Once again, it started with some little dirt roads. On the way home from the SEMA show several years ago, a missed turn and the resulting good fortune put us on a section of old Route 66 through Oatman, Arizona. We took a fascinating drive on this narrow, sinuous, and history-soaked section of crumbling blacktop. Cresting the southern end of the Black Mountains on Sitgreaves Pass just as the sun slid behind the mountains west of the Colorado River, we witnessed the incredibly rugged country bathed in shades of pink and purple. But the most intriguing aspect of the drive wasn't the sundown, however sublime, or the hard-surfaced road, no matter how historic. Our attention and imagination were drawn to the dozens of little dirt roads disappearing over every hill and vanishing down every little dry wash. Where did they all lead?
We made it back to the Oatman area this past December for a day of exploration. Oatman is in northwest Arizona between Kingman and Bullhead City/Laughlin. The primary area we intended to explore is centered on this historic mining town and cradled between the Colorado River and two wilderness areas. With Oatman sitting on the west slope of the Black Mountains at around 2,700 feet, we anticipated enough warmth for backcountry camping even toward the end of the year. We arrived in late afternoon and the sun was already sinking behind one of the many volcanic outcroppings that dominate the skyline.
As the temperature dropped, we looked for a suitable camping site, preferably one with easy access to some firewood. The wash bottoms offered the only terrain suitable for setting a tent and we lucked into some dead wood from a snag left there from the last flash flood. After a pleasant evening around the fire, we retired to our tent. Ten minutes later, the tent was being buffeted by strong winds that lasted all night. So much for desert warmth in December -- or peaceful sleep.
The wind was still howling the next morning (but no dew on the tent!) when we left the wash. We headed north toward some mine tailings we could see in the distance. We were soon poking around the remains of the Moss Mine. Most historians credit John Moss with making the earliest discovery of recoverable gold in the Oatman area in the early 1860s. There are reports that $200,000 worth of gold came out of his initial 10x10x10-foot hole. The claim changed hands and more development capital was sunk into the operation, but the mine never again produced anything close to the original bonanza. The ruins include the foundation for a large mill, a large stone building that appears to have been some kind of company headquarters or store, a large steel head frame, and a plethora of smaller wreckage, adits, and tailing piles.
In spite of the initial success of the Moss Mine and the discovery of similar veins in the surrounding countryside, there wasn't much mineral development in the vicinity for the next thirty years. A lack of rich ore discoveries was certainly the primary reason for this mining hiatus. But the lack of water in this parched land and the long haul distances to process ore also made economic viability difficult.
From our maps, it appeared that we could make our way via a spider's web of roads from the Moss Mine to the 4WD road forming the western boundary of the Mount Nutt Wilderness. Although their maps don't show the route numbers we saw on the sign, the Kingman Field Office of the BLM has done a good job of signing the legal routes on the ground. No matter, we are well experienced in navigating back roads. We didn't always know where we were but we knew where we were going. We reached the wilderness boundary and once again turned north since the road northward offered the promise of the more interesting terrain. The wildly eroded slopes just on the other side of the wilderness boundary offered Moab-esque scenery as we negotiated several small canyons. The distinctive profile of Thumb Butte grew in our windshield until we were traversing the road directly at its base.
Decision time again: Should we take a smaller road north through rough country to enigmatically named Secret Pass or push through to the highway leading down to Bullhead City? We were on limited time and we wanted to do at least some preliminary exploration of the area on the other side of Oatman. Schedule won out and we quickly looped down through Bullhead City and back up Silver Creek Wash to Oatman.
The town of Oatman boomed in the early 1900s with a series of gold strikes in the district. A prospector, on a $15 grubstake from a local merchant, discovered the Gold Road property. The Vivian followed a few years later, and things really started moving with the establishment of the Tom Reed and United Eastern properties. It is estimated that the mines in the area yielded over two million ounces of gold (over 62 tons!) between 1900 and 1950. The Tom Reed, United Eastern, and several other mines all exploited the same lucrative vein of ore that ran at or near the surface for nearly a mile. By 1913, the Oatman area had 10,000 residents. The mining activity had mostly run its course by 1930 and the end came when the government declared gold mining `non-essential' to the war effort during the second World War.
Oatman survived for a number of years as an important stop on busy Route 66. The town's demise looked imminent in 1953 when the new highway was further south through Topock. The population base quickly dwindled to a hardy few. The town has survived since on the appeal of its mining history and, more recently, on rampant Route 66 nostalgia. Foundations and huge tailing piles on both ends of town are about all that remains of the mining unless you include the burros. The pesky descendants of those hardy mining beasts of burden occupy a hallowed status in the city boundaries. Although technically `wild', the burros spend the day panhandling for food and chasing after tourists. Local shops sell carrots and other treats for feeding them. A quick lunch and we pointed the hood south out of Oatman and toward the Boundary Cone.
Boundary Cone is a huge, dark volcanic plug that rises over 1,500 feet from its base and dominates the views southwest of Oatman. The landmark was so named because it was thought at one time that the 35th parallel bisected its summit (the line is actually about a mile to the north). It also marks the entrance to interesting roads that provide access to other historic mining relics in the area.
According to the map, it looked as if some routes connected as loops. But it had to be ground-tested. We started with a route two canyons east of the Cone. After about two miles of climbing the narrow canyon, the road dead-ended at a high saddle near the boundary of the Warm Springs Wilderness. No loops here. There were several relic mining sites to explore but none large enough to warrant a name on our maps. The views from the top of the ridge were spectacular in all directions as the low winter sun lit the craggy volcanic escarpments and pinnacles in vivid relief.
We returned to the outlet of the canyon and tried our luck in the canyon directly east of the Boundary Cone peak. We visited the remains of the Lazy Boy and Paragon mines. But, once again, the road narrowed, and then ended near the wilderness boundary. The early winter sunset was forcing us to seek another accommodating wash so we reluctantly turned back toward Oatman.
Although it had been a busy and fascinating day, the short hours of December daylight didn't really give us enough time to explore the Oatman area to our complete satisfaction. We now know where some of those alluring dirt roads off of Route 66 lead to, but there are still many left to explore.
|Waypoint Description||Latitude N||Longitude W|
|Intersection of Oatman Highway |
and Silver Creek Wash Road
|Downtown Oatman |
(Beware of burros)