Home to more than 100 federally recognized tribes, California boasts the country’s largest Native American population. Many of these tribes own and operate impressive resorts that have helped their communities achieve greater economic independence and prosperity. While these destinations are often best known for their casinos, they also offer an introduction to tribal cultures and have gained a reputation for a host of luxurious amenities: fine dining, spas, golf courses, and entertainment by internationally known performers.
More than 70 Native American casinos operate in 27 California counties, with the largest concentration in the Southern California counties of Riverside and San Diego. Indian casinos have provided a major boost both to state and tribal economies. Based on the latest available figures, Indian gaming supported nearly 125,000 jobs, creating new career opportunities for tribal members, and added almost $20 billion to the California economy.
Beyond the direct economic impact, there are also benefits from the growth of Native American hotels and resorts that are harder to quantify. For many, California’s indigenous people were a monolithic group that belonged to the state’s past, not the present. But with museums, powwows, and design touches inspired by traditional crafts, the resorts have served as a reminder of the cultural diversity of the state’s many tribes, as well as the ongoing role of Native Americans in contemporary California life.
San Diego County has the greatest concentration of Native American tribes of any county in the United States. A number of top resorts are less than an hour from the region’s coastal cities, including Sycuan Casino Resort in El Cajon. It recently underwent a $260 million expansion and is the place to pamper yourself in a poolside cabana, or with dinner at Bull and Bourbon, a classic steakhouse.
In Alpine, Viejas Casino & Resort earned a coveted AAA Four Diamond award and is known for its outlet center and an outdoor concert venue where the likes of norteño superstars Los Tigres del Norte and Mexican pop icon Paulina Rubio have performed. Or up in the rolling foothills of Lakeside, Barona Resort & Casino has a long winning streak in the San Diego Union-Tribune’s readers’ poll as the county’s best local casino. Just a few minutes from the resort, you can view tribal artifacts and learn about the Kumeyaay/Diegueño people at the Barona Cultural Center & Museum.
Many Native American resorts have also become destinations for golfers. In the Inland Empire at Temecula’s Pechanga Resort Casino, Journey at Pechanga won accolades as one of California’s top courses from GolfPass, thanks to a challenging layout that was sensitively integrated into the hills overlooking the Temecula Valley wine country. Northwest of Sacramento at Cache Creek Casino Resort in the Central Valley, Yocha Dehe Golf Club beat some of the world’s most famous courses to earn the number-one ranking from GolfPass as the state’s best public course. And farther north in the Shasta Cascade town of Corning, Golf Week magazine named The Links at Rolling Hills Casino and Resort one of the country’s top casino courses.
East of Los Angeles, you’ll also find a number of Native American–owned resorts. In Highland, San Manuel Casino has undertaken a massive expansion that’s adding new restaurants and shopping, as well as a 432-room luxury resort that was hailed by the Forbes Travel Guide as one of the world’s most anticipated hotel openings. Along Interstate 10 outside of Palm Springs, Morongo Casino, Resort & Spa is the venue for an annual powwow that brings together tribes for cultural celebrations with dance and song competitions.
The Coachella Valley is another major center for Native American-owned resorts. The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians operates three valley casinos and a lavish resort hotel that have earned multiple honors from the Forbes Travel Guide. The hotel’s Sunstone Spa received five stars from the guide and is the place to recharge and rejuvenate with such holistic treatments as a coastal seaweed wrap and massages that incorporate desert botanicals.
In the Central Coast wine region of the Santa Ynez Valley, the Chumash Casino Resort has a 12-story hotel with a rooftop pool deck overlooking the valley’s vineyards and surrounding mountains. Oenophiles should definitely make a reservation at the resort’s four-diamond Willows Restaurant+Bar, which curates an impressive list of Santa Barbara County and Central Coast wines, while music lovers should check the schedule at the resort’s main showroom, a venue that has drawn performers like Def Leppard and Bonnie Raitt.
If you’re going to be near Yosemite National Park, Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino—about 40 minutes from Fresno—brings a touch of luxury to the rugged foothills. Less than 30 miles from the national park’s south entrance, you can catch concerts by such performers as Trace Adkins and the Beach Boys. Or if you’ve spent the day hiking at Yosemite, nothing beats a soothing treatment at Chukchansi’s Serenity Springs Spa.
There are options further north, too. Cache Creek Casino Resort, located 45 minutes northwest of Davis in the Capay Valley, features thousands of slot machines, a lush pool, a championship golf course, and a full spa experience. In Gold Country you can visit Red Hawk Casino, Black Oak Casino, and Jackson Rancheria Casino Resort.
And far up on the North Coast, the Yurok Tribe’s Redwood Hotel Casino in Klamath makes an ideal base for exploring the big tree country about an hour north of Eureka. Newly built of local and sustainable materials, the hotel offers stylish contemporary rooms. Visit in late summer and fall and you can feast on wild-caught native Klamath River salmon at the hotel’s Abalone Bar & Grill.