Updated on January 26, 1999.
One of the key stops in our first year's itinerary was a visit to the environs of Quartzsite. We had heard so much about it, we wanted to see just what the scene was like.
We only spent one week at Quartzsite this year, the third week in January. We now know that the busiest times are the last week in January and the first week in February. That is when the biggest rock show and the RV show are held. But people are camping around Quartzsite from mid-October until April, and there is always something going on. Shops, booths, swap meets, and everything else goes on continuously
In some ways a week was much to short a time, in other ways it was just right. After spending that week we are sure we will go back next year and for years after that. The environment is a fine desert floor on which to boondock, and the flavor is unique to the institution of Quartzsite and its great jamborees. And yet we learned some important lessons that will make our next stay much more pleasant, and had we stayed longer this time our visit would have become increasingly difficult.
We found that what we expected from Quartzsite was not what we got. We had heard talks and read articles and even imagined what it was like, but they did not provide an adequate description of the event as a whole. For instance, they talk about over a million people. Well, they are not all there at the same time, and most often they are spread over many square miles. Don't expect this description to be much better, but hopefully it will be fun and maybe convince you to visit this place.
First, you should understand something about the geography of Quartzsite. It is desert, about 900 feet in elevation, so it tends to be warm. In the old days it was sort of the center of commerce for mining in the mountains all around it. In the late 1800's there was a stage stop at nearby Tyson Wells. It became famous during WWII as Patton's training ground for troops going to North Africa. After the war it was just a wide place in the road from Palm Springs to Phoenix. In the mid-80s they started having their rock and gem show jamborees.
Quartzsite is between two exits on Interstate 10 about 17 miles east of the Arizona-California border. Blythe, CA, is the nearest larger town. There is a cross-highway: south it is US95 and north it is AZ95. Everyone calls the two just Highway 95. Neither of the I-10 exits is at Highway 95. You have to drive nearly a mile one way or the other through the town to reach the north-south highway. During the busy season truckers get pretty upset about this state of affairs.
There are a number of RV parks in and around Quartzsite, but I am not sure about getting reservations; many people like us just want to boondock (dry camp) on the desert. Around Quartzsite are about 20 townships (over 700 square miles) of land, mostly under the control of the Bureau of Land Management, onto which people just go and boondock. Some people camp ten or fifteen miles away, but most of the people camp within five miles or so of Quartzsite in what are called the Long Term Visitor Areas by the BLM. The BLM now requires a permit to use these LTVAs ($20 a week or $100 for the entire season) and they provide a few important services like sewer dump, drinking water, and trash bins.
The LTVAs cover 20 square miles or so of land. The density of camping varies from place to place throughout the LTVAs. In the distance we could see what looked like a small town, it was just a dense collection of boondockers.
We drove on south of the LTVAs and pulled off Highway 95 to camp at milepost 99. That is about 4 miles south of town. I was concerned with camping out by ourselves; I felt we should have someone near in case there was trouble. I did not need to worry. From where we camped we could see at least 20 other rigs, though none of them was closer than 200 yards, but they were all over. I decided the main thing when boondocking at Quartzsite was to park in a place that had intrinsic beauty. Later I found that one should also look for some place where those with generators would not gather, at least if you happen to be a solar boondocker like we were.
Parking is easy, you just stop where you are and drop anchor. By the way, if there are a few clouds, the evening can turn out to be spectacular, with sunsets that rival any I have ever seen.
Our camp site was simply on a flat area between a couple of shallow washes, as most of the area was. The surface was composed of small rock embedded in sand. It looked like the sand had all been blown away. You really should avoid parking in a wash. When it does rain, and it sometimes does, the water can come rushing down the washes, even if it rains somewhere far away.
People come to Quartzsite in a variety of rigs. Though most of them were bigger motor homes, travel trailers, or fifth wheels, we still saw a few originals.There was no one home at the time we drove by this one, but it was adequate to live on the desert.
Quartzsite is very proud of their 47 armed saguaro cactus. They give directions on how to get there which we followed, and then found ourselves driving down a road that declares it is a toll road and you may at any time be subjected to a toll. Anyway, we did find the cactus and took some interesting photos of it. Alice decided to imitate its stance, but I never saw her 47 arms come out.
Quartzsite also has a famous citizen (deceased) called Hi Jolly. He was a camel keeper from the time the US Army decided to try using camels for the mounted cavalry. They have camel races every year. It happened before we arrived this year. Maybe we will see it in the future.
Other activities around Quartzsite this time of year include ballons and ultralights. It was interesting to see the ballons rise up going one direction, then change their course as they found some new air current that carried them in another direction. Several times I was concerned they were going to land on the side of the mountains, but they always seemed to make it back to the flats before they touched down.
We had to go to town to see the swap meets. Driving the main drag of Quartzsite gives you the chance to sense the flavor of the town. It appeared to us as a somewhat temporary town with lots of garage sales going on. The traffic was pretty dense and slow, and various truckers who had to leave the freeway with their 18-wheelers seemed impatient with everyone else on the road. I gave any of them I could first pick at each intersection, and they seemed to appreciate it. Every third vehicle on the road was either an RV or had some kind of hitch to connect to an RV.
Shortly after we arrived we toured the town for our first look at some of the junk and stuff and rock and gem shows. It was a great treat to have such a large group of flea markets in the same area. Some of the offerings was pure junk; other stuff was spectacular. Alice is standing next to a "bowl" of fossilized ammonites. I did not bother to ask for its price. The diversity of it all was the most amazing. If you searched long enough, you could probably find almost anything you ever wanted, provided it could be sold at a flea market.
Some of the vendors had very colorful displays. And I was surprised at the number of different kinds of things you could find at the markets.
It was bright around the town, and you really needed your shades. But if you had forgotten them, there were booths where you could find a fitting or an alternative. I liked their animal parasols.
If you needed clothes, they were there as well. I am not sure just where the dressing room is for this booth.
Mixed in with the rocks and gems you could find antiques that brought back real memories. Alice remembered this item from her childhood, and looking at it now it seems so long ago that this washing station was really high-tech.
Quartzsite seems to be a town designed to be temporary. Of course, it is there year after year. I am not sure that the same people show up each year, though some of them claimed to have been there before. Everyone is sort of friendly, but also independent. I saw more real characters per square foot than I have seen anywhere else, including downtown Las Vegas. Some of them are almost unbelievable. I have decided that many of them would be worthy of a book it I could figure out what they are about. At least I did not run across very many people bitching just for the sake of bitching, like I sometimes find in some of the "higher class" RV parks.
Quartzsite started as a rock and gem show, and that is where they excel. At the time we were there over half of the "booths" were rock exhibits. All over there were displays of some of the finest pieces of rocks and gems I have ever seen. Some of the specimens were absolutly amazing. This crystal was over eight inches in diameter.
We saw ground polished rock balls from marble size to bigger than a basketball. I am not sure what one does with rock balls, but some of my friends might know.
There were a large number of beautifully polished fossils. Of course, these could no longer do a paleontologist any good, but they would make a great conversation piece. You could also find pieces of dinasour bone and petrified wood.
Some of the mineral specimens were spectacular. This piece was about six inches in diameter. Behind you can see some iron concretions and some polished material.
This is a large crystal of chalcopyrite with some calcite crystals in the back. I realized I had forgotten much of what I used to know about rocks and minerals. It was still a delight to view and handle some of these spectacular pieces.
We also had to eat some of the time. Luckily there were some food vendors around.
This stand at the Main Event served a pretty good set of ribs at a reasonable price. They even posed for me.
There were other items for sale, definitely too many to list, but I will give you a couple more samples.
This is a small part of Bob's Cactus shop. There were cactuses of all varieties on the tables throughout the booth. There were some other booths that were selling other kinds of plants.
Amongst the booths were several offering furs from a variety of animals. I did not see anything from endangered species, but there was enough other kinds of furs to keep you happy. In the distance you can also see a balloon and on the other side one of the few palm trees that dotted the area.
I am not sure how long it would take to go to every shop in Quartzsite. Shops are found in the RV parks, on the lawn of McDonalds, and along the side of every road. In addition, there are the big swap meets covering several acres each.
All in all, our time on the desert at Quartzsite was absolutely delightful. The temperature was exactly what it should be, and in the beginning the breezes came up only when they were needed. It was indeed Camelot. Alice had been worrying about boondocking on the desert, but she was seduced as well. We both hope to spend much more time next year in this area, and maybe we will see you there as well.