48 Hours in Laughlin, Nevada
When Las Vegas casino owner Don Laughlin bought this former miner’s outpost in the mid-1960s, it was a one-motel town. Well, technically not even a town. But the U.S. Postal Service insisted that the new owner name his purchase—six acres of Colorado River-adjacent land at the southern tip of Nevada—and Laughlin was born.
Though the names Don originally floated—“Riverside” and “Casino”—were reportedly dismissed by the postal inspector, their messaging proved prophetic: Laughlin has since grown into a glittering riverside boulevard of nine casinos (and thousands of hotel rooms).
And while this ghost-town-to-boomtown story had always intrigued me—as had the famed double-digit room rates—I ultimately booked a trip to check out Laughlin’s lesser known side: gateway to year-round desert adventure. Here’s how I spent one full, amazing weekend there—and how you may want to, as well.
First up: petroglyph-palooza
In the predawn hours, before most of the casinogoers had called it a night, I set off on my first adventure: a trip to Grapevine Canyon, home to a fabled rock art collection and desert spring just a few miles outside town. Shortly after the turnoff, my Jeep was snaking around sand dunes and sagebrush as the morning’s first light began to spill over the surrounding peaks.
The tallest, Spirit Mountain, has been sacred to a lengthy succession of indigenous people, whose handiwork came into view as the sun rose. Among the petroglyphs they had created over the last millennium or so were figures both discernible (the ancestors of the bighorn sheep that still roam this little oasis) and mysterious (possible gods or aliens, depending on your belief system).
It doesn’t take long to see why this site is on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places—even the boulders near the entrance are petroglyph-covered—but if you’re so inclined (and an early riser), you can do a 3.6-mile hike into the canyon, where more petroglyphs and a waterfall await. Yet as happy as I was hiking through the desert and scanning for rock art, I had a river to run back to in Laughlin.
Next order of business: Colorado River adventure
At a little dock on the Riverwalk, I met my Rocky River Tours Adventure Center WaveRunner instructor, who tested my knowledge of cornering and wake-riding before sending me down the Colorado—one of the best spots to take in Laughlin's Casino Row skyline.
As a veteran of various watercraft, I felt confident dodging my fellow river enthusiasts, who ranged from swimmers to fishermen (the soon-to-be catch of the day was visible from the surface of the remarkably clear water). But even if you’re a newcomer to WaveRunners, you’ll leave Rocky River Tours’ instructional session ready to roll (it's mandatory). On the other hand, you can always kayak, speedboat or float on an inner tube down the river instead.
Two hours into my excursion, once I’d raced the rapids to the bend past Harrah’s private beach, I was ready for some R&R.
Afternoon interlude: Aquarius and chill
This was my first real chance to enjoy my Laughlin digs—the Aquarius Casino Resort—where one feature loomed larger in my mind than any other (and that’s saying something at the city’s largest gaming resort): the 34,000-square-foot pool area, home to 100 chaise lounges and day beds, nine decked-out cabanas, two hot tubs and sweeping views of the river. The complex’s bar serves food and cocktails—great for a post-river-run lunch—and cabana rentals are worth the splurge, during which you’ll take full advantage of the fridges and fans.
Day’s end: Riverwalk and dinner
The three-mile Riverwalk connecting Laughlin’s casinos—and leading to the Davis Dam—is the place to be as the sun’s going down. My hotel sat more or less at the midpoint, and I was headed a few doors down, to the spot where River Rick—the iconic neon cowboy—stood winking above the Pioneer Hotel & Gambling Hall. I'd been reading good things about the neighboring Bubba Gump, and I was sufficiently intrigued to pay Bubba a visit.
As the fading sunlight cast shades of copper, mauve and plum against the surrounding mountains, I settled in for a night of alfresco feasting. And from my perch on the patio, I would have been hard-pressed to tell you which was more delicious: the cool breeze on the river—or the Shrimper’s Heaven on my table (hand-breaded coconut shrimp, grilled shrimp, crispy golden shrimp and tempura shrimp with tangy Asian sauce, Cajun marmalade and zesty cocktail sauce).
For dessert, I headed to one of the town's newest additions: Brew Brothers Tap House at the Tropicana, where—beyond the award-winning beer selection—there are amazing sweets on tap, specifically, the off-the-hook milkshakes. Given the predawn hike earlier, a little end-of-day decadence seemed in order.
Rise and road trip
First up on the day's agenda: the 45-minute drive to Topock, Arizona, where my pontoon chariot—booked through Topock Jet Ski and Boat Rentals—hummed patiently in port. I’d be traveling down a stretch of the river that’s surrounded by cliffs so steep, it’s inaccessible to drivers, but beloved among boaters and fishermen. Amazingly, this three-hour Topock Gorge tour took me through yet another canyon that was adorned with ancient art and populated by big horn sheep (never gets old), to say nothing of the 300 species of local birds.
Next stop: Oatman
A 21-mile stretch of the iconic Route 66 takes you from Topock to Oatman, Arizona, where an avenue of false-front shops and saloons is all that remains of a century-old mining camp. Once home to thousands of prospectors—but now to fewer than 200 residents—the town is best known for its domesticated burros, said to be descendants of the steeds that worked the mines.
I was welcomed by locals of both species and was as impressed by the burros’ fancy footwork as I was by the outlaws’ bank robbery. The streets were obligingly dusty—great for Old West atmosphere, not so great for the skin. Which left me, of course, with only one choice.
Afternoon interlude: spa time
Back in Laughlin, I made a beeline for Jean Jeffrey The Salon & Day Spa at none other than Don Laughlin’s Riverside Resort. The cool marble and sparkling chandeliers created the perfect retreat vibe—to say nothing of the services themselves: I went with the full-body Therapeutic Massage and the Active Ampoule Infusion Express Facial, both epically moisturizing, glow-giving and—perhaps most miraculously for a casino spa—Zen-inducing.
Day’s end: going big before going home
Clearly in an indulgent mood, I booked a table at Guy Fieri’s famously over-the-top El Burro Borracho at Harrah’s Laughlin Hotel & Casino. Under a Botticelli-inspired mural, I ate—for starters—a silo of nachos that took no fewer than 19 steps to create. (Yes, these would be the chef’s Trash Can Nachos.) Astonishingly, I kept finding room for more, first his bacon grease-marinated pork shoulder, then churros the length of my arm, and the list goes on.
Suddenly, with my whirlwind weekend in Laughlin drawing to a close, the meal seemed the perfect metaphor for the town itself: As they say in showbiz (which, by the way, is booming here), always leave ‘em wanting more.