Down in the southern tip of Nevada is a surreal strip of landscape called Laughlin. Coming over the desert from nearby Needles where your scenery consists of sand and sun-baked scrub bushes, suddenly the Colorado River emerges and soon after that the neon-lighted row of casinos can easily think you are suffering from a heat-induced hallucination.
Although the summer temps here can easily climb into the high 120's, this is no sweat dream. Nevada's newest boom town exists to siphon of travelers of interstate 40 and those who are tired of Las Vegas' assault on the senses.
First a very brief history lesson. For years a basic bait shack & small village across the way from Bullhead City, AZ, Laughlin took hold when it's namesake, Don Laughlin, built the Riverside resort complete with free ferry rides over the river to his new casino. Soon others followed and now it's a very busy little stretch of activity.
What sets Laughlin apart from its larger sister to the north is that there is a lot more to do here than gamble and watch Disney-esque pirate battles or man-made volcanoes. Here you can actually get out and enjoy that which nature has willingly provided, mostly on the west's lifeblood, the Colorado River.
Most people arrive in Laughlin after a long drive from California or Arizona on Interstate 40 (just drive to Needles and head north from there or cut up highway 95 on the Arizona side of the river), but there is actually an international airport over on the Arizona side of the river offering scheduled service. Okay, it is a dinky airport, but it's long runway was actually used by a 747 to get that international certification.
In Laughlin, there is a plethora of accomodations to choose from. Here's our quick observations of the hotels:
Harrah's is the best we've tried, but unusually hard to get reservations at on a weekend. One of only two in Laughlin that actually have a sandy beach on the river. Also has a no-smoking casino. Unfortunately, their web page is very lacking.
The Tropicana Express is also top-notch. Not actually on the river, it's across the street. Railroad themed with free train rides around the parking lot. Laughlin's best buffet and best Italian restaurant are also here. Highly recommended.
The Avi Resort is the other hotel that actually has a sandy beach. Actually located a few miles south of Laughlin and owned by the local Indian tribe. A more low key atmosphere with a friendly staff, good casino, and lots of ancillary activities.
All the above have accessible accomodations. The Avi also has very affordable suites with in-room spas.
We cannot recommend the Riverside or the Edgewater. There was nothing to enjoy at either one. All the above have accessible accomodations.
Other hotels here include the Flamingo, the Golden Nugget, and the Colorado Belle. We have not stayed at any of these and have no opinion either way.
Our trip to Laughlin...actually this is a mosaic of many trips...begins with our drive to the desert spot. The quickest way for us is via Interstates 15 and 40 from L.A. If we have time, sometimes we'll dip off of the freeway for the interesting detour route 66 takes through Amboy. If you like desert scenery, you'll love this detour with it's remnants of highway life, old vacation cabin ruins, and the Amboy Crater. If not, stick with the freeway.
At Needles, we take the Laughlin turnoff and head north another 20 miles to our destination.
Tired after a long drive, we have a little snack...maybe a drink...and retire. The next morning, we'll get down to the buffet and gorge on the second thing casinos are known for...lots of cheap food! This will fortify us for most of the day.
Next, we drive back to Needles and head to the east side of town to the very lovely Park Moabi Regional Park where we meet with Vaughan at the Park Moabi Marina. Here we pick up a patio boat for the day...you can also rent ski boats or fishing skiffs...and head south on the river.
We head that direction because of the beautiful and unspoiled scenery of the Topock Gorge, a 17 mile stretch of wilderness that is accessible only via boat. We ready for this trip...we have an ice chest full of beer and soda and enough sandwiches to rescue the Donner Party.
I might also say that this trip was in August and the days temperature reached 128 degrees - no that is not a typo.
The heat posed no problem...except for getting back in the car later...because we're on the river. Get hot? Pull over and jump in the water! We followed these tried and true steps all the way through our 2 hour navigation of the Gorge.
At the other end is Lake Havasu and a quick journey takes you over to the crowded little channel that winds under the London Bridge. Here, if you can find a spot, you can beach your craft, jump into the water, and have a drink at the bar overlooking the whole scene.
As the sun drops towards the horizon, we head back through the gorge marveling at the show the lengthening shadows create on the surrounding cliffs. This is the time of the day that many of the local animals come out to feed. We see eagles, herons, rabbits, and coyotes chasing rabbits as we slowly head north.
The graceful arch of the Interstate 40 bridge that connects California to Arizona signals that we have arrived back in civilization and we turn in our boat. The cost was $110 for half a day of cruising ($180 for a full day), plus $40 more for fuel and oil.
We head back to our digs at the Ramada Express and have a wonderful Italian dinner followed by a train ride around their huge parking lot (the train is accessible via a ramp and has three accessible station stops around the property).
That night, classic movies are being shown in the hotels auditorium and we end it by relaxing in the pool & spa that are shaped like a locomotive...everything here has a railroad motif from the "berths" (rooms) to the "station" (checkin) and especially the wonderful model trains sprinkled throughout the casino. Also here is a top-notch model train shop.
The next day we take to driving around the surrounding area. We stop at Oatman, an old mining town on an old, narrow stretch of route 66 that has gone from mining town to ghost town to hippie town to tourist mecca today. Wild burros, decendants of those abandonded by miners, roam the town freely. Mine shafts surround it and some can even be explored by the adventurous. About half of the towns shops and boardwalks can be negotiated by wheelers.
Oatman's fun, if a bit touristy, but Tim is bothered by the noise generated from the mock gunfight put on. It's also a rather small place and can be thoroughly covered in a couple of hours.
We head over to Kingman, a pretty little railroad town about 40 miles east, and have a nice steak dinner at the local Golden Corral.
Then, it's back to Laughlin where we take a quick look at the outlet mall next door to our hotel and decide there's not much there and head back to watch another movie and relax in the pool.
Our last morning there, we have breakfast and slowly get ready to head home. Have we forgot anything? Oh, yeah...they have a casino here!
The wife and I take turns dropping some money into machines and onto tables (someone has to stay with Tim, kids alone in casino arcades are not a good idea after what Strohmeyer did) and even come out $40 ahead before we check out and drive home.
Copyright 2000 - Darryl Musick