaching you.
Another thing I kept hearing from friends who had been here was to bring carrots to feed the burros. But when I talked to Bob at the Chamber of Commerce, he said they are really trying to discourage this practice now – not only does the sugar rush make them hyper and aggressive, packing on the pounds makes them obese and takes 10-15 years from their lives. I noticed on the Chamber of Commerce site they say the BLM discourages feeding them anything and fines could be charged. But several stores sell alfalfa cubes which I’m sure is a lot healthier for them, but you can tell they’re not too excited about that since they don’t always take or finish them and as soon as they’re full, they head back to the hills. With over 500,000 visitors each year, there seems to be no danger of them starving.
They even put stickers on the younger ones, but these nosy guys were just checking me out when I was leaving to be sure I wasn’t hiding any from them.
So Oatman can rightfully (yet lovingly) be called a real jackass of a town since there are references to them everywhere you look. I kept hearing to be careful around them because they are wild and can be aggressive, but I didn’t see any sign of that even when a woman disregarded the requests not to feed them carrots and was doing that right on the hotel porch.
This guy walked right up to the window at the hotel as if to say, “Hey, I know we can’t get carrots around here anymore, but what about one of those root beer floats?
Sorry, buddy, I have no ice cream either, but thanks for letting me pet you anyway. They were so cute! But let there be no doubt – their scat does stink and you have to watch for it all along the street.
The Oatman Hotel, built in 1902, is the oldest two-story adobe structure in Mojave County and has housed many miners, movie stars, politicians and other scoundrels.
They say that Clark Gable and Carole Lombard spent the first night of their honeymoon here in 1939 and according to 9 Places to see a Celebrity Ghost, they couldn’t get enough of the place so their spirits reunited and people say they’ve seen them here. The hotel no longer rents out rooms, but you can see the Honeymoon “suite” through some plexiglass.
The Oatman Hotel is now known for its distinctive dollar bill decor. They cover almost every square inch of the place and of course, I left my mark there, too. With the picture of Willie for this Texas gal to gawk at, another cute singer to serenade me, good food and cold beer – what more could you ask for? (I was a little hesitant to try the “burro ears” but since it turned out they were really homemade potato chips with a spicy dipping sauce and I think you can’t go wrong with any form of potatoes, I tried them and they were great!)
Gunfights are performed every day at noon, 1:30, 2:15 and 3:30. But the Chamber website does say sometimes the later show gets cancelled if it’s too hot. Also, the Sheriff requires the street to be blocked, so there must be enough people to do that. “Because gunfighters fall in the street and rubber-neckers might run over them. They don’t mind getting shot, but getting run over hurts.” There seem to be two groups that do these gunfights because you’ll see signs up by the hotel with different times given for the shows. I saw two shows and they were not the same with different characters, etc. Since I had met John George with the Oatman Ghost Riders previously, I have to admit I was rooting for him, but since he was left dead on the street, that obviously didn’t do him any good. 🙁
The other group did make me laugh when the older guy in the trio said he had to fall dead in slow motion due to his creaking bones.
The people here are incredibly friendly and I really had fun visiting with them – so much so, I’ll be doing a separate blog post about a few encounters that I felt particularly blessed by. I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me how many times I meet open-hearted people along my path since I’ve always said I credit miracles and angels for me being able to follow my travel dreams.
Misc. Notes: The first time I went with some friends, we ate across the street at the Olive Oatman Restaurant. In my opinion, neither the food nor ambiance was nearly as good as the Oatman Hotel.
Tips: Parking is limited and the gravel lot is not exactly smooth. Signs on all roads leading to Oatman say nothing over 40′ recommended. As expected, it was a whole lot more crowded on the weekend than on weekdays.
More Oatman Info:
Town info signs: “World War 1 was funded partially by the gold out of these mountains in 1912. Oatman boomed from 1910 to the 1920’s. Upwards of 8,000 people lived here. Gold mines were closed about 1942. Miners were needed to mine copper for World War II.” Population today is less than 200.
Legends of America – Though Oatman is only a shadow of its former self, it is well worth a visit to this lively “ghost town” that provides, not only a number of historic buildings and photograph opportunities, but the sights of burros walking the streets, as well as costumed gunfighters and 1890s style ladies strolling.
Haunted Oatman Hotel – Evidently Clark and Carole are not alone, as there are other spirits that reportedly haunt the old hotel. The second floor houses a Theater Room Museum where distinct outlines of sleeping bodies have been found in the dust on the beds there. Upon closer inspection, none of the surrounding areas appear to be disturbed. Staff suspects that the sleeping spirit is that of a former chambermaid who has often been spotted in the room.
Desert USA – Historical info, including the naming of the town for Olive Oatman, who was kidnapped by an Apache tribe and later rescued near the town site. The town was used as the location for several movies such as How The West Was Won, Foxfire and Edge of Eternity.
Roadside America – Chaotic Old West street of wandering burros and free gunfights.