At first consideration, most of us will ignore a "measly" peak that stands just 1,741 feet at its apex, with a road to the top no less. How is this mountaineering? Well, remember, the journey there is half the fun, and in this case, Oatman Mountain is the centerpiece of a fascinating area of southwest Arizona, complete with history, a famous massacre, and some interesting geology including an extensive series of lava flows known as the Sentinel-Arlington Volcanic Field.
Oatman Mountain is located about 25 air-miles west of Gila Bend (about 90 miles from Phoenix). The peak is a broad shield, formed from multiple lava flows from a series of vents that over time, built the peak into the shield shape. The Gila River cuts through this valley and passes just south of Oatman Mountain. South and East of Oatman Mountain are lower flows from a series of vents. None of these spewed enough lava to form a mountain; most just flowed once and then closed up. What's left behind is a scape of broad fields of black basalt and sparse vegetation, and in spots, small mounds and hills of the same type of rock. These lava flows date from about 3.3-million to 1.3-million years ago.
Before the Gila River was dammed, it was a perennial, flowing even in the hottest days of summer. Even today, it can flow and form giant flooded plains. In 1993, a flood actually cut off Yuma from the rest of Arizona for about three weeks. The ancient Indians obviously used the Gila to hunt, fish and farm, and later, the various explorers would follow the Gila while on their journeys. It was a popular westward route for Americans in the 19th century.
In 1851, the Oatman Family were heading west along the river when they were intercepted by local Indians, who killed five of the eight members on the spot. Three others survived: a brother and two sisters. The brother was actually assumed dead, but he somehow made his way to Yuma. The sisters were taken in by the Indians, but one died soon after, while the other, a little girl named Olive, lived with her abductors for a few years before being traded to another band of Indians, with whom she lived for a few more years before her brother bought her release around 1856. The town of Oatman, west of Kingman in northwest Arizona, is named for her.
Today, the area surrounding Oatman Mountain is devoted to (mainly cotton) farming. There are a few far-flung homesteads, and jets from nearby Luke Air Force Base (the auxiliary field near Gila Bend) buzz the peak while on maneuvers.
Oatman Mountain has two halves, and both are covered with towers. The west half is lower by about 20 feet and is apparently closed to the public. The east half has civilian towers (so you can look at videos of kittens on your iPhone while driving Interstate-8). The peaks are covered in basalt rock and cactus, with ocotillo, creosote, barrel and saguaro. Higher up, the dreaded cholla grows in abundance. Between the two halves of the peak is a giant fracture. When you are at the top, looking down into it is quite amazing. Geology fans will love this peak.
Getting There and Route to Top
Get to Interstate-8 and drive to Exit 102, Painted Rock Road. Go north on Painted Rock Road as it bends west and crosses a low pass. As the road descends into the Gila River Valley, come to a Y-split after about 9.5 miles, and ease left onto Rocky Point Road.
(There are no services at Painted Rock Road. The city of Gila Bend is about 15 miles east along the interstate, with all services. If coming from the west, the last dependable stop for fuel and goodies is at Dateland, Exit 67. The "town" of Sentinel at about Exit 85 (?) has an old general store and gas station, but lately, the whole place looks abandoned.)
Rocky Point Road heads due west. It is paved for the first mile or so, and passes the Painted Rock Petroglyph Site after one mile. The pavement ends but the road is wide hard-pack and passes by cotton farms for a couple miles. Five miles from the Y-split, you'll pass over the Gila River itself over an earthen berm, then turn right onto a small road marked with a BLM marker. This is slightly before a home, and directly south of Rocky Point, a smallish promontory on the south end of Oatman Mountain.
Follow this BLM road north then northeast about a mile. There are a couple nice places to park, with tamarisk and reeds forming small "walls". The road will split again, with the left going up to the top.
Where you park is you option. The road is paved at this last split, and "paved" all the way up, but the pavement has been left to decay for 40 years now, so it seems. There is a nice pullout amid the black basalt rocks a small way up this road, before it bends and comes to a gate. From the gate to the top is about two miles and 1,100-1,200 feet of gain.
Rocky Point Road is passenger-car friendly if it is dry. The BLM road is rougher, with ruts and sections of sand, and needs high-clearance. The road up to the top, despite its pavement, is chunky, torn up, and steep enough to warrant four-wheel drive.
Beware: the land here is flat and drainage is negligible. After rains the roads can be muddy with large sections of standing water. The BLM road was still slightly muddy in spots, three weeks after our last rain. If you have a little vehicle, you probably need to park early and walk the BLM road, but it's not that far.
The hike up the final road is easy and pitched at a consistent grade, perfect for an energetic walk. The long, gentle slopes and lack of foothills plays tricks on your senses: the top looks lower and closer than it really is. Toward the top, the road gets steeper, pushing about a 15-20% grade. The very top is a small hump of basalt rocks at the far end of the towers. Two saguaro stand over the top, and despite the towers, the views are fantastic.
None. Beware of bird hunters in winter.
Painted Rock Petroglyph Campground is one mile west of the Y-split, and well-signed. It is BLM run, and charges $8 per night.
Painted Rock Petroglyph & Campground link, BLM
The Petroglyph site charges $2/day, and is worth the stop. The rocks are covered in ancient Indian rock art.
The campground is mostly open with no shade trees. This is the desert, remember. The surrounding area is lovely. Oatman Mountain is just a few miles west, and the Painted Rock Mountains are immediately east.
The Oatman Massacre Site is a bit south beyond where Rocky Point Road makes a hard right, just past the BLM road.
External LinksOatman Mountain Trip Report, 1-7-12
View of Oatman Mountain and Sentinel Lava Fields from Space!
Background of the Sentinel Plain and Petroglyphs
, including plant and animal species to look out for.
Proposed Gila Bend Mountains NCA
Some information and photos of the Oatman Massacre Site
Panorama of West Oatman from East Oatman.