Before my first visit to Laughlin 22 years ago, I told the employer who was sending me there that it was described to me as “just a couple of casinos in the middle of the desert.” His response was to point out that you could describe Las Vegas the same way.
In many ways, Laughlin does resemble a scaled-down Las Vegas right down to the neon cowboy waving atop one of the casinos, but it’s more like the Vegas longtime residents remember, before it got big, when everyone knew everyone.
The tourist corridor of Laughlin is still a lot like it was 22 years ago. A string of casinos stretches down the western bank of the Colorado River and most of them are linked together by the River Walk, a sidewalk that travels between the river and the casinos and dips into the latter occasionally. It’s not unusual to see people strolling down the River Walk, stopping to check out the amenities of each casino.
The water taxis still stop at docks at each casino. Once this was a free service but now $4 will take you to any casino on the river and an all-day water taxi pass runs $15 to $20.
The town’s oldest casino is Don Laughlin’s Riverside Resort at the north end of the river strip. The town is named for the casino’s owner, who still lives in the penthouse. He bought an eight-room motel in 1966 and his family lived in four of the rooms. Today the resort includes two towers, a movie theater, bowling alley, two pools and an antique car museum with free admission.
Locals like to tell stories of Don Laughlin, and a surprising number of them are true. He did find the site while flying a small plane. He did help finance the bridge across the river that brought traffic from the Arizona side practically to his front door. He was one of the first casino operators to cater to the recreational vehicle crowd, rationalizing that anyone who could afford an RV had money to gamble.
The Riverside is one of several places in Laughlin to catch a river cruise. Originally, steamboats made regular stops at the place that is now Bullhead City on the Arizona side of the river until 1909. Today, you can take a short cruise on the river, enjoy dinner on a boat or take a longer excursion to Lake Havasu, Ariz., passing under its famed London Bridge.
In the warmer months, water-play on the river becomes a big draw with a lot of personal watercraft weaving up and down the river. The water attractions page on visitlaughlin.com lists places to rent personal watercraft, canoes and kayaks or hire fishing guides.
In the colder months, the crowd skews a little older. It’s still a popular spot for snowbirds drawn by warm weather, classic performers playing at lower rates than in Las Vegas, inexpensive food and small town hospitality.
A few highlights in the casinos include the Pioneer Hotel and Gambling Hall, with a sign very similar to Fremont Street’s Vegas Vic and featuring much of the classic old West decor, the Tropicana Laughlin with decor inspired by the age of steam engines and the Colorado Belle Casino Resort, much of which is shaped like an old paddlewheel boat.
The Colorado Belle is partially surrounded by a moat, to enhance the illusion that it’s a docked ship. Huge orange, white and black carp live there and vending machines dispense fish food, that more often than not ends up being duck food. An amusing game can be made of trying to feed the fish before the speedy ducks can get to the food.
One of the more recent additions to Laughlin’s riverside strip is the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., the chain seafood restaurant inspired by the film “Forrest Gump.” The restaurant at the Golden Nugget Laughlin sits right on the River Walk, with outdoor seating between the walk and the river that is heated with portable gas units and gas pit fires.
A can’t-miss attraction in Laughlin for adults is The Losers Lounge. On top of having a great name for a bar in a gaming establishment, the bar at the Riverside features some amusing decor, with pictures of historical losers such as the Hindenburg and the Titanic and more modern losers, including celebrity mug shots of deposed despots. The Losers Lounge has nightly live entertainment.
Laughlin hosts several annual special events and conventions each year. One of the largest and most well known is the Laughlin River Run, which is next scheduled for April 23-27. The event brings motorcycle enthusiasts from across the country to enjoy the area.
Other events include New Year’s Eve fireworks, Rockets Over the River on July 4, the Bullhead City Regatta on Aug. 9 and the Legends Over the Colorado Air Show in the fall.
For information about special events in Laughlin, visit laughlinchamber.org.
There is an outlet mall across the street from the casinos but beyond that and the casinos, the town of Laughlin doesn’t offer much to visitors. The town is mostly housing, and everyone shops across the river in Bullhead City, Ariz. Built in the 1940s, Bullhead City was a support town during the construction of Davis Dam. The dam was completed in 1951 and created Lake Mojave, which is part of the Lake Mead National Recreation Area.
It’s easy to pass through Bullhead City and think it’s only a string of strip malls along the road south, but if you explore the edges of the river you’ll find a quiet community of riverfront homes with docks on the crystal clear Colorado River. An Arizona Veterans Memorial overlooks the river at 2249 Clearwater Drive. The memorial is in two parts with a channel separating them. The other section is at 2170 Rio Grande Road. Nearby is a bar with its only sign facing the river and advertising free boat landing.
The town offers a few interesting restaurants and shops, but many visitors use it as a place to stock up on water and snacks for less populated jaunts around Laughlin.
Unless you’re taking a particularly circuitous route, it’s hard not to pass through Searchlight on the way to Laughlin. These days, the town is known primarily as Sen. Harry Reid’s hometown, but at one time it was a thriving mining community with a population larger than Las Vegas. It was in the running to be the Clark County seat.
Today it has a couple of casinos and a few convenience stores along the main road through town and a small cluster of homes. The Searchlight Historic Museum, 200 Michael Wendell Way, is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday.
Not everyone will be interested in visiting the Searchlight Cemetery but those who do are likely to be impressed by its unusual western charm. Follow the signs from Cottonwood Cove Road to a dirt road southeast of town. The cemetery features very few traditional headstones, burial seems to be a very personal matter here, with graves marked with homemade markers and arrangements of interesting stones. The cemetery is sort of a graveyard of outsider art.
CHRISTMAS TREE PASS AND GRAPEVINE CANYON
A gravel dirt road connects U.S. Highway 95 to the Laughlin Highway (state Route 163) via Christmas Tree Pass. The pass itself is not recommended for two-wheel drive vehicles. Local families used to come out to decorate the evergreen trees here for Christmas. The trees are not the cone-shaped, thickly foliaged ones they sell in lots in December, but they are green and that was enough until 15 or 20 years ago when the practice was discouraged. The tradition has moved to the outskirts of Oatman, Ariz.
The road goes through some rugged country that doesn’t see a lot of traffic and the opportunity to see wildlife and native plants is great.
If you’re coming from the Laughlin end of the road, Grapevine Canyon is just a few miles up the road. A quarter-mile walk from the parking lot leads to the canyon where there are more than 700 petroglyphs carved into the rock. Many of them are near the mouth of the canyon, where it is hard to look anywhere without seeing the carvings, which are 100 to 1,000 years old.
NORTH REACH TRAIL
Prior to the construction of the bridge, the road across the river was over Davis Dam, a few miles north of the casinos. That road has been replaced with a trail, part of a system of trails called Heritage Greenway Park and Trails.
Visitors can park near the casinos at 1555 S. Casino Drive and cross the highway via an artistically designed footbridge or drive up a small section of the remaining road that follows the west bank of the river north of the Laughlin Highway.
Trails lead to the dam, and fishing piers that cantilever over the Colorado River. The park includes a children’s playground and water spray area with Davis Dam as its backdrop. It is part of what the county’s website calls “Laughlin’s unique quality of life and its soft adventure-appeal.”
Less than a half-hour from Laughlin is Oatman, Ariz. Take U.S. 95 south from Bullhead City and turn east on Oatman Road. It was built as a mining town and when mining ceased to be a viable occupation there, it survived for some years because Route 66 runs through it. One of the remaining sections of the Mother Road stills passes through it, but larger, faster roads have long since passed the town by.
It remains an active and thriving community today through tourism. It still retains its sleepy ghost town feel and Wild West architecture, but the buildings that once housed assayers offices, mining companies and saloons are now filled with gift shops, candy stores and saloons. Some things don’t go out of style. During the week you may have the town more or less to yourself as you casually stroll along old wooden sidewalks. On the weekends, the town can get pretty busy and parking can become a challenge, particularly if the road is closed for a gunfight.
Local re-enactors stop traffic at noon and 2:30 p.m. daily for short but entertaining open-air theater that usually ends up with one or more people getting shot. Such is life in the wild West. The victims are sure to pop up in time for their bows and to pass the hat.
A population of burros, descended from the working burros of the mines, freely roam the streets. Many of the shops sell bags of burro food with the admonition not to feed them on the sidewalk because “the burros recycle quickly.”
Clark Gable and Carole Lombard honeymooned in The Oatman Hotel, far from the prying eyes of the Hollywood press. It’s a hotel in name only now as the upstairs, including the room the stars stayed in, which was once open for tours, is closed for renovations. It still features a bar, restaurant and gift shop.
Oatman has its own list of unusual annual events including Bed Races on Jan. 24, a Sidewalk Egg Fry Contest on July 4, Gold Camp Days with the International Burro Bisket Toss on Labor Day and special events on major holidays.
Contact reporter F. Andrew Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-380-4532.