The Colorado River courses through the Southwest desert like a vibrant blue line, a line that stands in stark contrast to the endless palette of beige and rust that otherwise dominates the landscape. Along the majority of its length, it’s surrounded by nothing except sand and rock, although that description certainly does not do the pair justice. That sand and rock may cover endless miles of pancake flatness, but they can also rise and twist from the desert floor to form geological wonders — mountains, arches and bluffs sculpted to seeming perfection by the hand of time and the power of that vibrant blue line.
The Necessary Journey
It’s an especially poignant moment given the events of the previous night. Not that long after I flew into Las Vegas to begin my journey, a gunman opened fire from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Hotel, targeting concertgoers below. Nearly 60 people were killed in that massacre, another 546 wounded. That I’m drifting along the river less than 12 hours after the fact seems somehow insensitive and yet strangely appropriate. If there’s any time to escape the real world, this just might be it.
My itinerary for the day spans the Colorado River from Laughlin, Nevada, to Lake Havasu City, Arizona, a 60-mile journey that I’ll be doing not by boat but Sea-Doo personal watercraft. Launching from the beach at Harrah’s Casino, I can’t help but marvel at the mini-Vegas that lies upriver. Laughlin started in the 1940s as little more than a motel and bar to serve workers constructing the Davis Dam, gold and silver miners, and fishing enthusiasts. When the workers left in the 1950s, the town withered in the desert heat until Las Vegas casino owner Don Laughlin took interest in 1964. By 1966, the 14-story Riverside Resort had joined that original motel; others soon followed. Today, the city attracts nearly 2 million visitors annually who casino-hop via water taxi and, when they’re not dreaming of hitting it big, soak in the area’s attractive mixture of sunshine, low humidity, and beautiful scenery.
The first half-hour on the river is a reminder that we’re not alone in seeking escape. Once lightly developed, river homes now pack the Nevada shoreline, serving as vacation getaways for countless California, Nevada and Arizona residents looking to trade metropolis mania for the river’s beauty. When I first visited this area over two decades ago, a fewer number of homes were far more ramshackle in appearance. Today, they’re upscale modern-chic, with designer landscaping and toys in abundance. Still, the occasional reality check awaits. Below Laughlin, the abandoned hulk of the unfinished Emerald Bay Resort comes into view, still wasting away 25 years after a boom period went bust.
Ready for Adventure
Beyond Laughlin, development eventually gives way to the desert, and the solitude and raw beauty of the natural landscape return. Make no mistake, it’s desolate. Especially in fall, little other boat traffic is found on the water, and there’s no such thing as a gas stop or place to grab food and drink. Cellphone reception is spotty at best, meaning you’re pretty much on your own. (I suggest packing a personal locator beacon and, in quiet seasons, possibly even a sat phone.) That adds to the appeal of the trip, but it also adds to the need to take it seriously.
Thankfully, we couldn’t be on more-appropriate craft. With low-water levels, numerous shallows dot our first hours on the river, shallows that would be a serious threat to a prop-driven boat. With our jet pumps protected by intake grates and flush with the hull, we manage to get through without a scratch. The specific models, 2018-vintage Sea-Doo GTX and RXTs, are also tailor-made for adventure. Each features clever mounts on the aft platform, to which we’ve attached coolers, gas cans, and gear bags loaded with the necessities. When that dry desert air becomes too much, we simply spin around in the saddle and pop open a Yeti cooler filled with ice, drinks and snacks. When a distant gas stop later proves to be unexpectedly out of fuel, we have jerrycans at the ready to top off our tanks. A new storage system, which opens directly to the driver while seated, also made it easy to grab whatever was needed underway without leaving the seat or teetering over the handlebars.
The new GTX/RXT platform also puts a premium on stability, meaning if you had consumed a lot of water on a lengthy ride with no shoreline facilities, you could even briefly drift away from your riding companions, kill the engine, stand on one side of the craft, and relieve yourself without fear of tipping the boat and falling into the drink. Not that I personally know of anyone who would actually do such a thing…
Calm Waters and Red-Rock Canyons
After miles of open water and empty desert, our return to the real world is like finding an oasis, a restaurant/bar/store and swimming-pool complex known as Topock 66. Named both for the picturesque gorge that awaited us to the south as well as the adjacent historic Route 66 highway, Topock 66 arrives out of nowhere. One minute you’re riding through solitude, the next you spot the place that bills itself as “your party headquarters on the Colorado River.” For me, seeing the trendy, designer mix of rusted steel and concrete that is the modern Topock 66 is cool but also sad. Like the homes south of Laughlin, I remember the Topock of old, a place where I once desperately needed for gas and food, and one far removed from the current facility. Nevertheless, it’s a fun place to stop, a welcome taste of food after long hours playing on the river, and one of the only places I know that has urinals shaped like open mouths — and bar stools that make occupants look like they’re not wearing any pants.
An hour later, with stomachs filled, thirst quenched and yet another round of sunscreen applied, we once again headed south for the highlight of this trip, the 20-mile passage through Topock Gorge. Nicknamed the “Baby Grand” in reference to its much larger, deeper cousin, the Grand Canyon to the north, Topock Gorge is the centerpiece of the Havasu National Wildlife Refuge. It’s a place where the desert walls literally and figuratively begin to close in on the river, with volcanic red-rock canyon faces rising abruptly from the blue-green waters, and the occasional sandy beach offering an inviting spot to while away the day in seclusion. Wildlife is in abundance. Everything from bighorn sheep to wild burros and countless bird species can be seen as you drift through the deepest 4-mile section at no-wake speed. We attempt to freeze the moment in endless pictures and gaze in awe at new sights waiting around every corner, then ultimately head to our turnaround point in Lake Havasu City.
The Real World Can Wait
Like most of the sights you’ll come across on this trip, Lake Havasu City has a story, and a suitably quirky one at that. Like Lake Mojave that lies just to the north of Laughlin, Havasu was created by a dam, in this case the Parker Dam completed in 1938. The dam flooded the surrounding desert, creating a lake with nearly 450 miles of shoreline. In 1963, that lake captured the attention of oil magnate Robert McCulloch as he flew overhead. McCulloch joined with a developer to grow the city into a tourist and retirement destination, and chose a rather random structure as its centerpiece — the London Bridge. Originally spanning the River Thames, the bridge was declared unsafe for modern traffic in 1962. McCulloch bought the structure, had it dismantled and the facing stones numbered, then shipped the pieces to the United States, ultimately reassembling the original stonework over a new concrete structure. The bridge was originally built over land, on a peninsula extending into the lake. Once completed, McCulloch had a channel dredged below to turn peninsula into island — and, of course, make sure his centerpiece bridge actually passed over water.
We pin our Sea-Doo’s throttles to skip over the windswept surface of Lake Havasu to reach the peaceful bridge channel, then take the requisite cruise under the bridge and its nearby English-themed village, now increasingly giving way to condos. On the far side, we once again get on the gas to travel the remaining distance to the last sight on our ride, Copper Canyon. A baby, baby version of the Baby Grand, Copper Canyon nonetheless features those same towering red-rock walls. It has a reputation as a party spot, with boats rafting up, drinks flowing, and cliff diving being the norm. In fact, MTV took notice of Copper Canyon years back and used it as the location for one of the network’s infamous Spring Break weekends. Today, however, the water is still and the air quiet. We motor through at idle speed and take pictures of the rocks as they’re lit up by the blazing afternoon sun, then turn north to retrace our steps through Topock Gorge and beyond.
Theoretically, we could make it back by nightfall, but this isn’t that kind of adventure. Instead, we check in to Pirate’s Cove Resort, another oasis hidden just north of Topock 66. Here we enjoy cabins along the marina shoreline and later, at the bar, toast the desert sunset. Tomorrow we’ll return to the real world and its seemingly endless problems and responsibilities.
But for tonight, the escape continues…