Along the border of California and Arizona, adventure seekers will find a hidden gem—the quirky, riverside town of Parker. The small, 22 square-mile town boasts a population of only 3,000 full-time residents, but for those who are in the know, it’s a vibrant tourist destination that’s known to some of the Southwest’s most dedicated boating enthusiasts. And while there are no major airports nearby, Parker is only about a 2-hour drive from Phoenix, just under 3 hours from Las Vegas, and four hours from San Diego—making it the perfect southwest road trip destination. From boating along the Colorado River to playing golf and exploring one of Arizona’s most fascinating ghost towns, we’ve rounded up the top things to do during your trip to Parker with our guide to the best sights and attractions.
Drive Across the Parker Dam
The Parker Dam, a concrete arch-gravity dam, is a must-see landmark for any Parker visitor. While the dam was completed in 1938 to serve as a reservoir providing hydroelectric power, it’s also become a central attraction for the town due to its majestic, simple beauty. While it’s easy to see the dam is large (856 feet across at its longest point!) many don’t realize that it’s actually the deepest dam in the country, with 73 percent of the dam’s 230-foot height hidden underwater. While you can’t get too close to the damn by foot, you can drive over it for a stunning view of the Colorado River—and to cross over the state lines between California and Arizona.
Boat along the Colorado River
Whether you’re wakeboarding, tubing, or just enjoying a scenic boat ride, the highlight of a visit to Parker is diving into the beautiful Colorado River. With the main recreation area stretching 18 miles between the Parker Dam and Headgate Dam, there’s plenty to see while cruising around the river in Parker. Many visitors also try their hand at extreme water sports, park their boat at one of Parker’s lively party areas, or simply enjoy exploring the beautiful mountain views along the river. Fortunately, there’s plenty of local spots, such as Wet and Wyld Rentals and Parker Boat Rentals, to rent anything you need, from pontoon boats to jet skis to wakeboarding boats.
Enjoy a Drink at the Roadrunner Floating Dock Bar
Parker is home to several great riverside bars that are worth checking out, but Roadrunner is extra special thanks to its floating bar area that gives you the experience of being out on the river with the convenience of chilled drinks and great food. And while it’s a hit among tourists, it’s just as popular with Parker regulars, even boasting a Facebook fan group with more than 3,000 members. The unpretentious, laidback menu offers river-appropriate staples for breakfast, lunch, and dinner such as pancakes, omelets, sandwiches, burgers, and, of course, a fully stocked bar.
Try a Game of Blackjack at BlueWater Casino
The BlueWater Resort & Casino is one of the top destinations for nightlife in Parker, fitting in perfectly with the rest of the town’s spirited atmosphere. The elegant-looking casino offers stunning river views for a night of high-stakes (or lighthearted!) gambling and dining at one of four the casino restaurants. For those wanting to try their luck, they can rest assured that some BlueWater Casino guests have walked away with more than $65,000 in winnings. Games range from high-energy bingo events to slot machines and blackjack. It’s also a top place to stay in town for those wanting riverside accommodations without the hassle of camping, parking an RV, or renting a house.
Walk Through the Swansea Ghost Town
Swansea was established prior to Arizona’s statehood, back in 1909, as a mining town and was abandoned just 28 years later leaving behind a fascinating look at what life was like early in the state’s history. Today, visitors can walk through the Swansea Ghost Town, which is remote but accessible with four-wheel drive, to see original adobe and brick buildings and mine shafts. While it is about an hour from Parker’s city center, it’s a popular destination among Parker tourists due to the adventurous terrain on the way to the town and its ominous legacy. In fact, it even served as a backdrop for several scenes of the 1971 thriller “The Day of the Wolves.”
Play a Round of Golf at the Emerald Canyon Golf Course
This 18-hole golf course is known as “The Jewel of the Desert” and for good reason. Emerald Canyon Golf Course has become one of the state’s most celebrated golf courses due to its breathtaking views of the Colorado River juxtaposed with desert scenery and plenty of greenery. Golf enthusiasts will enjoy a somewhat challenging course through picturesque canyons for a memorable, one-of-a-kind experience.
Learn the History of the Colorado River Native Americans
The small, but comprehensive Colorado River Indian Tribes (CRIT) Museum offers a look at the heritage and tradition of the tribes who call the Colorado River Home. Visitors can view cultural artifacts, art pieces, and historic photographs from 1865 to the present day. The accompanying gift shop is also a great spot to shop for beautiful and authentic southwest souvenirs such as blankets, artisan jewelry, and apparel.
Visit the Desert Bar and Nellie E Saloon
This eccentric bar is a destination for tourists and locals alike known for its remote location 5 miles away from paved roads and far away from civilization. The Desert Bar first started serving canned beers back in 1983 when it began as a small wooden stand with a plank as a bar. It quickly outgrew its five bar stools and became a massive hit, now welcoming guests with the façade of a church (where people have actually gotten married!) and the accompanying indoor bar and gift shop known as Nellie E Saloon. However, visitors still shouldn’t expect a fancy experience—this humble little bar encourages you to seat yourself and make memories with friends while sipping a no-frills domestic beer.