18 Reasons to Drive to Lake Havasu City

Take advantage of the Jet Ski Capital of the World.

Photo courtesy of Go Lake Havasu
Photo courtesy of Go Lake Havasu

Lake Havasu City may be in the middle of nowhere, but it's a convenient road trip that's just a little more than two hours from Las Vegas, three hours from Phoenix, and four hours from LA County. It hasn't been around long. After attracting miners and serving as an army recreation site, Lake Havasu City was founded in 1963 as a master-planned community by Bill McCulloch, who made a fortune in the chainsaw business and carved out his own vision of what a vacation town should look like. The big draw here—you've got water and desert in one place. Tourism drives the local economy, but it doesn't feel touristy.

Lake Havasu itself interrupts the Colorado River as it borders California and Arizona. It's known as a Spring Break destination, but the peak of summer is the real party zone. That's when it gets hot. Really hot. While Death Valley officially has the highest recorded temperature on earth, Lake Havasu is actually recognized as the hottest incorporated city. Snowbirds dominate the winter months with second homes and Airbnb rentals. Zoning isn't really a thing, so don't be surprised to see multimillion-dollar communities next to worn-out trailer parks. Generally speaking, there isn't much trash or graffiti. Crime is low, even without a major police presence.

For the most part, Lake Havasu leaves gambling and entertainment to nearby Laughlin.
Here, people just want to hang out—usually outdoors. "Havasu time" is very real, so keep that in mind when making plans. Most bars don't skimp on the booze, preferring their drinks to be truck-driver strong (even on the craft cocktail side). In many ways, LHC is like a party where everybody is off in a corner doing their own thing, whether parking a boat on a secluded cove, drinking craft beer on Main Street, or speeding through the desert on an ATV. It doesn't take long to figure out Lake Havasu City, but it helps to plan your visit in advance. So get familiar with all the stuff you'll want to do after arriving in town.

Find serenity in a vortex

The Lake Havasu area has five identified vortexes (enough to give Sedona a run for its money): Castle Rock Bay and Topok Gorge in the Havasu National Wildlife Refuge, Rotary Community Park, Yonder Park, and the Take Off Point Recreation Area at Parker Dam. So what is a vortex anyway? No one has a hard-and-fast definition, but it's generally a site believed to have concentrated energy flow with a deep connection to nature and spirituality. But don't dwell on definitions too much. Just pay one (or more) of these spots a visit, take a deep breath, and get in touch with yourself and your surroundings. For something more tangible to understand, detour to Cattail Cove State Park, which has a new labyrinth for walking meditation.

Jet Ski like a local

Lake Havasu City is known as the "Jet Ski capital of the world," a distinction taken seriously by those who love to zip around on water scooters. The umbrella term is "personal watercraft" (or PWC) and includes not only Jet Ski, but other brands like Sea-Doo and WaveRunner. No matter what you choose, these vehicles are a big part of the local culture. An early version of the technology was actually invented in Lake Havasu City and the PWC World Championships come to town every summer. Jet Skis (et al.) aren't allowed in the channel, but are common throughout the lake and Colorado River. Take one to Body Beach, a destination known worldwide as a practice course for serious racers. They're also useful for navigating Topok Gorge, fitting into the nooks and crannies of tight waterways that boats typically can't reach.

dixie bell
Photo courtesy of Dixie Bell/Epic Visualography

The Dixie Belle is back in service on Lake Havasu. The custom-designed vintage-style paddle-wheeler was in dry dock for ten years after being a fixture on the lake between the early 1980s and 2011. The 68-ton riverboat was renovated by a local team and is now better than ever. Board the three-level Dixie Belle at London Bridge Resort for a journey through the channel and around the lake. The interior is climate-controlled, but a ride is best enjoyed on the outdoor viewing areas and rooftop deck. The Dixie Belle can carry 131 passengers and is available for sunset tours and private charters with special events and holiday cruises to be introduced in the near future.

london bridge
Photo by Rob Kachelriess for Thrillst

Snap a few pics of the London Bridge

Much of Lake Havasu's identity is connected to the London Bridge, which extends about 930 feet, connecting the mainland to a small island in the Colorado River. It's the second most visited tourist attraction in Arizona behind the Grand Canyon. Once upon a time the bridge actually spanned the River Thames in London, replacing the original which inspired "London Bridge is Falling Down." Since it couldn't handle the weight of auto traffic, it was put up for auction as the world's most expensive antique and bought by Lake Havasu City. It was shipped over and reconstructed brick-by-brick over sand (making for some surreal vintage photos) before Bridgewater Channel was dredged underneath it to create Lake Havasu Island. Fun fact: the bridge is hollow now. McCulloch actually sold the inside material and turned his London Bridge purchase into a profit. Some people are just good at business. 

Photo courtesy of Go Lake Havasu

Indulge in your love of the great outdoors

Nobody sits still for too long in LHC. Off-roading is a way of life, whether on a dirt bike or behind the wheel of an ATV/UTV. The city is basically carved into the foothills of the Mohave Mountains with plenty of rolling desert terrain to explore, including the Arizona Peace Trail (an off-road loop between Kingman and Yuma). Dry camping is hard to ignore with RVs pulling up in barren areas off the main highway—often in unofficial but organized mini-communities. The law says you're allowed to stay in the same spot for 14 days before moving elsewhere. Others prefer to set up a tent on the beach. Pretty much anything you want to do on the water is possible—boating, swimming, parasailing, bass fishing, and more. So be prepared to get wet.

Enjoy the serenity of the Bridgewater Channel

The Bridgewater Channel is more-or-less the central hub of Lake Havasu City, surrounded by hotels, bars, and restaurants. Dredged after the construction of London Bridge, it flows for about 2.5 miles from Lake Havasu to Thompson Bay, which leads back to the Colorado River. The channel is a no-wake zone, making it a popular spot for boating, kayaking, and paddleboarding—or having a cocktail with Cruisin' Tikis floating tiki bars. The water is framed by parks and sidewalks, as well as the English Village, a small promenade where you can shop for souvenirs, book tours, and grab some food and drink at hangouts like Burgers By The Bridge or The Chair. The owners of the latter are getting ready to open Big Fin's Tasty Waves, a beach-themed quick-service counter with more than a dozen different mac n' cheese bowls (like BBQ pulled pork or buffalo chicken). A vintage red phone booth (with no actual telephone inside, of course) and a royal carriage replica in the London Bridge Resort lobby are a couple of British-themed photo spots to help keep your Instagram feed interesting.

Photo courtesy of Go Lake Havasu

Spend the day on the water

If you had to sum up Lake Havasu City with one word, it's probably boating. The community sits on an uninterrupted 60-mile stretch of the Colorado River, where boats can zip along without any speed limit to worry about—although traffic jams aren't uncommon during the busy summer months. Boats are a big part of the party scene, especially when packed together in areas like Copper Canyon, where swimmers can take the plunge off Jump Rock, or gathered around a small island known as the Sandbar. Don't have your own boat? Rentals are easy to find. But even better—book a sunset cruise with Sunset Charter & Tour Co. on Serenity Now. The custom-designed vessel holds six passengers with stadium-style seating, drink holders, and a crystal-clear sound system. A three-hour tour includes detours to historic spots like Steamboat Cove and rock formations that are best viewed from the water, like the Sleeping Indian, a mountain formation that resembles the image of a Native American warrior lying down. 

Mudshark Public House
Mudshark Public House

Drink your way through the local beer and spirits scene

If you're going to live like a local in Lake Havasu, you gotta drink beer like a local. College Street Brewhouse & Pub makes its own beer on site with a patio deck, lake views, and food that’s heavy on Southern favorites. Barley Brothers is on the island next to London Bridge with a microbrewery, wood-fired pizzas, and plenty of TVs for watching a big game. Mudshark takes advantage of the hot Arizona sun, using solar power to brew its own lineup of beers, which are a frequent sight in not only its public house, but stores and bars throughout the region. In addition to the original brewery, Mudshark also has a pizzeria as well as an upcoming grill and ale house currently under construction. Hangar 24 at the regional airport serves its own beer too, although it's brewed in California. If spirits are more your thing, the Copper Still Distillery is big on flavors and infusions, including root beer, chocolate, or peanut butter whiskey and jalapeno or cucumber vodka.

Photo courtesy of Go Lake Havasu

Go for a hike in SARA's Crack

Hiking is popular, especially in SARA's Crack—and yes, that's what it's really called. Let's explain. SARA is short for Special Activities Recreation Area and generally referred to as SARA Park. The "crack" is a three-mile slot canyon formed by water drainage that's made its way through rock formations over thousands of years. The hike isn't especially difficult, but has a few tricky spots, including a steep ten-foot slope that some choose to slide down. The final mile leads to Balance Rock, a picturesque cove on the banks of the Colorado River. If you want to do it right, sign up for a tour with Havasu Hikes, a new company by established pros that also hosts explorations through Wanderlust, which opens up to up-close mountain views, and Pilot Rock, one of the most identifiable markers on the Colorado River. Hiking season usually runs from fall to spring. If you're even thinking about a hike in summer, be ready to get up early in the morning (like 6 am), stay hydrated, and keep the journey to just a couple hours without wandering off to random trails.

Eat up at the best restaurants

You'll build up an appetite with all that outdoorsy stuff, so you gotta ask—where can I get a bite around here? Lake Havasu isn't a place for fancy fine dining. Even the nicest restaurants skew casual. Fortunately, the city isn't overwhelmed by chains, allowing independent, locally owned businesses to enjoy most of the attention. Cha-Bones is as formal as it gets, but no one will get mad if you walk in with a pair of shorts on. Steaks and tapas are the specialties and the happy hour is legendary, running from 3–6 pm every day. Shugrue's serves seafood by the water with great views of the London Bridge. Ask for a table by the window. La Vita Dolce is an East Coast-style Italian restaurant, where you'll wolf down lasagna and shrimp scampi with a robust glass of red wine. Loco's (formerly known as Blondie's) is a dive bar off the beaten path known for its tacos and a tiki-style outdoor patio. El Paraiso has great Mexican food too, not to mention a sandy backyard overlooking the lake. Romano's, a newcomer, is the kind of place where you can wolf down pizza and chicken parm while Sublime and Rancid tribute bands perform on stage. The Pour House has a legacy dating back to 1967, based on stiff drinks and food made from scratch. Try the pulled pork.

Bj's Cabana Bar
Photo courtesy of Bj's Cabana Bar

Hit the party scene hard

Lake Havasu has a well-earned reputation as a Spring Break destination—and while that's still true, the real action is in the summer. Kokomo, a multi-level pool club at the London Bridge Resort, is the best spot for partying and skimpy bikinis that’s not on a boat. It was closed for much of the pandemic, but is back open year-round. Another popular party destination, WET Bar complements the largest infinity pool in Arizona at The Nautical WET Pool. Other hotspots on Bridgewater Channel include Jeremy's Juke Joint, a hub for regular live music and smoky Old Fashioned cocktails, and Martini Bay, a restaurant with fire pits on the patio. The pace picks up (and the music gets louder) later in the night. The Flying X Saloon on Main Street is the go-to bar for country music with a large dance floor for boot scootin' and watching live bands. Just down the street, PJ's Cabana Bar has both DJs and karaoke fanatics working the mic with drink specials on a large outdoor patio.

Drive, walk, or bike around the island

You'd think Lake Havasu's island would be covered with resorts and tourist attractions from end to end, but that's not the case. Once you get away from the bridge and channel area, the island turns residential with a few offbeat destinations. Take your time and enjoy the four-mile path that loops around the island with bikers and walkers traveling in opposite directions. Crazy Horse Campgrounds is popular for RVs, but also has cabin rentals, launch ramps, a pool, and private beach with boat and Jet Ski rentals. BeachComber Estates is a trailer park on the water with serious real estate value. Look out for quail crossing the road. Site Six is the only free boat launch in Lake Havasu and notorious for its steep ramp. Leftover from military use, it doesn't always handle newer, larger boats well and failures are well documented on YouTube. Before a fence was built, spectators used to set up lawn chairs and watch the chaos. These days, the Boathouse Grill is a more popular hangout, gaining a reputation for "overboard" Bloody Mary cocktails with lobster tail, prawns, a large hot wing, and even grilled octopus among the garnishes. Look carefully toward the center of the island and you'll see the outline of an old military airstrip that fell out of use long ago.

Drive out to a bar in the middle of the desert

Off-roading is crazy popular in Lake Havasu City. How popular? So much so that a couple bars have popped up in the middle of the desert to take advantage of the traffic. The trend started at Nellie E. Saloon about an hour away in Parker. More commonly known as Desert Bar, it's basically a mini-ghost town renovated from an old mine site. It's only open Saturdays and Sundays from October through April—since drinking in the hot summer sun isn't comfortable, no matter how much whiskey you order. Yeah, you can take the main road, but all-terrain vehicles love to go the "back way" through the desert where the saloon seems to pop up from out of nowhere. The Bunker Bar is closer to Lake Havasu and a newer take on the concept. It's about three miles off State Route 95, reachable via a "road" that's barely dug out of dirt and rock. A jeep works fine, but expect plenty of dust. Open on weekends, the place has grown dramatically with multiple bars, outdoor seats, games, a covered stage for live bands, and Greek food by Niko's. The entire operation is solar powered and decorated with old military equipment, most notably a helicopter wedged on the mountainside. Red Star will happily take you out to either place on a jeep tour, while in between visits to sand dunes, rock formations, abandoned cabins, and old gold mines.

Get familiar with Main Street

About a mile inland from London Bridge, McCulloch Boulevard semi-officially turns into Main Street for a few blocks, which is the closest thing to a downtown district in Lake Havasu City. Independent shops like Our Shabby Shack Book Exchange, Glitz Salon, and Funky Junk (eclectic gifts and home decor) have their charm, but you're really here to eat and drink. The Red Onion, renovated from an old bank, is a great spot for breakfast and lunch with its own next-door R.O. Bar ready to serve up a Bloody Mary topped with parmesan shavings or the Morning Glory mix of fruit juice, vodka, and sparkling wine. McKee's is an Irish Pub with the best sandwich in town: the Hangover Remedy of roast beef, jalapenos, and mushrooms. Fug's has the right combination of craft beer, wine, and pizza in a bright, newly renovated space, but if dive bar charm is more your thing, head to Desert Martini. Ready to get your culture on? The Havasu Arts Center is a co-op gallery for local artists with paintings, drawings, photography, wood carvings, and other works on display.

lake havasu beach
Photo courtesy of Go Lake Havasu

Soak in the sun at a Lake Havasu beach

No visit is complete without dragging your toes through the sand at one of the beaches scattered throughout hundreds of miles of Lake Havasu coastline. London Bridge Beach might come up first in a Google search, but it's more of a park than a beach (although it's a great place to bring your dog). It's on the channel where swimming isn't allowed anyway. Just south, Rotary Community Park has its own beach with a designated swim zone as well as picnic areas, volleyball courts, and a skate park. The best overall pick is the white sand of Windsor Beach inside Lake Havasu State Park. Just be prepared to pay a fee at the entrance. Otherwise, boaters love to discover smaller beaches in secluded coves that aren't accessible by car or foot. 

Photo courtesy of Go Lake Havasu

See every lighthouse on the water (or have fun trying)

Lake Havasu has more replica lighthouses than any other city in the United States, modeled after historic counterparts from throughout the country. The latest count is 28, but more are in the works. The new versions are about a third the size, but built to scale based on original plans. All are in working condition and follow official Coast Guard guidelines. The idea was hatched by the Lake Havasu Lighthouse Club, who wanted to beautify the solar-powered light markers that line the waterways. The organization has an online map and sells a $10 color booklet to raise funds for ongoing construction and maintenance.

The Nautical Beachfront Resort

Book a room at the right hotel

Lake Havasu City has its share of hotel chains, but it's the independent resorts along the water that come with an extra dose of charm and character. The Nautical helped kick off Lake Havasu as a tourist destination back in the '60s, yet still feels new with a timeless art deco design. Suites open up to a lawn and beachfront on Thompson Bay, where guests can park their own boats. Hang out at one of two pools, grab a drink at Turtle Bar, and watch the tours float by. Heat is a little more modern—like '80s Miami modern—and popular with pet owners, the Spring Break crowd, and anyone who wants to lounge on a daybed at the rooftop bar. It's one of two boutique resorts along with Sway, formerly the Bridgewater Hotel before a recent, extensive renovation. The London Bridge Resort is "party in the front" (with Kokomo, Martini Bay, and a waterslide at the pool) and "business in the back" with comfortable suites that are larger and more contemporary than the hotel's exterior suggests. They come with full kitchens that may or may not have unexpected perks like a set of steak knives or a blender… you know, just in case.

hot air balloons
Photo courtesy of Go Lake Havasu

Pick the right time to visit

Lake Havasu takes pride in being a year-round destination, although early spring and fall are when locals enjoy having the place mostly to themselves. Summer is the party zone, often with a carnival atmosphere. Temperatures are through the roof, but hey, it's a dry heat. With that in mind, some prefer to plan a trip around a big event. Rockabilly Reunion (February) is a '50s-inspired car show and concert while the Desert Storm Poker Run & Shootout (April) attracts multimillion-dollar boats that not only zip along the river, but parade down Main Street to maximize the spectacle. Competition is fierce in the International Jet Sports Boating Association World Finals and UTV World Championship (both in October). Yet winter brings the most enduring excitement. The Parade of Lights kicks off the holiday season the first weekend of December with up to 60 illuminated boats passing through the channel. The same weekend, hundreds of motorcyclists roar down Main Street in Santa hats to deliver gifts for families in need. The season wraps with the Lake Havasu Balloon Festival (January) and WinterBlast (February), a multi-day fireworks presentation by the Western Pyrotechnic Association.

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Rob Kachelriess has been writing about Las Vegas in Thrillist for more than eight years. His work has also appeared in Travel + Leisure, Trivago Magazine, Sophisticated Living, Modern Luxury, Leafly, Las Vegas Magazine, and other publications. He's living in his own personal vortex. Follow him on Twitter @rkachelriess.