Oatman’s Free Spirits: Burro Edition

Burro watching from afar
Burro watching from afar

The Charm of Oatman, Arizona

In the heart of the desert landscape of Arizona at the foothills of the Black Mountains, lies the quaint town of Oatman. Its historic streets show signs of a bygone mining era, offering a nostalgic charm that echoes tales of the Wild West. But beyond its rustic facades lies an unexpected attraction that has captured the hearts of visitors: the Arizona burros.

When I heard a bit about them, I couldn’t wait to go see them myself! Our first interaction came just outside of town with the Arizona version of a bison jam … a donkey jam! The culprits were super friendly and accepted carrots and other treats as a bribe to clear the path. Of course, they negotiated for some ear scratches to be added before they made their way back to the watch post to wait for the next unsuspecting travelers.

Oatman’s Burro Community

Wildlife in Arizona ranges from rattlesnakes to roadrunners but, surprisingly, the Oatman burros aren’t native to the region. They descended from donkeys brought by early gold prospectors in the late 1800s and were used for hauling ore and supplies in harsh mining conditions. When the mines dried up and people moved away, the burros were released into the surrounding Black Mountains.

Over time they have become an integral part of Oatman’s identity, drawing tourists from all over the world. Their playful antics and willingness to interact with visitors add a unique charm to the historic town. The burro-centric shops and restaurants further solidify their role as a major tourist attraction.

My favorite story about the burros is The Great Burro Bakery Caper. One sun-drenched afternoon, a mischievous burro named Dusty discovered a tempting aroma: freshly baked donuts from Doc’s Bakery. With a nudge and a snort, he convinced his friends to join him. They barged through the swinging doors, creating a flurry of flour and sprinkles. Tourists shrieked with laughter as the burros happily munched on their donut bounty, leaving trails of frosting dust in their wake.

There are some great tales of the burros and their escapades to hear from the local shopkeepers so be sure to ask when you visit Oatman!

The History of Oatman, AZ

Oatman got its start as a mining camp when a couple of prospectors struck gold in 1915. It was quite a windfall at $10 million (that would be nearly $200 million in today’s market!) and it brought a lot of settlers to the area hoping to strike it rich.

At its peak, there were over 10,000 residents but as of 2024, the population has dwindled to 43. Interestingly, the exact number of burros in Oatman is estimated to be over 1,000 outnumbering their human neighbors significantly!

Oatman got its name from the fascinating story of Olive Oatman. In 1851, as a teenager, she and her sister were captured by a Native American tribe, likely belonging to the Yavapai or Tolkepaya (Mohave) people, after their family was attacked and massacred while traveling through present-day Arizona. Olive’s sister unfortunately died during captivity, while Olive was eventually traded to the Mohave tribe, where she was adopted and integrated into their community. She was eventually released to family members in 1855.

Oatman’s history intertwines with the mining boom of the late 19th century. Burros served as steadfast companions to miners, hauling equipment and ore through treacherous terrains. However, as the mining fervor dwindled, the burros were left to roam freely, becoming an integral part of Oatman’s landscape.

They spend most of their time traveling between the Black Mountains and the streets of Oatman where they have become quite the local tourist attraction.

Surviving in the harsh desert environment posed challenges, yet the burros adapted remarkably. Their evolution involved mastering survival tactics, from finding water sources to navigating rugged terrain, solidifying their status as desert dwellers.

Burros and Tourism

The burros in Arizona, particularly in places like Oatman, have significantly impacted wildlife tourism. Their presence adds an element of charm and uniqueness to the tourist experience, attracting visitors eager to witness these charismatic creatures roaming freely.

Key impacts on wildlife tourism include:

  1. Attraction for Visitors: the burros serve as a major tourist draw, encouraging people to visit areas like Oatman for up-close encounters and photo opportunities.
  2. Cultural Appeal: Their historical significance and cultural connection to the region intrigue tourists interested in the Wild West era and Arizona’s heritage.
  3. Economic Contribution: Burro-related tourism fuels local economies through souvenir sales, guided tours, and increased patronage at nearby businesses.
  4. Enhanced Visitor Experience: Interacting with Burros creates memorable experiences, fostering positive reviews and encouraging return visits.
  5. Promotion of Wildlife Conservation: Their presence often raises awareness about wildlife conservation and fosters appreciation for Arizona’s diverse wildlife.

Overall, the burros’ impact on wildlife tourism in Arizona is significant, attracting visitors seeking unique encounters and contributing to the region’s cultural and economic vitality. The burros I met were friendly and curious but it is important to remember a few things when interacting with the burros:

  1. In areas where burros roam freely, be cautious while driving to avoid accidents. Yield to burros on the road and drive slowly.
  2. Respect wildlife boundaries and stay within designated areas and trails. Don’t trespass.
  3. Don’t litter! Help keep the area clean by properly disposing of trash. This will also keep the burros from eating things that might be harmful to them.

Getting to Oatman

We made a day of it and rode the motorcycle, heading through Lake Havasu City to Oatman. The loop took us on a section of Historic Rt. 66 fondly referred to as “the sidewinder” thanks to 191 curves in 8 miles! The view was outstanding and made up for the white-knuckle ride! You can also get to Oatman via Kingman, AZ or Laughlin, NV on Rt. 66. 

Additional Things to Do in Oatman

Every day at high noon you can watch the Oatman Outlaws remind you what the old west was all about…shoot outs! If you miss that show there is a second one at 2:15, so gather up the fam and head to Main Street for some wild west shenanigans!

Travel the Sidewinder out of Oatman and see the stunning views of Sitgreaves pass.

Explore the local shops and grab some Rt. 66 souvenirs. There are plenty to choose from in everything from t-shirts to key chains and stickers.


Hi! I’m Shelle and my mission is simple: to inspire and empower adventurous souls like you to embark on unforgettable journeys into the heart of nature. Whether you’re an avid hiker, a passionate photographer, or simply someone who loves to wander, we’re here to fuel your wanderlust and provide you with the tools and resources you need to make the most of your outdoor adventures.

Join our vibrant community of fellow travelers as we dive into the beauty of the natural world, one adventure at a time. Let’s explore, discover, and connect with the world around us—together.

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4 thoughts on “Oatman’s Free Spirits: Burro Edition”

  1. Great narrative on Oatman, it is an interesting town and now I know even more about it. We went there last winter and really enjoyed the area. Thanks for sharing your photos are great.

    1. Thanks so much, Sue! It is fun to research new areas. There is so much history to explore along with the beautiful locations. I hope your experience with the donkeys was as much fun as mine!

  2. Hello Shelle! It was so great to read your blog and see those BEAUTIFUL pictures! You are photographer goals for sure! I am so glad Jody posted this for us at Njevity. Also I see he’s growing the hair out! Glad to see you both enjoying this lifestyle to the fullest! What an amazing adventure and thank you for taking us along. I will bookmark your blog for more brief respites from the work day. With Love, Jenn Cotton Council

    1. Thank you so much Jenn! I really appreciate you taking the time to read it and let me know you liked it! There is a link to subscribe to my newsletter to get notified of new blogs along with real-time updates on our adventures. Thanks again! Shelle

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