Travel Guide to California


Let It Ride

Want to try your luck? California has plenty of options for gambling

by Matt Villano

Pechanga Resort Casino

Located in Temecula Valley, the Pechanga Resort Casino is among the largest resort/casinos in the U.S. A four diamond property, it is owned and operated by the Pechanga Tribe, with cultural artifacts throughout the resort. It boasts more than 12 restaurants, an on-site golf course and luxury spa, a pool complex the size of five football fields, a live sports and concert events venue and a 24-hour casino with 200,000 square feet of gaming space.

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 “Vegas-style” 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 largest casino in Sonoma County: Graton Resort & Casino.

This attraction, located in Rohnert Park, is operated by Station Casinos, one of the largest casino companies in Las Vegas, that announced in 2023 of a massive expansion which will double the size of both the casino and the hotel by 2025.

For now, bettors cheer the swanky gambling floor, which boasts a live poker room, over 100 table games, and 3,000 state-of-the-art slots. Foodies flock to the place, too—the restaurant lineup includes an outpost of local favorite Boathouse Asian Eatery, and a food-court outpost of twelve-time world pizza champion Tony Gemignani’s Italian food eateries. There is also a 200-room hotel with a full house of amenities, including a full-service spa and salon, and fitness center.

Other Native American casinos in this region are small but superlative in other ways. Many, including Thunder Valley (Lincoln), Chukchansi (Coarsegold), Twin Pine (Middletown) and Cache Creek (Brooks) 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 wine-themed casino destination. Red Hawk, in Placerville, offers child-care services for tykes while mom and dad play.

Harrah’s Northern California, in Ione, opened in 2019. It offers a Las Vegas vibe in the heart of the Sierra foothills’ Wine Country.  It is surrounded by wineries, golf courses, historic monuments and gorgeous scenery.

Most of the other gambling options in Northern California are card rooms, and many are located in the suburbs of San Francisco and Sacramento. Popular ones are  San Jose’s Bay 101 Casino, Colma’s Lucky Chances and San Jose’s Casino M8trix.

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. Viejas Casino & Resort, just outside San Diego, with the Willows Hotel and Spa, offers staycation opportunities, and a live events center, bowling and an outdoor skating rink.

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 Parkwest Bicycle Hotel & Casino (Bell Gardens). Both venues have expansive poker rooms and host some of the most popular tournaments in the area.

The Desert

Soboba Casino Resort, just outside of San Jacinto, offers spectacular views of the San Jacinto Mountains.   Agua Caliente’s collection of three Casinos are located in Rancho Mirage, Palm Springs and Cathedral City.  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.

Lake Tahoe

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, Bally’s Lake Tahoe is swank with modern lounges and a four-diamond steak and chophouse that makes Ruth’s Chris seem like McDonald’s. Located down the street is the  Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Lake Tahoe, with more than 500 hotel rooms and a 25,000-square-foot casino.

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.

Know the rules

Just because California has casinos doesn’t mean games there play the same way they’d play in Las Vegas or Atlantic City. Perhaps the biggest differences: craps and roulette. State gaming laws expressly prohibit the outcome of a game to be determined by dice or a ball. While the games incorporate traditional elements of dice and a ball, the games themselves hinge on overturning different types of cards.

For novices (or those just looking for a good time), these differences are minimal. For hard-core craps and roulette players, however, they make the games so foreign that adjusting becomes tough. Ask the croupier to review the rules before buying-in. If a game seems confusing, don’t bother; there are dozens of other options throughout the casino.



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