Oatman, Arizona, has encouraged the wild burros living in the region to wander the streets and interact with visitors.
The road to Oatman is treacherous.
Though the Arizona town lies on the old Route 66, the way in from the east involves navigating a series of incredibly tight switchbacks. On one side, a sheer cliff. On the other, a rock face. During my recent visit, I probably didn’t average more than 15 mph, and at one point a desert fox running alongside the road was actually moving faster than my car.
Oatman lies at the bottom of the twisted road. To call it a “ghost town”wouldn’t quite be right; though the main drag (intentionally) has the look and feel of an Old West outpost, the buildings are generally occupied, in many cases by businesses catering to travelers. Though most were closed by the time I arrived, they appeared to sell things like food and ice cream and souvenirs.
And food for the burros.
The main reason people come to Oatman is that the town has, over time, encouraged the local wild burro population to wander around in the town.
Oatman began as a gold mining town, and in the early 1900s grew to have several thousand residents. By the 1920s the mining company left, but the town lived on because it was part of Route 66. The town suffered through hard times again with the rise of the interstate highway system, but has managed to survive.
The wild burros are descendants of the animals brought to the region by the original miners. (So technically they’re ferrel, not wild.) As is the case in much of the West, horses and burros that escaped or were turned loose survived in the wild and, with few natural predators, thrived.
In Oatman, the burros apparently come into town in the morning, then wander out around sunset. That’s when I was there, and I saw them walking through an old gas station feeding on shrubbery. I counted a total of six in the group that I watched, though I’ve been told there are many more.
There are opportunities in Oatman to take “burro tours,” and there are lots of Old West-themed shops. There’s also a free mining “museum,” which is just some old equipment and a short mine tunnel.
The best thing about the town, though, is just wandering the old wooden boardwalks and seeing animals that are ferrel, but seem to lack any fear of people.
If you go:
I loved Oatman when it was mostly closed, though from the look of the buildings I think I might have had a less positive reaction to the kitschiness and aggressively touristic atmosphere that seems to prevail during the height of the day. My experience there is limited, but I’d recommend visiting in the late afternoon, before burros wander out but late enough that things are a little more abandoned.
— Jim Dalrymple II