Historic towns are a lot like vintage motorcycles. Both are more beautiful wearing the rich patina of years and experience. Yes, towns can be razed and rebuilt with modern implements and materials, and motorcycles can be restored from the ground up to gleam like new. But there is a charm in faded paint, a lacing of rust, and battle scars of the past. Which is what makes this ride from Jerome to Oatman, Arizona, one of my favorites.
Two of America’s most character-filled and history-rich towns are nestled in west-central Arizona, and they are linked by some of the best motorcycling roads in the Southwest. Jerome and Oatman were both born of the frenzy to mine precious metals from the surrounding rocks and soil, and both still cling resiliently to their respective mountain ranges.
I plan my route over hot pretzels and beer-cheese at my staging point, the Smelter Town Brewery in Clarkdale, Arizona. This fantastic microbrewery is nestled in one of the historic buildings in a town that grew as a bedroom community for the Jerome mines and the nearby smelter. After licking my fingers and picking up a pint can for after the ride, I take a quick walk through Clarkdale’s downtown before gearing up and mounting my BMW GS.
As I ride through the town, I can’t help but think of its similarity to small Midwestern hamlets. Historic Craftsman-style homes rest behind straight sidewalks and grass lawns. Immediately upon exiting the town limits, the climb is on. The portion of Arizona State Route 89A that ascends Mingus Mountain is a bucket-list motorcycle road, attracting thousands of riders each year. The approach to Jerome is a perfect warmup of steeply sloped straights and smooth, sweeping corners.
After just 5 miles, the road coils into Jerome through a series of hairpins. Clapboard-sided, multi-floored structures rise on both sides of the road. Jerome feels like a shabby alpine village, and I ride by former brothels, once-thriving mercantile shops, and popular watering holes on the town’s narrow, sometimes precarious Main Street. Motorcycles line the curb outside the brick-faced Spirit Room, which serves as the town’s live music and entertainment heart.
It’s hard to imagine that Jerome had a population of 15,000 in the 1920s. It nearly died in the 1960s after the mines closed but has rebounded into one of the hottest tourist destinations in Arizona. The powers that be, assisted by a designation as a Federal National Historic District, have done a great job of retaining an authenticity and patina that harkens back to the town’s heyday.
Leaving Jerome, the road takes on a fantastically different character. Undulations, hairpins, and a dearth of straights make the ascent up Mingus one of the most memorable and entertaining rides you’ll find. Focus is required as I navigate the variety of corner types on this sinewy ribbon of asphalt. The views are spectacular, but are best imbibed with the kickstand down, as this road can morph from entertaining to treacherous in a heartbeat.
I crest the Mingus Mountain pass at more than 7,000 feet, having climbed 4,000 feet from my starting point in Clarkdale. I have ridden from high desert to towering pines in the span of 14 miles. Fantastic.
The descent down the western slope of Mingus starts off as curvaceous as the eastern ascent, then it slowly uncoils as I head toward Prescott. The tall pines of Mingus Mountain fade into lower junipers and then grasslands. Despite the traffic, I opt to ride along Prescott’s famed Whiskey Row, lined by saloons, dance halls, and historic hotels. The city was once Arizona’s capital. Now it is simply a charming, aesthetically appealing mountain town.
Almost immediately after leaving Prescott to the southwest on Highway 89, I enter another serpentine delight. The road is a smooth and winding descent. The chaparral terrain affords expansive views for long stretches. The road straightens out after the tiny town of Wilhoit, but the fun is far from over.
The next leg takes me over a combination of two state routes –the 96 and then the 97. Route 96 is a lightly traveled and extremely fun series of winding stretches. Route 97 then adds the bonus of extreme, rapid elevation shifts. It’s one of those rare roads that roller-coasters up and down abruptly and repeatedly. I feel the suspension on the GS load and unload as the g-forces shift. Again, fantastic!
I make my way onto the only lengthy straight section of this great ride. While the U.S. Route 93 lacks the curves of the earlier roads, the views at speed are expansive. After unwinding on the 93, there is a relatively short leg on Interstate 40.
The Oatman Highway starts straight and barren, but that changes in a hurry as I climb the Black Mountains leading up to Oatman. If the road after Jerome required focus, this stretch of Route 66 demands it. It is narrow. I mean narrow in the sense that there is zero margin for error. That being said, it is a hugely entertaining, first-gear slalom over Sitgreaves Pass and through mine country.
I see very few cars on my way to Oatman, but I do stop to interact with a few of the area’s more famous residents –the “wild” burros. These descendants of the early miners’ working animals are ubiquitous around Oatman.
As I roll into Oatman, that vintage patina is back. Historic structures line both sides of the tiny main street. Tourists and burros share the road and sidewalks of the former mining town. Again, watering holes, gift shops, and cafes make up the bulk of the town’s revitalized economy. As I walk through the hamlet, my boots clop on the uneven, wooden sidewalks. Just for a moment, I envision that I am wearing cowboy boots rather than Alpinestars on those planks.
This is a great ride that encompasses wide elevation shifts and extremely varied road conditions, so preparedness is key. Plan, focus, and enjoy!