Oatman, Arizona – A Day Trip Back in Time
For a throwback in time to Arizona’s Wild West, take a day trip from Lake Havasu City to the “living ghost town” of Oatman.
This historic Arizona town, only 54 miles up the road from Lake Havasu City on old Route 66, rose to fame during the gold mining era of the early 1900s. Unlike other ghost towns with their deserted streets and empty buildings, Oatman is inhabited year-round by its 75 residents proud of its burros and local ghosts wandering through the varied shops and hotels.
The paved road running through Oatman’s eight city blocks is actually a section of Route 66. Both sides of the road are lined with saloons, museums, restaurants and quaint shops stocked with a wide variety of local items.
What’s In a Name?
During the height of the gold mining era at the turn of the century, over 10,000 miners, women and a few bandits called it home. When Oatman’s population reached a point where a Post Office was needed, the locals decided to use the last name of a settler family that had been massacred by the Apache Indian tribe. The parents and four children were killed, but two daughters, Olive and Mary Ann, were taken captive. One brother managed to escape.
While in captivity, the girls were traded to the Mohave Indian tribe. During this time, Mary Ann died. The surviving brother never gave up searching for his sisters and four years later, working with a Yuma Indian, he was able to make a trade consisting of a horse, blankets and beads in exchange for Olive. Olive spent many years lecturing around the country on her experiences. As you walk around Oatman you’ll see a variety of pictures of Olive, whose face is heavily tattooed identifying her as a subject of the Mohave tribe.
Additional things to do/see:
Haunted Honeymoons: The Oatman Hotel
Start with a visit to the Oatman Hotel. You might encounter Oatie, a tenant of the hotel in the 1920s. He was an Irish miner who met an untimely death, yet many believe his spirit continues to reside at the hotel. Often, according to the clerk in the hotel, the lanterns in Oatie’s room sway for no apparent reason. Oatie is credited with saving one of the clerks from a tumble down a steep staircase. The clerk claims she was falling forward when someone grabbed the back of her shirt, allowing her to get her footing.
The Oatman Hotel is also famous for having been host to newlyweds Clark Gable and Carole Lombard. After their marriage ceremony on March 29, 1939 in Kingman, Arizona, they drove down Route 66 to Oatman to spend their wedding night. Gable was quite familiar with Oatman, as he often came to town to play poker with miners who weren’t interested in his fame. Gable loved the opportunity to be “just one of the guys,” which is why Clark and Carole knew Oatman was the perfect place for a little wedding night privacy.
While in the hotel, visit the hotel bar and restaurant where the walls are lined with one-dollar bills. Even though liquor shots were only 4 cents at the time, the miners ran tabs and frequently died or left town without paying them. To deal with this problem, the owner decided to get his money up front. A miner would pin a $1 bill on the wall with his name on it, and the price of each shot would be deducted from the account pinned to the wall. The bartenders and local musicians have many fascinating stories to share about visits from Oatie and his miner ghost buddies who still frequent the bar.
Be sure to visit Fast Fannies shop to check out the traditional turquoise and silver jewelry created by the local Arizona tribes. Jackie Murray, the proprietor, also carries a unique collection of wind chimes depicting Indian dancers, local cacti, roadrunners and much more. More Indian jewelry, hand woven Indian blankets and locally crafted pottery with scenes of the fertility deity Kokopelli and ceremonial Kachinas can also be found at the Jackass Junction Gift Shop.
Oatman residents are quite proud and protective of their wild burro population. The burros are descendents of pack burros turned loose when their owners either died or gave up mining and left the area. The burros are not owned by anyone and are allowed free range of the streets and stores of the town. Nutritional food packets are sold for visitors to feed the friendly four legged natives of Oatman. They love posing for pictures. The burros are so tame that you might just find one of them standing by your side as you shop in one of the stores.
Wild West Gunfights
Stand right in front of the Oatman Hotel at 1:30 and 3:30 p.m. each day, and you’ll find yourself caught in the middle of a bank robbery. Watch as a grizzly old sheriff deals with a sassy bandit who has an eye for the ladies. The robber asks the sheriff how much the townsfolk pay him to be sheriff. He admits to making $3 a month; the bandit offers him $20 to just walk away. The sheriff is a clever lawman and always comes up with a way to bring the robber down. It’s all in fun, with the ring of times past. When it’s all over, hats are passed around for donations to the Shriners Hospital for Children. Note: The 3:30 pm show might not be performed during summer months because of heat and number of tourists.
Annual Egg Fry
Ever fry an egg on a city street? Visit Oatman on the 4th of July each year at noon to participate in the annual Egg Fry contest. You can use a frying pan, crack the egg right on the paved street or drop it directly onto the sandy ground. After letting the eggs set for 15 minutes, the person whose egg has cooked the most is declared the winner. There is no charge to enter the contest, and the winner is awarded the right to claim fifteen minutes of fame as a champion egg fryer.
Food and Drink
Bring your appetite for both tempting snacks and full meals. The Gold Rush Candy Shoppe carries candies for every taste, and frosty ice cream treats of every flavor. The aroma of kettle corn will draw you into several interesting shops along the wide street. Local Indian fry bread is made hourly at the Olive Oatman Restaurant & Saloon. It’s a must to capture the back-in-time mood of this special place.
Local business proprietors have too many stories to share to list here, but don’t hesitate to ask them. They love talking up their encounters with the town ghosts and the worldwide array of visitors that flock to their little town each year.
Directions to Oatman from Lake Havasu City
Take US-95 north to I-40. Travel westbound for about ten miles, then take the Topock offramp. Follow the signs to Golden Shores, then follow the US-66 road signs to Oatman. You’ll be traveling along a 20-mile road through mesas and across arroyos of the Mohave Desert. One of the views along your way will include forests of Jumping Cholla Cactus. These cacti can reach heights of eight feet and are covered in white, pink and lavender flowers during mid-summer. Take pictures of them, but don’t touch: they’re called jumping cactus for a reason.
As you near Oatman, you’ll be wending your way through gentle curves along the foothills of the Black Mountain Range, where you might spot a couple of big horn sheep. During the spring months, you’ll be treated to a colorful array of desert wildflowers as you cross culverts running with snowmelt and spring rains.
You won’t regret your adventure back in time with a visit to Oatman. And if you go, we’d appreciate hearing about your experiences!