Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer

After a mad dash to get ready, Sky River Casino opened earlier than expected in Elk Grove. The high stakes room shown here is one of several experiences that await visitors. Robert Maryland, OBSERVER

The team at Sky River Casino in Elk Grove put on its poker face and had a “surprise” opening after estimating that they’d open in mid-September.

Sky River opened ahead of schedule Aug. 16 to huge crowds clamoring to see the 100,000-square-foot casino that boasts 2,000 slot machines and 80 table games. Visitors can venture away from gambling action and partake of 17 dining and beverage options including SR Prime Steakhouse and 32 Brews Street, a sports bar offering locally crafted beer.

The new casino’s tagline is “Sky’s the Limit.” The venue, Sacramento County’s first Indian gaming space, offers slot play, table games, dining and several bars. Robert Maryland, OBSERVER

Sky River is operated by Las Vegas-based Boyd Gaming, which manages it for the Wilton Rancheria Tribe. It replaced what some locals referred to as the “ghost mall,” a never-completed outlet shopping venue. Wilton Rancheria Tribal members say the new casino will bring about a “bright future” that includes jobs, housing, health care and other long-term benefits for the tribe and the region.

“Our people have fought for decades to achieve self-sufficiency,” said Wilton Rancheria Tribal Chairman Jesus Tarango. “We fought for tribal recognition, for our land and for this historic project.”

President and CEO Chris Gibase said the casino is a first step in bringing better opportunities for the tribe.

“This tribe is very much focused on what happens six generations from now, not what happens today. This is a long-term project, just for the well being and the health and education for the tribal members themselves.”

The casino offers a rewards program for visitors to earn extras. Robert Maryland, OBSERVER

The venue will also be a boon for the surrounding community, Gibase said, as it plans to reinvest more than $125 million annually “in the first few years.”

The impromptu soft opening drew thousands, causing parking challenges and traffic issues that backed up Highway 99 for miles during its first weekend. Sky River is open seven days a week, 24 hours a day and will compete with other gaming venues such as Red Hawk, Thunder Valley and Cache Creek casinos. The latter two draw crowds as well with big-name entertainment events. Other locals frequently travel to casinos in Reno and Las Vegas.