Poker and petroglyphs in Laughlin

Special to The Times

If Las Vegas is the rock star of the gambling world, energetic with plenty of edge, then Laughlin is the lounge singer -- thinning on top and slightly off-key. Still, that lounge act is entertaining in a curious sort of way and, best of all, there’s no cover charge.

Laughlin, Nev., which hugs the banks of the Colorado River about 30 miles north of Needles, Calif., boasts 11 hotel-casinos with more than 10,000 rooms. The town has been called “Vegas Lite” and “Vegas Junior.” I prefer “Vegas on Valium.” Don’t expect to make a dash for the bar or the pool. The senior citizens who occupy many of the hotel rooms keep the pace at a crawl. There’s no edginess here, but for some that’s part of the attraction.

“It’s just more laid-back,” says Chris Connelly, a 50-year-old information-technology worker from Corona, as he stands on the Laughlin Riverwalk outside the Aquarius Casino. “You can dress in shorts and sandals and you don’t feel like you’re underdressed. Vegas now seems like it’s for singles, a younger crowd that wants to get dressed up all the time.”

Connelly and his wife, Julie, a real estate agent, regularly take the road less traveled -- U.S. 40 out of Barstow, rather than Interstate 15 up to Vegas.

“We come here every couple of months,” she says. “This is more of a fun atmosphere, and it’s more affordable.”

Julie Connelly says room comps, which are given to bigger spenders, are easier to get in Laughlin. “We haven’t paid for a hotel here in probably 10 years,” she adds.

But even those visitors without comps quickly discover that their dollars go further in Laughlin. According to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, hotel rooms in the Colorado River community cost less than a third of what a visitor to Vegas can expect to pay: an average of $42 a night, compared with $132 a night 90 miles up the road in Sin City.

Laughlin’s a place where visitors can get outdoors. Recreational opportunities abound, even for folks who aren’t exactly buff.

Several hotels have docks along the river, from which various boat tours motor north to Davis Dam -- a little sister of Hoover Dam farther upstream -- and south as far as Lake Havasu City, about 60 miles downriver.

My favorite destination, however, is Grapevine Canyon in the New- berry Mountains just west of town, where ancient petroglyphs abound in a spectacular, yet easily accessible, setting.

Just seven miles from Casino Drive -- the last two miles along a washboard-like dirt road -- is the parking lot, which is also the trail head to the canyon. An easy five-minute walk brings visitors to the mouth of the canyon and the first of the many works of rock art, some of which, according to scientists, were made more than 800 years ago.

There are drawings of humans as well as bighorn sheep and other creatures that dwell in these parts. I couldn’t figure out what all of them depicted, but many of them were clearly of snakes. They, too, live here but are rarely seen by hikers.

Spring and fall provide great weather for trekking into Grapevine Canyon, named for the hardy variety of grapes that grow in crevices in the rocks.

When the temperatures are in triple digits -- roughly in June, July and August -- the Colorado River provides opportunities to cool down. Outfitters in both Laughlin and across the bridge in Bullhead City, Ariz., rent a variety of watercraft -- including kayaks and jet skis -- for a splash out on the water. Folks staying at Harrah’s in Laughlin can go for a swim in the river. The resort rises above a sandy beach nestled in a cove.

Harrah’s, with 1,500 rooms, ranks second in size behind the Aquarius -- formerly the Flamingo -- with its 1,900 rooms. But, unlike Vegas, there aren’t huge differences in the quality of the various Laughlin hotels. They’re all roughly three-star properties or, in a couple of cases, 3 1/2 -star. The truly luxurious resorts are in that other gambling town.

“Vegas is top-notch for rooms,” observes Julie Connelly. “You get what you pay for.

“But we’d rather not pay for them at all,” she adds with a laugh.