Las Vegas isn’t the only show out West
Deal Me In
The Pechanga Resort & Casino in Temecula opened in 2002, and is still the largest casino in California. The resort is the biggest employer in the Temecula Valley, a place the Pechanga people have called home for more than 10,000 years. In the olden days—the days of Frank Sinatra and Bugsy Siegel—u.s. gamblers looking for a date with Lady Luck had one option: Las Vegas. Nowadays, with changes to gambling laws in many states, it’s a safe bet that bettors can throw down their cash just about anywhere. Of all the states that now offer gambling, the best (and most plentiful) options are in California.
The Golden State has two choices for people looking to place bets: Native American casinos, and card rooms (which are glorified bars where gambling is legal, so long as the house doesn’t win).
The Native American outposts tend to be farther from major cities but offer nicer digs. They have slots. They have table games. They even have bingo. Many of these wagering wonderlands are “Vegasstyle” resorts, complete with luxury hotels, top-notch restaurants and indulgent spas. A few of the properties even have their own golf courses.
Card rooms are smaller, quieter and, in many cases, more geared toward locals. Games here are far less varied—in most cases, as the name suggests, only card games are available. The upside? Gambling action is usually loose (and that’s a good thing).
We’ve divided California’s gambling scene into four distinct geographical regions. Wherever you go, bet wisely, and remember to stay within your means.
San Francisco Bay Area & Beyond
Without question, the Bay Area is the most exciting region of California for gambling, with more options than any other part of the state. It also is home to the newest major spot to let chips fly: Graton Resort & Casino.
This attraction, located in Rohnert Park, is a hulking casino built and operated by Station Casinos, one of the largest casino companies in Las Vegas. Bettors cheer the swanky gambling floor, which boasts a 20table poker room, more than 130 table games, and thousands of slots. Foodies flock to the place, too—the restaurant lineup includes an outpost of local favorite Boathouse Sushi, and a food-court outpost of Tony’s Neapolitan-style pizzeria. In November 2016, Graton also opened a 200-room resort hotel and spa.
Other Native American casinos in this region are small but superlative in other ways. Many, including Cache Creek (Brooks), Thunder Valley (Lincoln), Chukchansi (Coarsegold), and Twin Pine (Middletown) also have full-service hotels. Chukchansi is the closest casino to Yosemite National Park, just 27 miles from the southern entrance near Wawona; it’s also just 15 miles from Bass Lake Recreation Area. Twin Pine, nearly halfway between the wineries of the northern Napa Valley and Lake County, is said to be the nation’s only winethemed casino destination. Red Hawk, in Placerville, offers child-care services for tykes while mom and dad play.
Most of the other gambling options in Northern California are card rooms, and many are located in the suburbs of San Francisco and Sacramento. The two most popular: San Jose’s Bay 101, which hosts a number of World Poker Tour events throughout the year, and Colma’s Lucky Chances, which doles out nearly $1 million in cash prizes (not to mention lots of seats to the annual World Series of Poker) over the course of every year. Casino M8trix, in San Jose, distinguishes itself with a thumping nightclub.
Socal and LA
Southern California—from the northern edge of the San Fernando Valley to the Mexico border, the Pacific Ocean to I-15—is home to some of the biggest Native American casinos in the state, including Harrah’s
Resort Southern California in Valley Center; Pala Casino Spa Resort in Pala; Barona Resort & Casino in Lakeside; and Pechanga Resort & Casino in Temecula. All of these properties boast Vegas-style hotels with eateries, shopping and spas. In 2014, after a $160-million renovation, Harrah’s opened a new 403-room hotel tower and a pool deck that features a lazy river and weekend parties with live deejays.
Closer to Los Angeles, the name of the game is card rooms. Two facilities are worth visiting for their grandeur alone: the Commerce Casino (Commerce) and the Bicycle Club (Bell Gardens). Both venues have expansive poker rooms and host some of the most popular tournaments in the area.
Package deals abound for stay-and-play vacations at casino resorts in and around the Coachella Valley and Palm Springs. At Morongo Casino Resort & Spa in Cabazon, for instance, $199 per night gets guests a room plus a $30 casino credit and a $100 credit at one of the on-site restaurants. Similar deals are available at the Agua Caliente Casino Resort Spa (Rancho Mirage). Most area casinos have their own golf courses, but locals rave about Eagle Falls, the course at Fantasy Springs Resort Casino in Indio. The 18-hole course was designed by architect Clive Clark.
Okay, okay, so the casinos that sidle up to Lake Tahoe are on the Nevada side of the state line. Still, they’re close enough to most other destinations in California that they deserve a mention here.
Excluding those in Reno, the most accessible venues are located in South Lake Tahoe. Here, the Montbleu Resort, Casino & Spa (formerly a Caesars property) is by far the swankiest, with ultra-modern lounges and a steakhouse that makes Ruth’s Chris seem like Mcdonald’s. The Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Lake Tahoe, with 500 hotel rooms and a 25,000-square-foot casino, opened in 2015 in the old Horizon Casino Resort space located down the street.
Of course the best thing about casinos at Lake Tahoe is that because they’re in Nevada, they play by Nevada rules (see sidebar). Since sports books and dice games are illegal in the state of California, this means Tahoe is the spot to place those kinds of bets.
Big spenders, consider yourselves warned. And good luck.
PLACING A BET at the roulette table, opposite; Catalina Island Harbor Casino, right; ready to hit the jackpot, bottom.
PECHANGA CASINO, top; Morongo Casino Resort & Spa in Cabazon, above.