Janet Serra, Society of American Travel Writers
Most of us look for destinations that combine the warmth of the sun, fun, great shopping and dining, entertainment and somewhere that is off the beaten path that won’t “break the bank”. Laughlin, Nevada is one of these places. It is located on the Colorado River and only an hour and a half drive from Vegas with the added bonus of scenery galore.
Laughlin is a great getaway excursion from the hussle and bustle of the Vegas strip. Laughlin offers so many things to do and see from boating and river trips to hiking Spirit Mountain, sacred to Native Americans; as well as fine dining, world class casinos and entertainment without the Vegas crowds. Laughlin offers visitors a smaller and more intimate experience of casino gambling, and entertainment; and more importantly, it offers visitors a glimpse into what remains of the “wild west” and what life is like on the Colorado River.
Before heading to Laughlin, take a 50 -mile side trip north to the Valley of Fire State Park, it is well worth a half-day trip away from the casinos. This state park gets it’s name from the red sandstone formations formed by shifting sand dunes that took place during the age of the dinosaurs more than 150 years ago. The rock formations here are phantasmagorical and reminiscent of an ancient kingdom whose shapes undulate with the landscape.
Continuing on your journey to Laughlin, don’t miss one of the most fascinating gold mines in the country. Just 45 miles south of Las Vegas a must see attraction is the Techatticup Mine located in the heart of the Eldorado Canyon, in the small town of Nelson. The mine is privately owned and, yes you can actually go into the mine on a tour that is an unforgettable experience because of its rustic authenticity.
In the 1880s, Techatticup was the largest gold mine in Nevada; today it is owned and maintained (not operated) by Werley family. The location is littered with abandoned cars, a plane that was a prop in the movie 3000 Miles to Graceland, a lot of rust, and structures that date back to the days when the gold mine was active.
The tour of the tunnels is unforgettable; it is dimly lit by lanterns, and as you enter the tunnels the air is cool and refreshing. The uneven walls of the tunnels reflect the hard lifestyle miners endured. It is amazing to see the remains of the veins of granite that the miners chased for treasure. A knowledgeable tour guide tells visitors intriguing tales about the life, scandals and murders that define the wild west in Nelson; a tradition that the Werley family now curates.
Most likely, someone from the Werley family will be your tour guide on this fascinating 90- minute tour. Be ready to walk in the footsteps where gold miners once lived and worked, above and below the ground.
For the strong of wind and brave of heart, the Werley’s are planning to open an “adventure” gold mine tour that involves climbing up and down ladders deep into the this labyrinthine gold mine sometime this summer. Before you leave Techatticup, make sure to visit the aliens in the main reception and home of the Werley’s and ask to see what resides in the freezer…it will rattle you!
Arriving in Laughlin, the most surprising thing is the striking blue Colorado River that slices through this riverside city like an elegant blue ribbon on a prized patchwork quilt sprawled across a parched desert landscape. It is vibrant and colorful at night and a walk along the river path or better yet, a boat cruise is a wonderful way to see the city.
Laughlin itself, like off Broadway, offers a more relaxed palette of choices than Las Vegas in a setting of great natural beauty.
There are eleven casinos that range from retro to glamorously chic with something for every pocketbook. Big name entertainment, progressive slot and poker machines, car shows and even motorcycle rallies are just some of the annual activities that Laughlin hosts; but like off Broadway, on a smaller and more manageable scale.
If you need a break from the casino and shopping scene, Laughlin is a great jumping off point for two additional excursions. A long time favorite is the 58- mile jet boat ride to “London Bridge”…that’s right, “London Bridge” that was actually purchased in London and reassembled in Havasu City, Arizona. London Jetboat Tours offers affordable excursions.
Joe and Jenny both drive their fleet of jet boats and know every nook and cranny of the river. Tickets must be purchased in advance to guarantee getting a spot on the day and time you want to cruise the river. Tickets can be purchased online or at the Edgewater Casino. There is a leisurely two hour layover at the world famous London Bridge where visitors will find shops and several restaurant options making this an enjoyable time.
Gliding along the crystal clear waters of the Colorado River you will pass many beautiful riverside homes and mansions set amid the golden desert landscape that is punctuated with creosote bush, burro bush, cottonwood, goodings willow and several types of cactus. The jet boat winds its way between Nevada and Arizona on it’s way to Lake Havasu. The most dramatic part of the river trip is when the desert is left behind and a rugged volcanic landscape emerges that is ideal for photos.
Keep your eyes peeled for three spiky peaks that are extinct volcanic remnants known as “The Needles”. One of the oldest communities on the Colorado River, Needles California was named after these jaggy peaks in 1883 when the railroad was built through this harsh landscape.
Gliding through the Havasu Wildlife Refuge keep your eyes peeled for the more than 300 birds that make their home here – it is a birding and recreational paradise for boaters and campers. Lake Havasu brings you to the most stunning landscape of the entire trip, Topock Gorge. Topock is defined by wildlife and marshes that magically merge into high red rock cliffs, natural arches and secluded beaches – this is the last remaining unspoiled portion of the Colorado River before it reaches the Gulf of California.
Havasu City is the final destination of the jet boat trip that ends up at Liverpool Landing, named after Liverpool England; both shared a history in the mining industry.
Entering Havasu, visitors will cruise through Bridgewater Channel where they cannot help but notice the “London Bridge” that was purchased from England by Robert McCulloch. The English put the bridge up for auction and McCulloch put a 2.4 million dollar bid on the bridge. The British with their “dry” sense of humor decided to sell it to the Arizona desert and block-by-block the bridge was reassembled and opened in 1971. There is a two-hour layover in Havasu City that has shops to explore and several good riverside restaurants to choose from.
Back in Laughlin, a fabulous way to spend an evening is to take a scenic dinner cruise on the nostalgic “Celebration” a simulated paddle wheel boat that floats along the Colorado River. Enjoy dinner and cordials as you watch the river paint the watercolor reflections of the skyline of Laughlin’s lights in the clear blue of the Colorado River.
The ultimate wild-west town is only 30-miles from Laughlin. Oatman, a gold mining center, was set up in 1906 and is where the burros of the miners still roam the streets nudging for goodies and in the distance, ruins of Native American villages can be seen.
Burros and shops… restaurants and superstars are all encased in this time capsule of a town that Disney would have a hard time recreating. Simply put Oatman is a town on kitsch steroids!
The centerpiece of the town is the eight -room Oatman Hotel, built in 1902 for the gold miners and needless to say, it is haunted.
This is the hotel where Clark Gable and Carole Lombard spent their wedding night after being married in Kingston Arizona. The story goes, that the couple returned here often to enjoy quiet times… and; Clark enjoyed playing poker with the miners. Staff claim they hear Carole and Clark laughing and joking… perhaps they don’t want to leave this enchanting place lost in time.
Next time you are in Vegas take a day or two or three and head to Laughlin… you won’t regret it.