In January, some call it Arizona’s third-largest city.
Located 125 miles west of Phoenix at the junction of Interstate 10 and State Highway 95, Quartzsite draws nearly 1.5 million RVers, rockhounds and bargain hunters in the fall and winter. We’d been hearing tales of Quartzsite ever since we bought our first motorhome, and we promised ourselves we’d do it at least once.
The crowds peak in January and February when the Quartzsite RV show, gem and mineral shows and swap meets are in full swing. When the sizzling summer heat sets in, traffic jams are a distant memory and the population is just shy of 3,700.
This gathering place got its start in 1856 when Charles Tyson built Fort Tyson to protect settlers and travelers from Native American raids. Eleven years later the dusty settlement was renamed Quartzsite. The few people living in the area were prospectors and miners searching for gold, silver, copper and other ores in the mountains surrounding the station.
Today tourism is Quartzsite’s major industry, with gems and minerals still the main attraction. It all began when the Quartzsite Improvement Association Pow Wow Gem and Mineral Show debuted in 1967 — 1,000 visitors came that first year. With the enthusiasm of tourists and the commitment of community volunteers, the Pow Wow now attracts huge crowds of rockhounds annually.
Kenny King started selling RV awnings at the Quartzsite Pow Wow in 1974. After the 1983 show, he asked his wife Emilene, “What if I threw up a circus tent and called it an RV show? Do you think people would come?” She thought it was a great idea and the following January they opened the first Quartzsite RV Show.
While most things went according to plan, there was one factor King hadn’t anticipated — attendees’ unwillingness to pay admission. He charged a quarter, but it kept people away in droves. Finally, vendors collected quarters and handed them out to people in the streets. King got the message and posted a “free admission” sign. It worked then, and it’s been free ever since. Now the Quartzsite Sports, Vacation and RV Show draws 150,000 visitors each year. This year, the show is scheduled for Jan. 22-30.
Fourteen years after the first RV show, King saw another opportunity. Since the tent was already up, why not fill it with other shows? His plan was to use the tent for a five-day Hobby, Craft and Gem Show (the 2011 show is slated for Feb. 2-6) after the RV show moved out. Since there was still space available in the tent, the following year he introduced the Rock & Roll Classic Car Show, which shared the tent on the last two days of the gem show. Last year, the car show drew 250 high-end hot rods and classic cars, some worth as much as $1 million.
All around Quartzsite, we found plenty of bargains for shoppers with more modest budgets. Beads start at $2 a strand. High-thread-count king-size sheet sets go for $25 or less. Amethyst and citrine geodes, salt lamps, Campfires In a Can, cutlery, obsidian-needle wind chimes, jewelry, RV patio mats, deep-fried Oreos and Twinkies, and puppies — really cute puppies — provided further temptation.
When RVers come to Quartzsite, they can choose between RV parks with full amenities or nearby public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Visitors who prefer a private RV park should make reservations well in advance since most parks are filled to capacity during the winter months.
The majority of RVers dry camp on BLM land. There are two options: pay a modest fee to camp in the La Posa Long-Term Visitor Area (LTVA) or stay for free in BLM-disbursed camping areas. The La Posa LTVA covers a large area, more than 11,000 acres. The fee is $40 for a stay of up to 14 days or $180 for as long as you want between Sept. 15 and April 15. For your money you get to use the potable water station, dump station, trash bins and vault toilets. Located two miles south of I-10 on both sides of Highway 95, this is the BLM land closest to town.
Disbursed camping is allowed for up to 14 days in a 28-day period. At least five of these areas are located within 10 miles of Quartzsite (see sidebar). Anyone who has ever stayed in any of these BLM lands during peak periods will fully appreciate the value of a flag or windsock as a reference point.
Rather than going for instant immersion in the Quartzsite culture, we decided to ease into it. We stayed at Desert Palms Golf and RV Resort in Salome 40 miles northeast of Quartzsite for the first two nights, with full hookups and a nine-hole golf course. We forayed into the wintertime boomtown to understand the lay of the land. Then, with a full water tank and empty holding tanks, we were ready to join the hordes of boondockers, those hardy folks who camp out in the boonies without any services or utilities.
From a distance, the area around Quartzsite looked like any suburban community filled with housing developments. As we got closer, I realized it was a vast expanse of motorhomes and other RVs nestled among the creosote bushes, mesquite, ironwood and palo verde trees and various species of cacti.
With so many RVers boondocking in disbursed camping areas, getting fresh water and dumping tanks and trash could present major problems if you stay more than a few days. Well water can be purchased at Tyson Wells RV Park, Pattie’s RV Park and RV Pit Stop. These places also have dump stations. Trash can be dumped at the Refuse Transfer Station north of Quartzsite just past mile marker 115 on Highway 95. It’s open from 7:30 a.m. to 2:20 p.m. Sunday through Wednesday. There’s no fee to dump household trash at the transfer station.
The number of boondockers also presents an opportunity for many enterprising vendors to solve problems. If you have a crack in your windshield, the Windshield Guys will come to your motorhome to repair it. If you can’t risk missing a basketball game on ESPN, Satellite Advantage will install a satellite antenna on your coach. A honey wagon can come to your motorhome to pump out the holding tanks. These enterprising folks intend to make your boondocking experience as carefree as possible.
Not only can you buy everything imaginable for your motorhome, you can also get some great deals on new ones. If you’re satisfied with your own RV but it needs mechanical work, you’ve come to the right place. Brazel’s Performance RV brings most of its equipment from Centralia, Wash., and sets up shop in a paved 3,200-square-foot area near the RV show’s big tent.
Once we had oohed and aahed at the new motorhomes and bought all sorts of things I never knew we needed, we were ready to explore the area around Quartzsite. Maybe we’d get lucky and find some interesting rocks or minerals on our hike. The Quartzsite Roadrunners Gem and Mineral Club is eager to help amateur rockhounds. The club hosts field trips to search for red and yellow jasper, banded agate and desert roses, to name a few.
We joined our wagon master and about 20 other vehicles to caravan to a location teeming with desert roses.
After an hour or so of searching, we novices were quite satisfied that we’d found enough desert roses to fill our pockets. On the trek back to our dinghy, we met a woman who’d filled a bucket with desert roses and a few other treasures like bubble agates and fire agates. Diane Sears joined a rock club two years ago and last year started making her own jewelry. She considers Quartzsite a mecca for rockhounds.
Not wanting to miss any of the must-see sights, I asked some more experienced Quartzsite visitors for advice. In addition to the various shows and swap meets, two names of local establishments came up repeatedly. The Quartzsite Yacht Club, the “must-sea” restaurant, features fresh Alaskan halibut. On a Friday night when the special is fish and chips for $9.95, the place is packed. If you are wondering how fresh Alaskan seafood could be in the Sonoran Desert, you can relax. If the taste alone isn’t convincing, you’ll realize the volume of fish and chips served on a Friday night demands fast and frequent shipments.
Falling into the must-see-to-believe category is Reader’s Oasis Bookstore. Also known locally as the Naked Man’s Bookstore, it’s surely the nation’s most independent of independent bookstores. The owner, Paul Winer, waits on customers au naturel, or as close to it as the law allows. He wears a little pouch to cover his privates. That’s not all, of course. Astute observers will also notice that he wears shoes, a hat, and, if temperatures demand, a sweatshirt.
While curiosity seekers may come to Reader’s Oasis for the novelty, book lovers will stay for the novels. The selection of more than 180,000 new and mostly used titles includes fiction and nonfiction. Winer also has an impressive selection of vintage and rare books. Westerns are the store’s best sellers.
Even casual observers will notice the signs in Reader’s Oasis about Celia’s Rainbow Garden. In 1994, 8-year-old Celia died suddenly of a viral heart infection. The community rallied around her parents, Paul and Joanne Winer, the Reader’s Oasis bookseller and his wife. A year later, Celia’s parents got permission from the town to build, in her memory, a botanical garden, which covers 20 acres of the 80-acre town park. Community volunteers worked, often with donated materials, to create this tribute to a little girl and her dream of making the world a better place.
Celia’s Rainbow Garden includes a cactus garden, nature trail and the village of Adamsville with miniature buildings created in 1974 by Babe and Babs Adams and donated to the Quartzsite Historical Society.
Originally we planned to visit Quartzsite once. Now we know better. Once is not enough.
Besides, we left without one of those really cute puppies.
For More Information:
Quartzsite Business Chamber of Commerce
Quartzsite Sports, Vacation and RV Show