Some of the most interesting places I’ve ever visited aren’t listed in the typical tourist guides. One such place is Oatman, Arizona. For those not familiar with this desert day trip, Oatman is about a 2 hour drive South of Las Vegas Nevada on US 95, or if you are coming from the South, a 4 hour drive North of Phoenix via US 93. The scenery along the drive from both Phoenix and Vegas is beautiful and packed with twisting roads through red-rock lined highways.
My husband and I lived in Vegas for almost 5 years and never saw Oatman listed in any tourist brochure, and it certainly wasn’t advertised on the Las Vegas strip. It takes a local Vegas resident or desert dweller to tell someone about this hidden gem. I heard about Oatman from a patient who was treating at the hospital where I was working and she insisted that I had to go visit. It was some of the best advice I’ve ever received from a patient. And she was absolutely right, Oatman is a place everyone should visit.
Today, Oatman is a touristy ghost town. But in the 1940’s, Oatman, Arizona used to be a destination for Hollywood’s elite. In fact Clark Gable and Carol Lombard spent their wedding night in Oatman. Today, you’ll no longer catch a glimpse of Hollywood’s A-listers, but here are the top 5 things in Oatman that are just as exciting!
1. Interacting with a barrage of hooting and hollering, hungry donkeys.
That’s right, the town is now a historic ghost town that is overrun with wild donkeys that roam the street in search of tourists to feed them carrots.
There are numerous carrot stands throughout Oatman and feeding carrots to donkeys can be a dangerous task. The donkeys are smart, with acute hearing, and flank the carrot stands. They know as soon as they hear the plastic produce bag crinkling that someone is buying their delicious carrot treats. My good friend Ryan (a non-Ginger) and I went to visit Oatman on a warm fall day. I bought my bag of carrots and was immediately greeted by a herd of Ginger-friendly donkeys, which were very eager to eat my carrots. I fed them without incident.
Next up was Ryan’s turn to feed them. I passed him the bag, but forgot to tell him that I opened the bag from the bottom and not the top. He struggled to get a carrot out from the bag. The donkeys grew increasingly impatient as he stood with a bag of tasty goodness but gave them none. A few nudged his hands, which did not help him maneuver the bag. Finally the ringleader donkey had enough of the wait and slowly crept behind Ryan and bit him right on the ass. Ryan screamed and soon learned that it was difficult to escape a herd of hungry donkeys when they own the street. Ryan’s only choice was to run down the road and up to an old saloon that had two steps leading up to it. Donkeys can’t climb steps in Oatman, so he was safe.
This brings us to a valuable lesson. When feeding donkeys in Oatman: 1. Know which end of the bag is open as not to piss off the donkeys. 2. If you do piss off the donkeys, run up the stairs because that is the only safe place in Oatman.
As a word of caution, do not feed the baby donkeys because they have not developed carrot-chewing skills and may choke. There are signs all over to kindly remind you of this. Please obey it and keep the donkeys safe.
2. The Oatman Hotel.
This is the spot where Clark Gable and Carol Lombard spent their wedding night. The Oatman Hotel is no longer in use and is lackluster compared to many modern bed and breakfasts, but back in the day was apparently a great place of beauty that Clark and Carol enjoyed. The room Clark and Carol stayed on is located on the second floor and their portraits hang over the bed. It hasn’t changed much, if at all, from the time they stayed there in 1939.
However, today The Oatman Hotel has taken on new life as a paranormal hot spot that ghost hunters love to visit. The name of the resident ghost is ”Oatie”. I heard several different stories of how Oatie became a ghost, but the one common theme in all of them was that Oatie was a miner who liked to drink a lot and at one point lived in the hotel. Apparently, he died suddenly one night (either from drinking too much or being murdered depending on who tells the story) and began haunting the place.
Today, there are reports of footsteps on the second floor, music playing at random times, and disheveled rooms that have recently been cleaned. Obviously, Oatie did not want to visit us (which I’m fine with) because we saw nothing even close to creepy in the Oatman Hotel.
The Dollar Bill Saloon makes for a fun stop after being chased by donkeys down the street. This is the saloon referenced earlier with the two steps leading to it, aka the donkey safe zone.
The Dollar Bill Saloon got its name because patrons have come in for years and tacking dollar bills to the walls and ceilings. Pretty much any place that has room to hang a dollar bill has been covered by at least one. Lots of people leave messages on their dollar bills and some just sign their name. Ryan and I left a message to beware of feeding the donkeys because they will bite and we also drew a picture of the donkey attack on the bill.
I have no idea how much currency the Dollar Bill Saloon has hanging on its walls, but it’s safe to say that there’s money on the walls and ceilings to make even Scrooge McDuck happy to hang out in this place.
The Dollar Bill Saloon has beer, which makes it an immediate favorite on my list. Beer is almost a necessity when it is hot as hell in the desert. For those beer snobs like me, don’t expect a fancy beer list here. It’s got just the basics but it’ll do for the day. It’s also got fans to keep folks cool and there are plenty of tourists and locals to share their stories of both experiences in Oatman and elsewhere. Apparently the Dollar Bill Saloon place is also haunted, but by a much angrier ghost than Oatie. The Dollar Bill Saloon ghost smashes beer bottles glasses and apparently was also a drunk, old miner. I guess if someone is a miner and likes to drink, they turn into a ghost after they die. Again we saw nothing spooky here. I have a feeling people just like to say ghost towns are haunted because of their names.
Just down the road from the saloon, there is a jerky cart that sells carnivorous treats that are great to snack on in the bar. The jerky cart has all sorts of jerky, from the typical cow and turkey, to more exotic meets like elk and buffalo. We got smoked buffalo and teriyaki elk. Just to comfort those who may be thinking it, there is no donkey jerky sold from this cart.
4. There is a gun show that is held in the middle of the street in front of the Dollar Bill Saloon.
Tourists stand along the sides of the gun show to block the donkeys from interfering with the realistic gun-slinging standoff. This is the closest I’ve ever been to a cowboy shoot-out and it was rooting-tooting good time, as the actors make it very fun and interactive.
They are bad guys and a sheriff and I don’t want to spoil the ending of the show, but it ends just as it should. I imagine this town would have made a great setting for a John Wayne film. It’s very Wild West.
5. The scenery can’t be beat.
One of the most amazing parts about Oatman is everything that surrounds it. From the main street, there are 360-degree views of the desert and its red mountain cliffs. Oatman used to be a mining town, so the old mines still speckle the hillsides. The sunsets here really bring out the colors too. The red seems more brilliant when the sky is pink and orange behind it. This is a view that is not possible in Vegas or Phoenix with all of their light pollution.
In closing, enjoy the view, savor the beer, chase the ghosts, and get chased by the donkeys, and remember, these are some of the many reasons why Oatman was and is still fabulous.