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Laughlin: Fun and Gaming in the Desert

This growing town on the Colorado River sports a string of high rise casinos.

view of Laughlin on the Colorado River, image
Photo caption
Laughlin sits on the banks of the Colorado River. You can take a water taxi from the airport and between hotels.

It's almost a town without a past. Local history can be summarized briefly: A.D. 900—Indians live along the Colorado River. 1931—Gambling legalized in Nevada. 1966—Don Laughlin opens the Riverside Resort.

Back in '66, Laughlin bought a boarded-up motel at otherwise vacant South Pointe by the Colorado River. Thirty years later, South Pointe is the town of Laughlin and the formerly vacant land sports a string of high-rise casinos, Don Laughlin's 28-story, 1,405-room Riverside Resort Hotel and Casino prominent among them.

The place is still growing, and each year loads of people stay long enough to leave lots of money, contributing to what the town's Convention and Visitors Authority describes as "the sweet smell of success."

The ten, mostly very big, casinos tend to have individual themes, perhaps most forcefully at the Colorado Belle, which is in the shape of a paddlewheel steamboat. Harrah's theme is Old Mexico. The Golden Nugget has a tropical atrium with waterfall, bordered by Tarzan's Lounge ("$1 Budweiser"). The Edgewater's theme is hyper-caffeinated Southwest.

The Edgewater is, like most of the casinos, right on the water's edge. The only casino not on the river, the Ramada Express (Victorian railroad station theme, with free rides on a replica steam train), is just across the street from those that are.

The Colorado is a large, clean river all the more appealing for rolling through very dry land. You can get out on it by renting "personal water craft" (small power boats suitable for one or two people), by taking a water taxi from the airport and among the casinos, or by taking a tour on one of the larger boats.

We took the Riverside boat's narrated tour and were rewarded with a pleasant hour-and-a-quarter's ride, reasonably informative narration, and good views of casinos and surrounding territory.

You can walk among most of the casinos with little effort, especially along the flower and hedge lined River Walk. Shuttles can get you around otherwise. If you do explore the casinos, be sure to see the car collection on the Riverside's third floor. Mussolini's '39 Lancia, Juan Peron's '38 Packard, and dozens of other cars make the free museum a worthy stop.

One of Don Laughlin's associates from the early days is quoted as saying, ". . . when I first laid eyes on this area, I was stunned by the desolate emptiness . . . but, well, just look around at what Don has built now." It might be equally possible to have the opposite view, but to be fair, perhaps only the Anasazi or Frank Lloyd Wright could create aesthetically appropriate desert architecture. And the works of either would be hopeless when it came to accommodating thousands of air-conditioning-loving folks bent on coming out ahead in the casinos.

Apparently, Wright never stopped by, but ancient Indians did live here, and you can see some of their petroglyphs in the desert only a few miles from the nearest one-armed bandit. The drive to Grapevine Canyon involves two miles over a reasonably smooth dirt road to a small parking lot by the trailhead. The trail, only a few hundred yards, takes you close to impressive petroglyphs. You may share the path with lizards, rabbits, and rattlesnakes, so keep an eye out.

Davis Dam helps control the Colorado River. There's a brief, self-guided tour daily from 7:30 to 3:30, Mountain Time. It takes you to the generator and control rooms, and gives a view of Lake Mohave above the dam and the river as it flows by Laughlin below.

This was gold mining territory, and the little town of Oatman, some 30 miles south, is a well-preserved sample of the kind of settlement that could spring up overnight and then disappear when the gold petered out. Oatman has much of the atmosphere of Virginia City, with the addition of wild burros that have the run of the place. Burros we saw were semi-wild at most, a situation possibly brought on by the food that tourists like to feed them.

Part of the approach to Oatman is on a stretch of old Route 66. That road usually conjures images of picturesque, if somewhat tatty, gas stations and diners. This section has none of that. It's a drive through the desert lovely enough to merit its "National Back Country Byway" designation. Take the narrow, winding road another 4.5 miles beyond Oatman for a drive into desert hills to the top of Sitgreaves Pass where there's a small viewing area and a large view.

But Laughlin isn't really about sightseeing, appreciating the desert's beauties, or enjoying the river-although you can do all three. It's primarily about bargain rooms, bargain meals, and gambling. You can get a truly nice room with a view cheap. (The AAA California/NevadaTourBook lists several places to stay, with rooms in three-diamond hotels available for as little as $21.) You can eat heartily, and even well, for very little money. And if you're a true gambler, consider that wedding licenses are available from 8 to 5 at Laughlin's Regional Government Center. Bring $35 cash and proof of age; forget about waiting periods and blood tests.

Photography by John Goepel

This article was first published in September 1996. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.