Road Trip: Visit Colorado’s Own Vegas

Black Hawk/Central City stand in for Vegas on an overnight escape.

Authored by Susan Fornoff

Courtesy City of Black Hawk

I hit my first jackpot on a table at the Ameristar Casino Resort in Black Hawk before I’d even set foot on the jumping casino floor. The table was in the tranquil Ara Spa, where I’d been dealt the hands of a massage therapist named Kelly who also happened to be a nurse and thus expertly found and kneaded every knot in my overstressed shoulders.

Most gamblers would splurge on a spa treatment only after hitting another kind of jackpot, but I can’t help thinking that this indulgence set the tables, so to speak, for a fun summertime Saturday night in the casinos with my husband, Keith. We had set off on a discovery mission to Colorado’s Vegas, particularly because Denver ranks No. 3 among feeder cities to the real Sin City. Why, we wanted to know, would so many board a plane to spend (and potentially lose) money in a hot desert city when they could drive an hour west and upward to cooler temperatures for a gaming getaway?

Courtesy Monarch Casino Resort and Spa

And it’s a pretty drive, winding along Highway 6 from Golden, should one elect to elude the madness of westbound I-70. At its end, it’s clear there are no fountains, no crowds, not even much of a strip, with Main Street only about a half-mile long from the Monarch, soon to rival the 536-room Ameristar in size and amenities with a $400 million infusion, up to Gregory Street and the turn to Central City.

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But there is also, we noticed immediately upon walking into the Ameristar and up to our spacious spa suite, no stench. Colorado casinos, except for those on tribal land, are subject to nonsmoking laws. There are exceptions: We walked into the Wild Card, a historic building, and walked out right away; it has a cigar bar and so it can allow smoking. Otherwise, Black Hawk has a refreshing leg up on the anything-goes casinos of Vegas.

There’s no Barry Manilow, Beatles Love, or Wayne Newton here, but there are plenty of buffets. And we managed to find a restaurant that rivaled Vegas in foodie appeal, inside Ameristar’s mountain-lodge-like Timberline, where a ribeye with au gratin potatoes and spring peas served in a booth with white tablecloth and four-star service wowed us.

The bar in the Timberline was the only one we saw that wasn’t covered in video poker machines. Everywhere else, once we sat down and started to play, our drinks were free. And (I guess this also happens in Vegas, depending on your luck), nothing beats going into a bar, having a drink or two, and walking out with more money than you went in with.

Courtesy Monarch Casino Resort and Spa

But you’re not likely to walk out with a lot more money, or a lot less. When the state established gaming in 1991 to lend a hand to three struggling small towns, it limited stakes to $5. Today the limit is $100, still nowhere near the thousands wagered at some of the high-limit Vegas casinos. You can still find penny slot machines and $5 blackjack tables, though on a busy Saturday night the latter tended to be scarce. We enjoyed the table games for their social interaction more than we cared for solitary push-button slot machines (the source of the majority of the casinos’ $800 million- plus reported revenues), and found a $10 blackjack table inside the Ameristar bar that busied us for a couple of hours on our self-imposed $100 limits, happily adding to our cash by the end of the night. Sunday morning, we had screwdrivers and a couple of hours of great fun at a $5 table in the Z Casino. We walked away ahead again, and on a Queen of the Nile slot machine Keith got all the bells and whistles of a jackpot, about $70 on quarter wagers.

The craps and roulette tables appealed to us with all the hooting and hollering, but we didn’t quite understand what was happening. Next time, we’ll review the simple tutorial about table games at and count on help from Black Hawk’s friendly dealers.

Yes, we hope there’s a next time. We’re still not sure why Denverites go to all that trouble for Las Vegas.

Courtesy Isle of Capri Casino

Gaming getaways in Black Hawk

Of the state’s three gaming towns, this one is the most Vegas-like, with flashing neon and a Main Street accessing 13 mostly 24-hour casinos. The Ameristar and the still unfinished Monarch are the anchor hotels, with almost 1,000 rooms between them.

Unlike Black Hawk a mile down the road, Central City has retained most of its historic feel, with mock gunfights on the street every Saturday afternoon on the hours from noon to 4. Besides eight casinos, it has the Central City Opera House as a draw, as well as plenty of charming shops full of antiques, art, and gifts.

This former gold rush town in the mountains outside Colorado Springs boasts the “loosest” machines in the state, or the highest paybacks according to state revenue figures. Its Bennett Avenue mixes historical charm with nine casinos and the only 24-hour cocktail service permitted in Colorado.

Down in the Four Corners region, two tribes operate casino resorts on reservation land that isn’t subject to taxation (or smoking regulations). The Southern Ute tribe’s Sky Ute Casino Resort in Ignacio has 145 rooms, 45,000 square feet of gaming, and a popular event center, and the Ute Mountain Utes’ Ute Mountain Casino in Towaoc has 90 rooms, 800 slot machines, and a bingo hall.