LAUGHLIN MIGHT AS WELL have been named Fun City — no-one comes here for business unless they are in the fun business. We come for the food, the drink, the easy-going atmosphere, the fishing, and the golf in the unique Colorado River setting.
Laughlin is like a fond memory of long-ago Las Vegas — resorts instead of megaresorts — all the razamataz of the big casino hotels but without the traffic jams. There are ten of these palaces now, nine strung like beads along the Colorado River near Don Laughlin's original Riverside and a tenth, The Avi, 16 miles south on the Fort Mohave Tribal Reservation.
The natural attraction provided by the Colorado River and the surrounding desert landscapes still captivates visitors as much as the bright and busy casino hotels along Casino Drive. It's a unique combination of harsh with lush, and just the right balance between Macau and Mayberry, a gambling resort with fishing privileges, calm, friendly and undemanding.
In 1966 an enterprising fellow named Don Laughlin bought a rundown bait shack with six stools, a beer bar license, 10 slot machines and some motel rooms across the Colorado River from Bullhead City, Arizona. He persuaded the post office to open a substation at his isolated outpost, and set to work. Fifteen years later the Wall Street Journal reported: "Mr. Laughlin's red brick, colonial-style casino is the biggest in town, with some 700 slot machines and 28 gaming tables." In 1982 his gambling operations grossed more than $20 million.
By then, "town" was seven casinos lining the bank of the river, five of them with hotels totaling 600 rooms. There were 3,200 employees dealing the cards, mixing the drinks and making the beds, but only 92 of them could find places to live in Laughlin. Most of the rest rode to work on the water taxis flitting constantly back and forth across the river from Bullhead City. The customers they served came mostly from southern California (via Needles or Nipton) and from Arizona. They drove to Bullhead City from the interior of the state and then parked their cars and RVs on one of the great asphalt pads on the Arizona side of the river to catch water taxis bound for the casinos on the Nevada side.
In those days Laughlin seemed destined to rival Las Vegas for splash and excitement. Don Laughlin's dinky little bar and motel had grown into Don Laughlin's mighty Riverside Hotel Casino. The Colorado Hotel (now the Pioneer Club), the Regency and the Colorado Belle were built. The Edgewater Hotel went up in 1979. Twenty years ago Circus Circus made the Colorado Belle the most photogenic casino on the river. With the addition of the Ramada Express (now the Tropicana Express), Harrah's and Flamingo Hilton, the buoyant municipal mood was predicting a newer, younger, brighter and bigger Las Vegas taking shape along the Colorado.
It didn't happen. The existing properties have multiplied their their rooms with new towers, and occasionally a new resort was built, but growth has been sedate in comparison with the magnificent madness of Las Vegas. In 1996 the Fort Mohave Indian tribe built the Avi Casino Resort 16 miles south of town.
There are now 11 casino resorts with more than 9,000 rooms for guests, and talk of overtaking Las Vegas has ended. In fact Laughlin presents itself as a serene alternative to Las Vegas overload.
In contrast with Las Vegas' endless boom, Laughlin had to wait for nearly 20 years after Don Laughlin's arrival before there were 100 residents — the first house wasn't built until 1985 — most of the early community development took place on the Arizona side of the river. There are more than 10,000 residents in Laughlin now (a 22% growth rate since 2000, most of it around the corner and out of sight from Casino Drive), and growth is expected to increase another 16% over the next five years.
Bullhead City has grown even faster and larger, and now there's a comet's tail of suburban sprawl on the Arizona side extending all the way to Needles, California, with a Target store, a Kohl's, a Bed, Bath & Beyond and other national chain stores. "We're part of the big world now," a local resident told me happily.
The resorts here have been changing hands — the old Flamingo is now the new Aquarius and the Ramada Express is the Tropicana Express now — and gently renovating and upgrading in the process. The outlet mall has new owners who have added three new stores and are bringing 28 new stores, more high-end than before.
Laughlin has its own supermarket-anchored shopping center, pizza places and Chinese cafe. Gnat's Landing, in another little shopping plaza, was the first non-casino bar in town. Almost all the attributes of a mainstream American town, in other words, except that everything is brand new. There has certainly never been a neater, cleaner boomtown in Nevada.
For a fascinating half-hour driving tour, take the main boulevard downriver from the casinos. You'll pass the long, skinny Emerald River Golf Course and, looming like a ghost above the sparkling waters of the Colorado, a haunting monument to greed and bad judgment: the skeleton of the 4,000-room Emerald River Casino Hotel, financed with junk bonds and abandoned before completion.
Turn right at the Needles Highway to tour the residential part of town and return to the casinos, or go left and visit the newest and most surprising casino attraction on the River — the Avi, an enterprise of the Mohave Tribe adding to the prosperity of far southern Nevada.
Be sure to visit the strange and wonderful state of Arizona, directly across the river and accessible by water taxi, the 6-mile scenic route via Davis Dam, or directly across on the new bridge. This bridge, with the river flowing slowly and serenely beneath it, and the profoundly barren mountains reared up against the sky above, is the supreme symbol of Laughlin. A bridge was long overdue to relieve both the car traffic forced to take the long-way-around via the dam and the too-heavy pressure on the water-taxi system, but neither Nevada nor Arizona could afford to build it. Even if they could, the process might take years. So the ever-enterprising Don Laughlin built the $3 million bridge himself and donated it to the states. As you stand on a warm evening in the light of the neon, watch the endless stream of cars cruising back and forth between Nevada and Arizona and pay tribute to Don Laughlin's pioneering spirit. Wretched excess? Of course, it's a Nevada specialty. But would anyone seriously want to go back to a bait shack with six stools and a beer cooler?
There are some big events in Laughlin each year. The Laughlin River Run is an ear-shaking motorcycle rendezvous held each spring, and Rockets Over the River just after dusk on July 4th, is a 20-minute fireworks display that brings spectators out to view it along the River Walk.
The Mardi Gratta River Regatta in August is a pleasantly wacky way to have fun on the river, beginning with a Friday night pre-party. Survivors gather on Saturday morning for the canoe/kayak/standup paddleboard race, wakeboard and wake-skate competitions. The Regatta itself is a magnificent procession of floating objects with human beings aboard (Life vests required), on a 9-mile 3/4 hour river float trip. Inner tubes abound, but decorated rafts and home-made vessels of all types are carried along by the current in a festive and hilarious procession.
The Big Bend of the Colorado State Recreation Area is about five miles south of Harrah's on the Needles Highway. It is our newest state park, opened in 1996. There's a $5 fee for day use: hanging out at the beach, using the picnic facilities, watching the beavers, coyotes, roadrunners and other wildlife. You'll pay $10 to use the boat ramp, and, if you're lucky enough to find one available, $25/day for a campsite. There are 24 sites tucked into the foliage along the river, all with whole hookups. This facility is a reminder that the trout fishing is still as great a lure as the gambling games, and many of Laughlin's visitors bunk up in their RVs, enjoy the fishing and the mild winter temperatures, and only enter the casinos for an early breakfast before heading off to catch lunch and dinner.
Some of them will take the North Reach Trail, a new three-mile addition to the classic River Walk between the casinos and the river's edge, which has been a pleasant part of the Laughlin experience for years. The new addition continues north along the river to Davis Dam, with access at several points along the way, including at the dam itself where a grassy playground overlooks the river below the dam.
The countryside around Laughlin is inviting to the backroad explorer; temperatures are most comfortable from late fall through early spring, and in March and April the wildflowers make a brilliant display.
Here's an inviting detour I recommend to anyone making the drive from Laughlin to Las Vegas. As you make the climb up from the river west toward US 95 you'll see a marked road on the right: Christmas Tree Pass. Take it for a pleasant 16-mile meander (maybe an hour's drive if you've brought your camera, more if you're wearing your hiking boots) that's easy enough for the family car. You'll climb as you follow the graded gravel road north into highly picturesque landscapes and over the spine of the ridge and back down west again to US 95.