One of the most demanding, desolate, and awesomely satisfying stretches of the old road loops north from the I-40 freeway, between Kingman and the California border. Climbing over steep mountains while cutting across a stretch of desert that brings new meaning to the word “harsh,” the narrow 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.
Westbound drivers have it the easiest—simply follow the well-signed Historic Route 66 west from Kingman, exit 44 off I-40. From the west heading east, take exit 1 on the Arizona side of the river, then head north. Whichever way you go, you can’t avoid the steep hills that lead 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 (181 N. Main St.), was where Clark Gable and Carole Lombard were said to have spent their first night after getting married in Kingman in 1939. You can sample some highly recommended Navajo tacos and have a beer in the downstairs bar (which is thickly wallpapered in years and years worth of dollar bills!), or peer through a Plexiglas door at the room where Clark and Carole slept, hardly changed for half a century.
Saloons and T-shirt shops line the rest of Main Street, where Wild West enthusiasts act out the shootouts that took place here only in the movies. Oatman does get a considerable tourist trade, but after dark and outside of the peak summer tourist season, the town reverts to its rough-and-tumble ways. The conservative, libertarian bent of most of the local population ensures that nothing is likely to change Oatman’s crusty charms.