One of the most demanding, desolate, and awesomely satisfying stretches of the old road climbs from I-40 along the Colorado River, beginning just east of the California border and rejoining the freeway at Kingman. Following at first along the wildlife refuge that lines the Colorado River, the old road then cuts across a stretch of desert that brings new meaning to the word “harsh.” The narrow, roughly surfaced roadway passes few signs of life on this 50-mile loop, so be sure you and your car are prepared for the rigors of desert driving.
From I-40 and the California border, take the Park Moabi exit and follow Hwy-95, then Hwy-66, due north; you can also reach Hwy-95 directly from Needles or from Laughlin, Nevada. Westbound drivers have it the easiest—simply follow the well-signed Historic Route 66 west from Kingman, exit 44 off I-40. Whichever way you go, you can’t avoid the steep hills that bring you to Oatman (elev. 2,700 feet), an odd mix of ghost town and tourist draw that’s one of the top stops along Route 66. A gold mining town whose glory days had long faded by the time I-40 passed it by way back in 1952, Oatman looks like a Wild West stage set, but it’s the real thing—awnings over the plank sidewalks, bearded roughnecks (and a few burros) wandering the streets, lots of rust, and slumping old buildings. The gold mines here produced some two million ounces from their start in 1904 until they panned out in the mid-1930s; at its peak, Oatman had a population of over 10,000, with 20 saloons lining the three-block Main Street. One of these, the old Oatman Hotel (928/768-4408), at 181 N. Main Street, was where Clark Gable and Carole Lombard spent their first night after getting married in Kingman in 1939; you can sample Oatman’s highly recommended Navajo tacos, have a beer in the downstairs bar, or peer through a Plexiglas door at the room where Clark and Carole slept, hardly changed for half a century.
Saloons and rock shops line the rest of Main Street, where on weekends and holidays Wild West enthusiasts act out the shoot-outs that took place here only in the movies. Oatman does get a considerable tourist trade, but after dark and out of the peak summer tourist season the town reverts to its rough-and-tumble ways, and the conservative, libertarian bent of most of the local population ensures that nothing is likely to change Oatman’s crusty charms.
East of Oatman the road passes the recently reactivated gold workings at Goldroad before climbing up and over the angular Black Mountains. Steep switchbacks and 15-mph hairpin turns make the 2,100-foot change in elevation over a very short eight miles of blacktop; the route then continues for another 20 miles into Kingman, which seems like a bustling metropolis after this hour-plus roller coaster of a drive.