The Laughlin Strip, as seen from the Colorado River.

Set along the Colorado River, this small town has a big impact on fun.

BY MEGG MUELLER

There were just 93 residents of Laughlin in 1982 when we wrote a story about the “Boomtown with No Place to Go.” In 2010, when we wrote about Laughlin as a winner in our first Tour Around Nevada series, there were about 7,500 residents. Regardless of the population count, it was clear during voting for this installment of Tour Around Nevada that Laughlin’s residents are ready to make their presence known.

Laughlin is just 51 years old, and unlike so many Nevada towns, its beginning came about not through mining, but water. In 1964, founder Don Laughlin was living in Las Vegas and owned a small club there, but was on the search for some border property. He flew his plane as far as Jackpot and Stateline, but it was a little hotel on the banks of the crystal clear Colorado River that caught his eye. Laughlin bought the bankrupt property, and by 1966, built the Riverside Resort. In two years, two more casinos opened, and today, nine casinos dot the river’s banks.

The town continued to grow slowly, with Don at the helm of much of it. In 1987, he ponied up $3.5 million to build a bridge across the river to Bullhead City, Ariz., and in 1991, he was instrumental in the construction of the Laughlin Bullhead Airport. Laughlin still lives in Laughlin, and while that sentence structure was intentional, the naming of the town was not; a postmaster rejected Laughlin’s suggestion of Riverside and chose the town’s creator as its namesake.

The Riverwalk provides an easy way to enjoy Laughlin.

WATER, WATER, EVERYWHERE

Off-road racers drive on a specially designed track through the desert during Rage at the River SNORE (Southern Nevada Off-road Enthusiasts).

What Laughlin saw as a unique opportunity continues today, as the river is still a key feature of the area. It’s a major reason about 2 million people a year visit the area, and why the town can resist being designated just a mini Las Vegas.

“It’s so special,” Meg McDaniel says. “And there are so many things about the river you can enjoy.”

Meg would know; not only is she senior manager of extended destinations for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitor’s Authority, she’s also a 25-year resident of Laughlin. When asked what she loves about Laughlin, the river is high on her list.

The river opens up playtime in some seriously un-Nevada ways; private sandy beaches at Harrah’s beckon, as do leisurely paddlewheel boat rides. From fishing for bass, trout, or catfish, running jet skis and boats up the river, renting kayaks and canoes, or just taking a dip in the clear blue waters, there’s no denying Laughlin is more than the average desert town.

WALK THIS WAY

The Riverwalk is the heart of the Laughlin experience. Restaurants, casinos, activities, water taxis, and more can be accessed from the boardwalk, and in conjunction with the river, make up the unofficial Laughlin Strip. It’s part of the more intimate, compact layout of the town, which is attractive to those looking for a more laidback approach to a gaming vacation.

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The annual River Regatta is a nine-mile float down the river in one of the largest tube-float events anywhere.

“People just feel relaxed when they’re here,” Meg says. “You really feel like you had a vacation.”

In 2012, Laughlin embraced a different walking experience for those looking for a an outdoor escapade. The Colorado River Heritage Greenway Park and Trails—or North Reach, as locals have mercifully shortened the name to—is a nine-mile system for bicyclists, walkers, and equestrians. Trailheads, restrooms, picnic facilities, fishing piers, and shade shelters are just some of the amenities offered at North Reach.

Guy Fieri’s El Burro Burracho at Harrah’s is one of Laughlin’s newest dining experiences.

“Because of our landscape, there’s just so many outdoor things to do,” Meg says.

It’s true; less than 30 minutes from Laughlin lies Grapevine Canyon, one of Nevada’s most interesting and accessible (via easily traversable dirt roads) archeological sites. This distinct area contrasts the normal landscape of the Mojave Desert, giving visitors a chance to view hundreds of petroglyphs carved into the canyon walls. The canyon is said to contain a natural spring, giving life to plants such as cottonwoods, cattails, and canyon grapes, while also attracting wildlife such as the desert bighorn sheep.

A short distance on dirt roads from Grapevine Canyon lies Christmas Tree Pass, which gives visitors astounding views of the area’s geology and vegetation; and, yes, there is usually a small decorated Christmas tree on top of the pass.

OK, IT’S A LITTLE BIT VEGAS

For all its uniqueness, there are the elements of Las Vegas that Don Laughlin first brought to the area; gaming and big-name entertainment. With more than 10,000 hotel rooms, Meg notes Laughlin definitely has grown in the last few years, and with that growth has come some hotel renovations and the addition of such celebrity restaurants as Guy Fieri’s El Burro Borracho at Harrah’s.

Need some proof that entertainment doesn’t take a backseat to water sports? Superstar Carrie Underwood will perform at the Laughlin Convention Center on Oct. 10; Rascal Flatts will play the same stage on Sept.26. Sara Evans takes the Edgewater stage Sept. 5, Weird Al Yankovic will play Harrah’s on Sept. 18, and Collin Raye is at the Riverside Sept. 25-27.

The Riverwalk Exploration Trail Loop is an extension of the Laughlin Riverwalk and runs two miles adjacent to the Colorado River from the hotel resorts up to the Pyramid Canyon day-use area at the base of Davis Dam.

And like Las Vegas, Laughlin’s own neon cowboy is there to greet visitors. River Rick (aka Laughlin Lou) is similar to his Nevada counterparts—Vegas Vic and Wendover Will—and has been standing proudly at the Pioneer Hotel & Gambling Hall since 1981.

Don Laughlin wasn’t looking to recreate Las Vegas when he spied that eight-room hotel and bar sitting alongside the Colorado River, but that’s just fine with those who live there today. Laughlin kept the fun, a little of the glitz, and created a friendly, relaxed environment that once you visit, you find yourself returning to.

 

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