Arizona Route 66 road trip: Kingman to Oatman
Here's my plan: I'll drive to a town that shouldn't exist. I'll travel a ghost road, a twisted ribbon of pavement that was killed off decades ago. Along the way I'll stop at a couple of places that are even more unexpected.
This is one of my favorite road trips in Arizona. I'm going to Oatman.
Once a gold-mining boomtown, Oatman hunkers in a craggy gulch of the Black Mountains, 28 miles southwest of Kingman. The drive doesn't promise much as I ease out of Kingman. Historic Route 66 peels away from the edge of downtown, curls past a few businesses and then crosses under Interstate 40. A smattering of homes dots the landscape but soon are a wisp in the rear view as the road streaks across an expanse of creosote-dotted sand flats.
After 20 miles of open desert, the road bends to the right and everything changes. Route 66 tilts upward and begins to climb the eastern slope of the Black Mountains. But first there's a scrap of civilization that defies the odds.
Nestled in the shadow of Thimble Butte, Cool Springs opened as a gas station in 1927 and later expanded to include tourist cabins. Traffic dwindled and the property burned down in 1966, leaving only two stone pillars and the foundation. And that should have been the end of it.
In the 1990s, a Chicago guy named Ned Leuchtner had business in Kingman. Chi-Town is the eastern terminus of Route 66. Leuchtner had an interest in the old highway and did a little exploring in Arizona. He found himself at the scorched ruins of Cool Springs.
Even though he claimed it looked like "the kind of place you would take a guy to bump him off," he felt strangely drawn to this lonely spot. He decided to save it. It took years of effort, but Leuchtner was able to buy Cool Springs in 2001. After a massive cleanup, he used old photos and blueprints to re-create the station in strikingly precise detail.
Today, Cool Springs operates as a gift shop, snack bar and museum. It's always a must-stop for me. This is one of the most breathtaking and culturally significant pieces of the Mother Road. The stone structure sits on a hard slant of cactus slopes. Perched on the cusp of a canyon, between the desert floor and the harsh fringe of the Black Mountains, Cool Springs provided a welcome harbor back in the day. This brutal terrain once boiled the radiators and broke the hearts of migrant workers making their way to the promised land of California.
From here the road winds up the mountainside in a torturous ascent. As I climb toward Sitgreaves Pass, toothy, broken country shambles away in all directions. The Blacks are a convulsed jumble of volcanic remains, spiny with cactus, yuccas and sharp-edged boulders. The hairpin curves and steep drop-offs so intimidated early travelers that many hired locals to drive their cars up the grade, or had them towed to the summit.
Heaven help me, I love this ridiculous twisting drive. I weave through the curves at such a slow pace and pull to the side so frequently that I absorb every detail. It feels like I'm hiking from a sitting position.
Shaffer Fish Bowl Spring
One stop I always try to make comes just before mile marker 30. I pull over at an elbow of a curve where steps are carved into the rocky hillside. They lead up to Shaffer Fish Bowl Spring, a natural seep that collects in a concrete bowl ringed by a fringe of greenery. The oasis is so named because the pool is often stocked with goldfish.
I clamber to the top — it's just 30 steps but the footing can be dicey — and soak in the views. The stillness seems palpable. Traffic is thin, a whisper of engine noise that barely dents the expanse and is gone as soon as the vehicle rounds the next bend. I like to hunker here and — as unlikely as it seems while sitting in the Mojave Desert — watch goldfish swim.
At Sitgreaves Pass you might notice an old stone foundation. This is the remains of a gas station and ice-cream parlor that once stood here, where you can gaze into California and Nevada. Great. Now I'm craving ice cream. The road writhes down through lava-capped hills for another 3 miles past the Gold Road Mine, which reopened a few years ago, into Oatman.
If you're looking for resorts, spas or white-tablecloth restaurants, you made the wrong drive. Oatman sags in a state of happy repose, casual, picturesque and decidedly weird. A handful of historical buildings fronted by wooden sidewalks are strung along the highway. Rising above town is the jagged peak of white quartz known as Elephant's Tooth.
The burg's most famous residents are its four-legged ambassadors. Burros from the surrounding hills wander into Oatman daily. They loiter in the street, blocking traffic and shaking down tourists for snacks. The burros are descendants of animals used by miners and abandoned when the ore played out.
No matter how tame they seem, the burros are wild animals. Don’t feed them. Also, it's best to leave your dog at home. Many burros consider the family pooch nothing more than a coyote with connections.
When the mines shuttered, the stream of traffic along Route 66 kept Oatman alive. A realignment in 1952 swung Route 66 south through Yucca, and Oatman barely hung on. Today, a half-million people visit this rickety outpost each year. And here's the thing I really like about the Oatman revival: The town never tried to glam up. It just waited for the world to come back around.
You'll find a comfortable collection of gift shops, modest galleries and casual restaurants. There's the Olive Oatman Restaurant & Saloon, specializing in Southwestern comfort foods such as Navajo tacos, homemade chili and peach fry bread.
The other eatery is in the Oatman Hotel, built in 1902 and wallpapered with dollar bills, a tradition dating to the boom-town era. Try a buffalo burger with a side of burro ears, homemade potato chips cooked fresh daily.
If you notice folks clustering in the street without a ravenous burro in sight, it signals an impending gunfight. Gunfighter groups stage shootouts at 1:30 p.m. daily. They may be desperadoes, but they're punctual.
There's a 3:30 showdown if there's enough of a crowd. Folks start to roll out of town in late afternoon. Even the burros clock out and mosey back into the hills. Oatman is a day trip full of surprises — of ghost towns and ghost roads, wild burros and free-range goldfish. And one of the most scenic drives in the state.
Now that's something to bray about.
If you go
Getting there: Oatman is 211 miles northwest of Phoenix. Take U.S. 93 to Kingman, then go southwest on Historic Route 66 to Oatman.
Cool Springs: 928-768-8366, www.coolspringsroute66.com.
Oatman Chamber of Commerce: 928-768-6222, www.oatmangoldroad.org.
Oatman Hotel: 181 Main St. 928-768-4408.
Olive Oatman Restaurant & Saloon: 170 Main St. 928-768-1891.
Roger Naylor's Arizona
Every month in Explore Arizona, Roger Naylor shares his favorite finds from traipsing around the state.
Read more of his adventures at explorearizona.azcentral.com.
Find him at www.rogernaylor.com.