Oatman: The Town Owned by Burros
As soon as I got off Interstate 40, excitement started to build up. It was the first time I was riding over one of the most famous pieces of Historic Route 66.
All sort of vintage and hand-made signs started to mark the road. In one corner, a quite large mural depicting the Coyote and the Roadrunner (the cartoons) seemed to welcome you.
The smooth paved road turned bumpy and solitary. I started to wonder if I was driving in the correct direction. At least, I was relieved by the impressive scene, textured mountains in ocher, pink and tawny tones.
Once I reached the skirts of the mountains, a rusty sign pointed me in the correct direction.
A big laugh came out of my mouth when I set sight on the next sign: Burros – Next 8 miles.
And then, before turning right into the dusty parking lot, I catch a glimpse of the famous burros walking along Main Street.
Yes, you read that right.
Oatman, a former mining town located in the Black Mountains of Arizona, is famous because of the burros roaming its streets.
We’ll get to the burros. Let’s get a little deeper into history, for now.
Oatman was founded around 1906. By 1931, the area’s mines had produced over 1.8 million ounces of gold. By the mid 1930’s, the boom was over and in 1942 the last remaining mines were closed. For about a decade, the mines of Oatman were among the largest producers of gold in the West.
It is possible to enter one of the mines (practically, on main street). As you may know, I am not attracted to enter random mines in different states of despair.
The town was named in the posthumous honor of Olive Oatman, a young Illinois girl who was taken captive by Indians. She was later traded to another tribe of Indians who adopted her as a daughter and had her face tattooed in the custom of the tribe (there are many stories about what really happened). Olive’s picture is plastered all around town.
Oatman has undergone a renaissance of sorts in recent years (after being deserted for many years) thanks to burgeoning worldwide interest in Route 66 and the explosive growth of Laughlin (the other big gaming town in Nevada).
To be honest, the town meets most of the requirements of a tourist trap: souvenirs stores, kitsch, overpriced drinks / snacks, weird attractions and odd events.
I guess it gets down to personal tastes but I enjoyed my time there (and wish I have stayed a little bit longer). There are a lot of cute, colorful buildings and signs along the main road.
Plus, I saw several stores selling beautiful art, pottery, jewelry and clothing pieces.
And, I am not going to deny it. I really, really wanted to visit Oatman because of the burros.
Burros first came to Oatman with early day prospectors. The animals were used inside the mines for hauling rock and ore. Outside the mines, burros were used to haul water and supplies. As the mines closed and people moved away, the burros were released into the surrounding hills.
The burros hang around the town because they know they will get food and water. You can hand feed them with hay cubes sold at most stores in town.
Some burros have a “Stop- Do not Feed Me” sticker in their foreheads. For what I observed, these stickers were placed on young burros that were still drinking maternal milk.
The burros were calm and gentle and it was a delight to be around them. Come on! Look at those cute faces!
The piece of Historic Route 66 connecting Topock, Oatman and Kingman is considered a Scenic Byway. I recommend you take your time to admire the beauty of the Black Mountains. The rock pinnacles behind Oatman are gorgeous.
We can add fake gunfight to the odd things that happened daily in Oatman. A group of residents do a simple and short gunfight scene to raise money for a local children’s hospital. It is not an essential but it is fun to watch.
Be aware the phony shooting is really loud. The most interesting thing is that the burros take it really cool (as opposed to the visiting humans that scream and jump like crazy). Maybe they are used to it.
Continuing Towards Kingman
You can turn back to take the freeway or continue the Historic Route towards Kingman (another Route 66 favorite). As I mentioned, the scene is fabulous. Make sure to stop at Cool Springs for a little bit of the old days nostalgia.
- Oatman is a great stop if you are driving along Route 66 or towards Flagstaff or the Grand Canyon.
- You should allocate 2 to 2.5 hours if you are deviating to the town (about 1 hour to drive and 1 hour in the actual town).
- Do not get fooled by the burros sweet faces! They are considered wild animals. Therefore, they will kick and bite. The day I visited, the burros were calmed and well behaved. I don’t think there is reason to be afraid but a couple of precautions would not hurt. I am not expert but I would recommend not letting the burros go behind you. Make sure you are seeing what they are doing.
- I would be super careful if I take kids to Oatman. Do not let them handle the burros by themselves.
- Wild burros are protected by federal law from capture, injury or harassment.
- Follow the guidelines about feeding the burros.
- The town caters to visitors. It may be a good idea to take your own drinks and something to eat in case you get hungry.
- The town is in the middle of nowhere with limited services and spotty (or null) cell phone reception. Take the necessary precautions.
Would you like to visit Oatman?
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