Who's LAUGHLIN now?

Sunny climes, fun and games plus stunning natural splendour make this bustling casino town a good bet for a memorable holiday … but it isn't just deserts

A small but lively leisure destination located in the far southern tip of the US state of Nevada, Laughlin (LAW-flin) sits on the banks of the mighty Colorado River.

A mere 140 km south of Las Vegas, it's hardly surprising that Laughlin's biggest tourism draw is it's riverside casino row -- a three-and-a-half km long strip of less than a dozen hotel resorts ranging from decades-old heritage houses to high-profile big name players.

With its symbolically fitting spot on the city's doorstep at the headwaters of Casino Drive, by far the oldest gaming establishment in town is the Riverside Resort. The Riverside's forebear was in fact up and running before the town even existed. Its owner is a pioneering entrepreneur known throughout the area as "Mr. Laughlin" owing to his significant and long-time local business presence and leisure industry accomplishments. And because Laughlin is his name.

Not only is Don Laughlin the man behind the Riverside Resort, he founded the town which bears his name, and you can't talk about Laughlin the city without some background on the man himself.

Starting out as a fur trapper in Minnesota, the young business whiz began installing slot machines in local hunting lodges, from which he earned around five-hundred US dollars per week -- indeed, a princely sum back in the 1940's. His school principal apparently did not recognise the potential of the gaming industry and offered student Don a choice: ditch the slots or leave school. Needless to say he chose the latter, bidding farewell to the classroom without so much as a glance back.

Heading out west to Nevada where dam construction spurred rapid growth and Las Vegas was on its way to becoming a gambling mecca, Don purchased a rundown eight-room motel on the banks of the Colorado River in the late 1950s, and within a few short years the place was humming with guests.

A series of major renovations and additions over the following decades resulted in the towering modern-day hotel and casino that stands today as a thriving monument to the keen foresight , self-sufficiency and dogged determination of a single man on whose shoulders this bustling rural holiday hot-spot town was built.

Nowadays, the Riverside shares the strip with other, perhaps more glitzy properties, but none can match the unassuming, down-home vibe of this legacy establishment. Some of its unique features include a showcase of classic slot machines -- many of which may even be purchased -- and a display of Don's classic car collection which includes an impressive array of old-timey trucks, autos, motorcycles and even a few horseless carriages. This museum of old-fashioned conveyances is itself well worth a visit, and if you're in the market many of the exhibits are also up for sale.

Other casinos along the strip include the Golden Nugget, the charmingly riverboat-motif'd Colorado Belle and the quaintly diminutive Regency, where Daniel's Restaurant On The River serves up fabulous home-style burgers, tacos and some of the best Eggs Benedict we've ever tasted.

A number of riverfront casinos are linked by an unofficial pedestrian pathway known as the Laughlin Riverwalk. Wending its way along the banks of the Colorado, the walkway offers a pleasant stroll with views of the river's sparklingly-clean, gently rippling waters.

But there's much more to this arid, sun-drenched locale than just the test-your-luck gaming attractions of Laughlin and the wide-open desert skies.

About a 15-minute drive up the state highway that leads to Las Vegas, Christmas Tree Pass is a graded dirt road that takes trekkers into a world of natural beauty and historic native artwork. The 45-minute hike brings you to Grapevine Canyon, resplendent with lush flora which is fed by a desert spring. Standing in stark contrast to the surrounding barren hillsides, the oasis attracts bighorn sheep and other local animals slaking their thirst at the perpetually flowing water source. Another fascinating feature, ancient petroglyphs (drawings) can be seen etched into the canyon's sheer rock walls. Dating back over three thousand years, the images were created by early ancestors of Southern Nevada Native Americans, who today consider the site a sacred place.

Heading back towards Laughlin, a five-minute drive from Casino row over the Colorado River bridge takes visitors right into the neighbouring Arizona town of Bullhead City.

With Laughlin's glittering riverfront casinos looking on from just across the river, Bullhead is a quiet town of low-rise buildings, centred on an approximately 10-km stretch of Interstate 95.

From this main road and the parallel Bullhead Parkway, travellers are treated to nearly unobstructed views of the breath-taking desert landscape, with its sweeping plains snuggled up against the craggy, cloud-shadowed  mountains that surround the area.

While there are no luxury brand outlets to be found, there are a number of big-box shopping centres offering all kinds of consumer products popular stock-up savvy tourists. The popular riverfront recreation areas offer cool respite from the dry, 40-plus degree Celsius heat, including swimming, jet-ski rentals and leisurely boat cruises. Other activities include dune buggy rentals/tours along with guided fishing jaunts.

A bit further afield, the tiny historical town of Oatman lies about an hour's drive from Bullhead City. The charming, century-old hamlet started out as a mining town whose population exploded to over three thousand in 1915 after miners struck a gold find worth US $10 million.

With plenty of shops offering unique souvenirs and local fare, the Oatman of today is a fun place to visit, its old-time western vibe made more authentic with wild-west style cowboy gunfights staged on weekends. Classic Model T Ford automobiles regularly ply the tiny main street, right past the Oatman Hotel. Built in 1902, it is the region's oldest inn, and was featured in a number of popular American films.

But Oatman's most interesting attraction are the many burros that can be seen throughout town on any given day. Descended from pack-animals left behind by miners in the late 1800's, the cute little horse-like creatures wander into town each morning seeking a bite to eat from visitors, who are only too happy to feed the wild but unfailingly friendly beasts with carrots and special equine food pellets available for sale. After a long day of greeting tourists, at sunset the long-eared vagabonds quietly meander back up into the hills for the night.

The trip to Laughlin from Las Vegas McCarran International Airport is a scenic 90-minute drive, and can also be reached via regularly scheduled flights to nearby Laughlin-Bullhead City International Airport, off Bullhead Parkway just ten minutes from downtown Laughlin.


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