Travel: Lucky in Laughlin
July 16, 2010
By DAVID CONGALTON
Don Laughlin eventually opened the Riverside Resort on the Colorado River, featuring all-you-can-eat chicken dinners for 98 cents, 12 slot machines, two gaming tables, and 8 motel rooms.
Today, Laughlin is the third most popular casino and resort destination in Nevada, and boasts as being one of the top five destinations for American RV junkies. Motorcyclists take over the town each year in late spring for the Laughlin River Run.
I know Laughlin mainly as the spot where the late, great, comic Sam Kinison was headed when he was killed in an head-on car accident along a lonely stretch of Nevada highway in 1992.
I was in the neighborhood last week. Never having been to Laughlin, I had to check the place out.
Laughlin is 45 minutes due west of Kingman, a pleasant drive along Highway 68, culminating in a steep descent down into the Valley of the Gambler, ending at the Colorado River. Go around the curve and you spy a cluster of mostly white buildings scrunched together on the other side of the river.
Is this it? One of the buildings clearly says “Casino.” Must be. Turns out that Bullhead City, Arizona sprawls along the east bank, while Laughlin, Nevada occupies the west bank of the crystal-blue Colorado River.
Laughlin is, shall we say, compact. Imagine a five-mile stretch of casinos, hotels, and restaurants squished together by a giant pair of hands into a one-mile area. The town certainly can’t be any longer than that–you can drive from one end to the other along South Casino Drive in less than five minutes.
And unlike Reno or Vegas, there is hardly much of a residential dimension to the town. Most folks live over in Bullhead City and drive across the bridge to work in Laughlin.
You’ve heard many of the names before: Harrah’s, Golden Nugget, Edgewater, Tropicana, and, of course, Don Laughlin’s Riverside Resort and Casino. Small shopping centers have been dropped in between the casinos. There’s a multiplex movie theater and your basic fast food restaurants aplenty.
But something’s missing in this little river town. It lacks the glitz of Vegas. No large Bellagio-style fountains. No flashy shows starring white tigers. No replicas of the Eiffel Tower to explore. Uh-Uh. Laughlin is more low key, down-to-earth.
There wasn’t much foot traffic along South Casino Drive on a sun-baked morning in July. A free water shuttle moves visitors up and down the river as they make their way between casinos. At night, crowds are known to gather along the river walk that borders the water.
Still, Laughlin is clearly a gambler’s town. You come here for the dice and the slots. Hotel rooms can be had for a bargain and I guess you could argue that Laughlin is a more affordable family vacation than Vegas or Reno.
Some visitors come to play 18 holes out at The Mojave Golf Course at the Avi. Nearby Big Bend State Park offers boating and trout fishing. Hikers like to explore Grapevine Canyon to see the Native American petroglyphs etched on the cliffs.
Laughlin River Tours offers nightly dinner cruises on the Colorado and the U.S.S. Riverside gives tours of Davis Dam. Vegas has always been a three-day town for me, so I’d probably make Laughlin a two-day affair.
Best night to be in Laughlin is New Year’s. Arizona and Nevada are in different time zones, so the party starts in Bullhead City for the first celebration, and then everyone stumbles across the river for the second big party. Cool.
The other morning, I dropped by the Golden Nugget and checked out the action. Nobody seemed to be winning big. Same lack of action next door at the Colorado Belle, which has the facade of an old river steamboat. Lunch at The Gallery Cafe was fine and I had a nice view of the river.
Yet I felt ambivalent about the place. There was no real desire to stick around and explore more. I had seen enough. Unless you’re into the gaming culture, the din of the casino grows old quickly.
I can now say I’ve been to Laughlin, but I can’t really say that I’ll go back. Anyone care to lay odds?