If you're traveling along Route 66, one thing you have to do is stop and see a real live ghost town. You won't find one more real—or more live—than Oatman, Arizona. Located at the edge of Arizona on the historic Mother Road, Oatman is a strange place. Perched 2,700 feet above sea level in the Black Mountains and run by wild burros, there's no place in the world quite like Oatman.
In 1863, gold was discovered in the Black Mountains, and many prospectors came to Oatman to stake claims. For the remainder of the 19th century, mining in the area steadily decreased, until the Tom Reed mine was opened, and a massive $10 million gold discovery occurred. The period in Oatman from 1915 to 1917 has gone down in history as one of America's last great gold rushes. Oatman was a veritable gold rush boom town in every sense of the phrase, and the mines held strong for the better part of a decade.
Sadly, it all went downhill from there, starting after a brutal 1921 fire ripped through town. In 1924, United Eastern Mines shut down operations. Fortunately for Oatman, even though the district had produced $40 million in gold by the '40s (when the government shut down remaining gold mines as part of the WWII effort to mine for metals needed for the military) it was still in a pretty favorable location along Route 66.
A new route bypassed Oatman in the mid-1950s, and nearly a decade later, the town was a virtual ghost town. But Oatman has proved to be a town of fighters, and now the settlement draws in visitors every year, and enjoys its reputation as an iconic stop along Old Route 66. The road that once saved the town from demise is now being helped by Oatman's popularity as a tourist attraction.
One of the biggest draws? The wild burros that wander the town. These are descended from the burros that worked the mines; once the mines closed, the burros were set free ... but they couldn't bring themselves to stay too far from Oatman, and to this day, you can meet some of the animals as they meander along the road. Additionally, there are more than 40 shops, eateries, and other attractions now open in town. Here's our guide to the ones that you just can't miss.
The only building to survive the 1921 fire was the Oatman Hotel and Dollar Bill Bar. It was built back in 1902, just before the final major gold rush. The two-story adobe hotel is one of America's most famous historic landmarks, thanks in part to the fact that the world's most famous movie star chose it as his honeymoon destination. Clark Gable and Carole Lombard were, in their day, Hollywood's golden couple, and in 1839, after a wedding in Kingman, AZ (another classic Route 66 town), Gable and Lombard checked into the Oatman Hotel. Gable was a big fan of poker, and it's said he loved the town and became friends with the miners. Today you can visit the "Gable/Lombard Honeymoon Suite", which is still a popular site to see. The place now serves as a kind of museum/shrine to Gable and the town's history.
The hotel also has another claim to fame, one more on the paranormal side. It's believed the ghost of Oatie, a "friendly poltergeist" inhabits the hotel. The story goes that William Ray Flour, a miner from Ireland who came to America to seek his fortune, died at the hotel from "excessive alcohol consumption." As legend has it, his body remained undiscovered for several days, and then was buried out back in a shallow grave.
Definitely don't miss out on grabbing a drink at the Dollar Bill Bar. Tourists have been slinging singles and hanging them on the walls and ceiling of the joint for ages; some reports speculate that there's $100,000 hanging up. The tradition allegedly started back in the mining town days, when miners would take a dollar from their check on payday, write their name on it and hang it up on the bar's wall as a tab that they could use until they got paid again.
The town is reportedly named after Olive Oatman (a young girl from Illinois) who, according to legend, was kidnapped by the Yavapai tribe. Allegedly, they forced her to become a slave and later traded to the Mohave Indians, who treated her much better. They adopted her as one of their own and tattooed her face (as was tribal custom). She was released after spending three years with the tribe. Her family then settled in the area that would become Oatman. The Olive Oatman Restaurant is named for her, and remains a solid stop for casual eats in town. Try the Navajo fry bread (either served with beef and toppings as a taco, or with ice cream and fruit for a sweet treat), buy a tune on the player piano, or cool off with a root beer float and their AC.
If you're looking to hang out with the locals, or happen to be rolling into town past 5 pm, Judy's Saloon is your best bet. The beer is cold, the iced tea is sweet, the crowd is awesome, the music is rocking, and the owner is (allegedly) the "rudest bartender on Route 66" (their words, not mine). Whatever that means! Either way, you're sure to leave with a story or two.
The Glory Hole is a little shop in town in a historic building. There's no shortage of stores to browse in Oatman (and definitely buy a souvenir or two to help support the local businesses), but The Glory Hole is notable for the fact that it was famously featured in "How The West Was Won". Oatman, not surprisingly, was a popular spot for filming Western movies back in the day. It's quite the photogenic little building!
Whether on your way to or from Oatman, make a stop at another Route 66 icon: the Cool Springs Gas Station. It's a great place to gear up before the winding, cliff-hugging drive to Oatman, or to take a breather after. Seriously, the half of the drive that climbs through the mountains is no joke.
Cool Springs has its origins in the 1920s when it was one of the few places to stop off and gas up on the Arizona portion of the route-- towns and businesses were few and far between in the harsh desert. Right before the intense drive through the Black Mountains with their steep grades and hairpin curves, it was the ideal place to grab some food and make sure their car was able to handle the road. Route 66 and Cool Springs went hand-in-hand: when the Route was at its peak, the roadside stop was bustling... but as road's popularity dropped off in favor of interstate highways, Cool Springs began to struggle. When the building burned down in the 1960's, it was left abandoned.
Other than a brief appearance in the 1991 Jean-Claude Van Damme movie Universal Soldier, Cool Springs was mostly forgotten... that is, until 1997 when a man named Ned Leuchtner passed by while traveling Old Route 66. He found the remains of Cool Springs and began to research the history of the spot. The more he learned, the more he was intrigued by the idea of rebuilding Cool Springs, and spent several years attempting to buy the property. Finally, in 2001, he was able to purchase Cool Springs, and by 2004, it was open again. Today, it's a small museum and gift shop, and a great place for a classic Route 66 photo op.
In addition to the historic buildings and burros, Oatman also features Wild West "shootouts", which occur pretty much every day from 1:30 pm til 3:30 pm. The Oatman Ghost Riders perform the gunslinging shows in the town, but are also contracted to perform at "Shotgun Weddings", and conduct tour bus "robberies"... just like the old stagecoach hold-ups back in the day! They're also known for holding tons of unique events. They feature annual Bed Races, a Sidewalk Egg Fry Contest on July 4th (it gets pretty hot in Oatman, let me tell you), Gold Camp Days, the International Burro Bisket Toss, which happens Labor Day weekend, and a yearly Book Fair and Bake Sale. Even on a normal day, the crowd is friendly and inviting, welcoming you to explore the town.