San Rails
Credit: Sam Burkhart

By Robert B. Wheels

Head south from Las Vegas on U.S. Route 95, take a left on Nevada State Route 163 and you’ll end up in Laughlin, Nevada.

It’s about an hour-and-a-half drive through dry scrubland with little to catch the eye but the powerlines shooting out from the Hoover Dam to the northeast. That’s OK though, because the speed limit here is 120 km/h so you’ll want to keep your eyes on the road.

Laughlin sits across the state line from Bullhead City, Arizona on the banks of the Colorado River and prides itself on its 10,000 hotel rooms and bustling, smoky casinos. The region surrounding Laughlin and Bullhead City is anything but bustling. It is quintessential frontier terrain open to exploration and adventure and that’s just what we have in mind.

We arrive in Laughlin in the blistering heat of the summer, but a pleasant breeze brings the temperatures to a bearable level — around 35°C. The cool blue river flowing south past the town looks inviting, but a river adventure will have to wait. We are headed into the desert in search of speed. We meet our guide on the Nevada side of the river and convoy our way into Arizona, into the gold-rich hills east of Bullhead and north of Oatman.

Sand Rails 2
Credit: Sam Burkhart

On the agenda for today: Four hours of off-roading. Joe, our enterprising outdoor-junkie tour guide and his “sidekick” Jenny started operating London Bridge Jet Boat Tours out of Laughlin in 1998 and have since expanded their outfit to include "sand rails." (Why they are called sand rails even Joe can’t explain.) The units we are driving aren’t your average ATV. Joe’s fleet consists of two- and four-seat Polaris RZRs. These are powerful, wide-stance side-by-sides capable of pushing 130 km/h. We are given do-rags and helmets, and told the basics of operating the vehicle — that is to say, “Here’s the gas pedal, here’s the brake, follow me and stay on the trail.” And we are off.

There is nothing like the thrill of screaming along a dirt trail at almost 90 km/h with mesquite bushes on your left, boulders on your right and a cloud of dust and smoke in front. I am thankful for my bandana, which I pull up over my nose and even more thankful for the heavy-duty shield on my helmet when I take a stone square to the forehead. It’s easy to get cocky driving these things and I realize I might be pushing it a little too hard when I hit a dry stream bed at speed and my wheel-well-mounted GoPro goes rocketing into the air like a piece of shrapnel, the clamp completely obliterated.

These tours are three to four hours long and take you over and along dry creek beds and up the sides of rocky hills that overlook the town and river below. As I am driving I find it tempting to take a left instead of a right and strike out on my own, but I remember there is a reason I was told to follow the leader. “It’s all guided because people just don’t know where to go. They get lost and then we have to go looking for them,” says Joe, and I get the impression he’s had to deal with yeehaws and city slickers before. So I stick to the path and eventually we make it back to our starting point where there isn’t a disappointed soul among us. “That. Was. Awesome,” I say to myself.

Joe and his partner have etched out a pretty spectacular lifestyle, providing outdoor adventure opportunities in the Mojave Desert, hard country and a difficult place to make a living. But there are others eking out a living in these dry hills and on our ride we see remnants of old equipment and the openings to old mine shafts.

“There’s still quite a few active goldmines near Oatman. When the economy goes down, gold goes up and all the mines open up and when the economy gets good gold prices go down and they all shut down.”

It sounds like a tumultuous ride and not something for me. I’ll sick to the ups and downs of the sand rails. “Can we go again?" 

Areas of Interest:

Grapevine Canyon: First Nations petroglyphs line the walls of a canyon near Christmas Tree Pass, the mouth of which is located about 10 miles outside of Laughlin. A two-mile gravel road off Hwy 163 leads to the trailhead. The canyon was named for the wild grapes that grow in abundance in the region. 

Oatman, Arizona: Oatman is an historic mining town located in the Black Hills of Arizona just 18 miles east of Bullhead City. Locals re-enact the glory days of the 1800s by dressing in period costumes and putting on mock gunfights in the streets. And if that isn’t Wild West enough then maybe the wild burros roaming the streets will do it for you.

 

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