Sometimes you want to get away without having to spend a lot of time getting there. That was precisely the situation in which I found myself while planning a recent vacation.
And that’s why I chose to visit Laughlin, only about 98 miles south of Las Vegas.
Sure, I could have opted for a trip to Southern California. But that would have required more time on the road, or making that trip by air, with the certainty of searches and the probability of delays and other hassles. Starting this vacation at the end of a stressful workday, I needed no extra hassles. We could get to Laughlin in little more than 90 minutes from my Henderson home. I wouldn’t even have to drive, because my friend John would do that, and my brother Ricky would be along for pleasant company.
Laughlin is one of the most successful “border towns” that grew up where some highway crossed into Nevada from a state whose residents have fewer gambling and partying options. But Don Laughlin, the owner of Don Laughlin’s Riverside Resort Hotel & Casino and the town’s founding father, said many Las Vegas Valley residents are also drawn to Laughlin as a convenient escape from the bustle of Las Vegas.
“It’s a pretty easy trip down here,” Laughlin said in a December interview, after my visit to his town. “We have the (Colorado) River and the (Davis) Dam. (And) we have the Indian writings on the rocks in Oatman.”
Petroglyphs can be found not only at the nearby Arizona ghost town of Oatman, but also at Grapevine Canyon, nine miles west of Laughlin.
Some Las Vegans make the pilgrimage to Bullhead City to buy tickets for the Arizona Lottery and enjoy Laughlin, directly across the river, on the same trip.
Making Laughlin more appealing were the deals offered by the city. Some Laughlin casinos were offering dinner buffets for $6 or $7.
Bargains multiplied in Laughlin, as they have in Las Vegas, when the recession bit into tourism. Frank Tokas, the Riverside Resort’s controller, said the casino segment is further adjusting prices.
“Casino revenue is down about 23 percent in the market, and we are down about 20 percent,” the casino controller noted at the end of 2010. “Everybody’s a lot cheaper here now — food, hotel rooms.”
Laughlin’s busiest time is from mid-January into the springtime, Tokas said. That’s when the city’s temperatures (in the high 70s) work well for boating enthusiasts and others who just can’t wait for summer.
Summertime attracts a younger crowd for water sports, Don Laughlin said. Laughlin’s record-high July temperature is listed as 125 degrees.
Nonetheless, we visited in the summer. My friend John got a great deal on renting a shiny red Toyota Camry and set out in early evening.
We took the most direct route, south on U.S. Highway 95 from Railroad Pass. The road passes through Searchlight, best known these days as the hometown of U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev.
Searchlight has a population of nearly 600, according to the 2000 U.S. Census. The place also has a few restaurants, but being anxious to reach our destination, we didn’t stop. In fact, John lost track of the speed limit.
But the trooper from the Nevada Highway Patrol, lurking at the Searchlight town limit, did not lose track, nor did the shiny red car with the out-of-state plate escape his attention. John’s first souvenir of the trip was a speeding ticket.
Subdued, we continued about 20 miles farther south, turned onto Highway 163, and soon saw the glitter of Laughlin casinos through the desert and hills.
We pulled into Joe’s Pizzeria & Deli, on Laughlin’s main drag. This little establishment offered an extra large pizza for under $10. It was our first bargain of the trip.
Now that it was night and much cooler outside, we strolled the Laughlin Riverwalk, a scenic pedestrian path running between the casinos and the Colorado River.
We saw a surprising amount of river traffic. There’s a free water taxi shuttling between Laughlin and Bullhead City, and paid cruises also run all day and after sundown. We rented a four-person room at the Riverside Resort for a little under $50, after tax. Our view wasn’t spectacular, but it was a nice, clean room at a good price.
The city of Laughlin draws an interesting mix of young hipsters on personal watercrafts, bikers for the annual Laughlin River Run and retirees fleeing the brutal winters of the Midwest and East Coast.
The river is the biggest draw for Southern Nevadans. Its calm flow establishes a small-town, homey mood, said Don Laughlin.
Of course, many visitors take excursions on that river. Many get married on the boats. Others spend an entire day taking a boat downstream to Lake Havasu City to see London Bridge, rebuilt there in 1971 with stones from the London original. That was tempting, but instead we took a 90-minute cruise to Davis Dam the next day. It cost only $10 a person.
Those taking the boat tour can catch a glimpse of the Davis Dam Power Plant, which is on the dam’s Arizona side. In the winter months, flocks of seagulls follow the boat and have become favorite photo opportunities for boat riders.
The captain lets selected passengers steer the ship. I enlisted to take the wheel.
I didn’t hit any other boats, steered clear of the dam, and was rewarded for my success with a certificate commemorating my service to the U.S.S. Riverside.
When the boat made it back into the “Port of Laughlin,” John, Ricky and I were sorry the voyage went by so fast.
Wrapping up a very enjoyable and relaxing excursion, we hit the road, with John again at the wheel. Passing Searchlight’s city limits, I suggested John slow down.
Too late. More flashing lights were behind us, and John added to his collection of traffic citations. Feeling bad for my friend, I nevertheless resolved that when I go to Laughlin next time, the only wheel I’ll take will be on the U.S.S. Riverside.
Contact Valerie Miller at email@example.com, or (702) 387-5286.