By Judith Salkin

There isn’t even a sign on Twentynine Palms Highway at Adobe Road directing traffic to Tortoise Rock Casino, but that didn’t stop the hundreds of patrons who jammed the new gaming palace on Monday.

With 490 Las Vegas-style slot machines, mostly pennies with a five cent, quarter and a small bank of dollar machines, seven table games, a bar with a small stage area for local entertainers who will play on weekends and a quick-service café, Tortoise Rock is designed to bring a little excitement to the laid-back hi-desert.

“We’re ready to get this party started,” Adam Sak, marketing director for Tortoise Rock and Spotlight 29 Casino in Coachella, said earlier this week. Both casinos are owned and operated by the Twenty-Nine Palms Band of Mission Indians, whose tribal lands span the area from Coachella to Twentynine Palms.


Sak referred to the 30,000 square foot facility as a “boutique casino” that can accommodate about 1,100 guests on the casino floor and another 150 or so patrons in Shelly’s Lounge bar and Oasis Grill.

All of the slots on floor for the opening were brought up from Spotlight 29 and were replaced with new machines at the low desert casino.

“There are a lot of favorites from Spotlight that we brought up here,” he said. “This will give us a chance to swap machines between the two locations.”

“We’re seeing what the market wants up here,” Sak said of the relatively small number of machines for the opening. The tribe is limited to a total of 2,000 machines at both casinos, and there are no plans at the moment to renegotiate its gaming compact with the state. “We haven’t gotten that far; they’ll see how things go and make a decision about that sometime in the future.”

Aside from size, there are other differences between the larger casino and this boutique edition of a gaming palace.

Tortoise Rock is compact with a contemporary, slightly industrial feel. While Spotlight is totally enclosed except for the entrance, with three entrances there is a lot of natural light that comes in to three sides of the casino floor.

The opening party was celebrated by members of the Twenty-Nine Palms Band of Mission Indians, hi-desert dignitaries and locals and members of neighboring Coachella Valley tribes who all gathered to open the doors of the area’s first casino.

Sean Milanovich, the son of the late ACBCI Chairman Richard Milanovich, noted that attending the opening was like attending a family event. “My father always taught us that we need to sit at the same table,” he said. “You have to understand there’s been so many marriages between the local tribes that we all get together to celebrate each other’s success. It’s the way it should be.”

While the casino is in San Bernardino County, Riverside County Supervisor John Benoit, who represents the county’s Fourth District that includes five low desert casinos, attended the opening to “wish them well in this endeavor,” he said. “This tribe has always supported me and I’m very happy to be able to return the favor.”

More than 60 California tribes operate casinos under State regulated compacts, only two – the Twenty-Nine Palms Band of Mission Indians and the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians – operate two casinos on their reservations.

“It’s pretty amazing that both tribes are in the desert,” Benoit said. “I’m not sure why that is, but I do know it’s good for our economy.”

Tortoise Rock is adding to the economy of the hi-desert. While it took more than four years of planning, the 10 months of construction and now the 160 full- and part-time positions are helping the bottomlines of those who work at the casino.

“I know that a lot of folks who work at the casinos in low desert that live here in the hi-desert,” he said. “I’m sure they’re happy to see a casino up here. It’s good for this community.”

Photos By Chris Miller / Imagine Imagery