Destinations: Oatman, Arizona

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Oatman, Ariz., is a great motorcycle touring destination.
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Oatman, Ariz., is a great motorcycle touring destination.

What: Oatman, Ariz., offering great roads, brilliant weather and a genuine Old West feel.
How to Get There: From southern California, pick up Interstate 40 in Barstow, cross the Colorado River in Needles, hop on I-95 north, and then turn right onto the Oatman Highway (CR-153). From Laughlin or Bullhead City, take I-95 south to Boundary Cone Road, and then follow your front wheel. From Kingman, just grab the Oatman Highway (CR-153) and look forward to its magnificent twisties as you enter the hills (this road is my favorite).
Best Kept Secret: If you’re coming from Southern California, you have to eat at any of the three Del Taco restaurants in Barstow. When Ed Hackbarth (who founded the Del Taco empire) sold his business, he kept his original three and they are awesome.
Avoid: Posing with the burros (your friends will inevitably make jackass comparisons). If you’re doing the Laughlin River Run, visit Oatman, but you’ll enjoy it more if you visit any time other than the last weekend in April.
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A great ride, great weather, good restaurants and authenticity without being too touristy — that’s a good description of motorcycle touring to Oatman, Ariz.

I first discovered this gold mine (and I mean that literally) of a destination during the annual Laughlin River Run way back in 1994. If you ever make the Laughlin River Run (one of the biggest motorcycle events in the world, similar to Sturgis or Daytona), Oatman is a must-see excursion. My advice, however, is to visit Oatman at any time other than during the River Run, because there are just too many bikes in town that weekend and you’ll miss what Oatman is really all about.

Oatman is the real deal, and the events surrounding its formation sound like something out of a movie. In the mid-1800s, the Native American Yavapai tribe captured and enslaved a young white woman named Olive Oatman, an Illinois girl. The Yavapai then traded her to the Mojave tribe, who released Ms. Oatman in an area that grew into a town and took her name. The town of Oatman was strictly small potatoes until it literally hit pay dirt in 1915 with the discovery of “gold in them thar hills.” Oatman grew into a tent city of 3,500 residents chasing what ultimately became a gold find exceeding $30 million. A 1921 fire burned most of the town down, and the mine was mostly played out by 1924, although a few miners hung on. After that, Oatman’s fortunes headed south.

Back in those early days, however, Oatman still had a thing or two going for it. Located on Route 66, then the major Chicago-to-Los Angeles route, Oatman was a logical stop for folks on the Mother Road. The landmark Oatman Hotel survived the 1921 fire, and Clark Gable and Carole Lombard honeymooned there in 1939. Gable fell in love with Oatman’s Old West authenticity, and he returned regularly to play poker with the miners. Imagine sitting down for a card game with Clark Gable — who also happened to be a motorcyclist!

In 1953, a new route between Kingman, Ariz., and Needles, Calif., opened (the major cities to the northeast and southwest of Oatman in those days). The new road was a temporary death knell, and Oatman drifted into obscurity again, but only for a while. Three factors fueled Oatman’s recovery — a renewed interest in the original Route 66, the emergence of Laughlin as a major resort area in the late 1970s and Oatman’s Old West authenticity.

Oatman is still the real deal, even though tourism is its dominant business today. The town has great restaurants, live wild burros lazily lounge about, and it just looks and feels like the Old West. The burros are cool, the direct descendants of pack animals brought in by the miners nearly a century ago. Bring along a few carrots to feed the burros, and you’ll make lifelong friends who are very cooperative photo subjects.

For riders, though, the destination is only part of the story. The major attraction is the ride, and this is where Oatman and its surrounding areas excel. Sporting great weather year round (although it can get mighty hot in the summer), Oatman is a fun ride from any of the surrounding cities.

Laughlin (on the Nevada side of the Colorado River) and Bullhead City (directly across the Colorado from Laughlin) are a short 30 miles away, and if you pick up Silver Creek Road (CR-155) from either point of origin, the desert rock formations and scenery are great. Better yet, grab the Oatman Highway (CR-10) either out of Kingman or on your way back. It’s just off the CR-153 a few miles north of Oatman, and the twisties and scenery are magnificent. — Joe Berk

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