Lake Havasu City and Las Vegas have a thing or two in common: their visitors can enjoy architectural features representing faraway lands and times, and they’re both places outsiders like to go to get a little crazy.
However, the season for shenanigans is much shorter in the Arizona community. For those of us who no longer get spring break or don’t own a boat, that leaves room for a little creative exploring during cooler times of the year, and this Colorado River enclave makes a good base camp.
When a buddy and I made the 2½-hour drive from Las Vegas in late January, a Friday evening start and the hour-later time difference — most of Arizona remains on Mountain Standard Time year-round — brought us to town about 10:30 p.m.
Everything in the riverfront Island Mall, including the Barley Brothers Brewery and Restaurant, had locked its doors by 11 p.m. Expecting gift shops and stores to be open late might seem a little too Vegas-centric, but for a microbrewery to be closed before midnight was a disappointing surprise.
We went ahead and got set up at the Island Inn Hotel, available in the offseason for just $60 a night. The rooms are nothing fancy, which suited us, and I would guess most customers, just fine. As spring break meccas go, sometimes you just need a place to lay your head.
Fortunately, the hotel clerk had a few suggestions for places to pick up a little local flavor. To do that, we had to get off “the island,” the resort-heavy peninsula sliced off from the rest of town to make way for a channel for the London Bridge to span.
About that bridge, it really is from London, built in 1831 and sold to Lake Havasu City founding father Robert P. McCulloch for $2.4 million in 1968. Carefully reconstructed block by block, the bridge was rededicated in Arizona in 1971.
So it is no surprise that the main drag as we headed for downtown is called McCulloch Boulevard.
Once parked, we walked. It would’ve seemed like a ghost town if not for the screeching we could hear loud and clear from a heavy metal band at McKee’s Pub &Grill, a good 500 feet away. We opted to keep walking to BJ’s Tavern, which seemed quieter from the outside.
But once inside, it was like a little piece of spring break with some kitsch on the side. Jell-O shots came around on round serving trays. Beers came in mini-pitchers with handles that made it easier to pour the poison right down the hatch.
Bamboo-covered BJ’s has two sections: an indoor lounge and an outdoor patio. That particular Friday night, inside was a karaoke bar, and outside was a DJ-and-shots-powered dance floor. Karaoke offerings included an all-female group singalong to Shania Twain’s “Man! I Feel Like a Woman,” and a pretty impressive solo from a man on mid-’80s hit “Your Love,” by The Outfield.
Outside, dancers got down to hits from LMFAO, Britney Spears and will.i.am and Ke$ha. And people moved from the dance floor to karaoke and back pretty seamlessly.
For those who didn’t want to put on a performance indoors or out, there were plenty of bar stools and even fire pits outside to keep warm and watch.
The watching was great, as the mix of music might suggest. There didn’t appear to be a dress code, so you saw everything from bandanas paired with overalls to fur coats and leather fedoras. Lake Havasu City was sporting its diversity, representing a range of demographics.
One clear sign this frolicking wasn’t happening in Las Vegas: Everyone was chatty. If they bumped into you, they apologized. If they sat down by you at the bar, they said hello.
Nighttime and nightlife in Lake Havasu City proved good for people-watching. But it didn’t do justice to all the others sights in the area.
We went for a predawn run Saturday, starting from the Island Inn Hotel and heading toward the Channel Riverwalk, lined with retail and residential buildings. Another surprise: There weren’t many streetlights on much of the island section of McCulloch Boulevard. That meant we didn’t see the sidewalk across the road from where we ran in the rocks. No harm, but we did feel a little silly when we spotted the smoother path on the way back. We went for a short, 2-mile run that took us over the (lighted) London Bridge and down by the water. We spotted a dog walker and a few other folks who gave quick waves.
But that’s not all we spotted before 7 a.m. Birds roosting on the channel portion of Lake Havasu and on railings along it were starting to stir. We spotted what looked like a few dozen wood ducks and a handful of seagulls. Wintertime bird-watching is another draw to the area, including the annual Christmas Bird Count south on state Route 95 at Bill Williams River National Wildlife Refuge, near Parker, Ariz. Arizona field ornithologists have identified 350 species in the area, including types of loons, raptors and coots.
After breakfast, we headed to the Lake Havasu City Elks Lodge for the “creative” part of our exploration.
We set up an off-road ride with the River City 4x4 club. About as quickly as we could hop out of my Toyota Tacoma and shake hands with the group of 12 or so drivers, mostly retirees in Jeeps with a Suzuki or two, we left the ranch-style houses and pavement of Lake Havasu City suburbia and headed for, well, a ditch.
It was the first time my friend and I had been off-roading. For the record, and for all our loved ones who worry about our safety, we were passengers and left the driving to those with experience. I’ve driven on plenty of gravel roads, but they were meant for average vehicular traffic. Even as we moseyed through a sandy wash at 10 to 15 mph, it already felt different from your average driving experience. It was bumpy, and we were moving at a pace that would encourage road rage for freeway drivers. Well, it got slower. And bumpier.
Within 10 minutes we were going straight over boulders that were 3 to 4 feet wide and tall about as smoothly as something on four wheels could do it. If you get carsick or don’t like jarring rides, this hobby is not for you. At this point, we were slowed to a crawl. I was strapped in with a two-piece lap belt that locks the way they do on airplanes. My driver, Don Flood, who organized and mapped that day’s run, kept up the conversation like we were sipping coffee with our feet planted firmly on the ground.
We talked about his time in the military, his later work as a copy machine technician, and his wife. When she rides, she usually takes the seat I was in. She likes to head out in the spring, when wildflowers are blooming, Flood said, though he admitted he thinks the sites are a sight to behold, too. Meanwhile, the club scoots along and heads bob while huge rocks get treated like pebbles.
Flood’s Jeep Wrangler is kind of like Darth Vader — minus the Force and saga — with lots of add-ons and very little of the original still visible. It has a reinforced frame, half-doors with no windows and serious steel bumpers. It’s jacked up so high that a guy of average height like myself has to climb in.
Flood presses buttons that allow some wheels to move separately from others on super uneven spots.
“I’ve never flipped this vehicle,” he says. “But if today’s the day, just keep your arms inside. I’ve got a good cage on this thing.”
OK. No big deal.
At one point, we are trying to make it up a rock face that during monsoon season would be a 3-foot waterfall. We are vertical, like in one of those simulated spaceship rides. My feet are over my head.
That day, the spot got the best of this four-wheel-drive crew. Nobody made it over the dry waterfall. But that didn’t stop the fun. There were plenty of jokes going around on the CB radios about drivers with less fortitude than these men. Some drivers brought their dogs along. Others had sandwiches or a drink for a break on top of a hill with a panoramic view of the lake.
After the four-hour journey that covered maybe 2 miles, the fun continued for some back at the Elks Lodge. It was hot dog day.
CAMPING UNDER THE STARS
There were still a couple of hours of daylight left, so we headed back to the channel. It looks different during the day: There are families walking around the replica English Village, with restaurants, a pub and boat rentals.
No one should visit Lake Havasu without getting on the water right? Well, at 3 p.m. during the winter, that proved harder than we imagined. The kayak place was already closing shop and wouldn’t rent to us. A booth operator who had a sign saying he rented stand-up paddleboards said he should change the lettering, because he rents those only during warmer weather (temperatures were in the mid-60s that day). He would rent us a Jet Ski for an hour, he said, but that would cost more than $100 for barely an hour.
So we opted for the cheaper paddle-boat rental, determined to float one way or another. Regardless of how fast we pedaled, our boat kept its leisurely pace. That was fun when motorboats went around us. But it did let us get slightly out of the channel and into open water. We didn’t see too many fish in the blue water that day. And the water was chilly, about 50 degrees.
That night, we caught a little NFL action at Mudshark, which offers handcrafted brews with names such as Desert Magic I.P.A. and Scorpio Amber Ale. And that was nice, but the coolest thing was our camping spot.
We set up at Lake Havasu State Park, right on the water. The campground was close to capacity, but it was quiet. The moon was nearly full and bright enough that we didn’t need flashlights.
Sitting and listening to waves wash up against the rocky shore was relaxing. The waves were light most of the time, save for when the Tecopa Ferry made a trip across Lake Havasu to the Chemehuevi Indian Reservation, carrying gamblers to Havasu Landing Resort and Casino. It was a warm night — in the mid-50s — and with good sleeping bags, we opted to sleep under the stars.
THE TRIP HOME
We wanted to return to Las Vegas on the California side of the Colorado River, so we headed south from Lake Havasu City toward Parker.
OK, maybe what we really wanted to do was visit the Desert Bar.
Getting to this watering hole — also known as the Nellie E. Saloon — takes a little off-roading, though not quite as serious as what we experienced with the River City 4x4 club. The road is pocked and calling it gravel in some spots would be generous. But my pickup handled it fine.
The 30-year-old Desert Bar is definitely a novelty, although there’s nothing special about the food (burgers and other pub fair) or beer (lots of mainstream U.S. brews in cans). You can only spend cash here. It’s open noon to 6 p.m., mostly on Saturdays and Sundays from October through April.
What’s interesting is that it’s run on solar energy and is built at an old copper-mining camp. The day we were there, a bluesy band was playing. It got people on their feet while a nice breeze blew. The place had a nice, slow Sunday feel.
From there, we traveled down to Parker and crossed the Colorado River, taking California Route 62 over to U.S. 95, and headed home.
Contact reporter Adam Kealoha Causey at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0361. Follow on Twitter @akcausey.