Pass through the small hamlet of Quartzsite, Arizona, in the summer, and you may think nothing happens in this flat desert town. But come winter, the entire area bustles with activity—and not just from tumbleweeds.
During the two months, RVers come by the thousands to camp (called "boondocking" here) in the temperate if fairly primitive desert conditions. Yet, there's another reason people descend in droves during the winter: a love of geology.
Quartzsite, with its unusual concentration of collectible gems, minerals, and precious metals, has been a rock hound's paradise since the 1960s. It swells in population each winter thanks to more than 1 million visitors, most of whom converge on the small town in a wave of RVs during January and February. The Desert USA website explains the draw:
“Eight major gem and mineral shows as well as vendors of raw and handcrafted merchandise peddle their wares to snowbirds, collectors and enthusiasts.”
Located in the Sonoran Desert of western Arizona, Quartzsite sits just 18 miles east of the Colorado River on Interstate 10. The 125-mile trip takes about two hours from Phoenix; the town is also easy to reach from Los Angeles in under five hours by car.
The annual show season runs from October through April, though the main events take place in January and February. If you like gems and minerals, hit the sales during the big “rock hound” events when you can find collectible geodes, crystals, and even fossilized bones from around the globe. Antique hunters score at the swap meets, and you can find unusual handmade items and one-of-a-kind jewelry at the nearly constant craft shows. Add in a mix of classic car shows, chili cook-offs, and RV shows and sales, and Crazy Quartzsite keeps your social calendar full.
Check the Quartzsite calendar so you can come during the events that most interest you. Grab a copy of The Desert Star newspaper when you get to town for more up-to-date news and ads.
How does a town in the Sonoran Desert, hundreds of miles from the nearest body of water, gain the largest yacht-club membership in the world? Back in the 1970s, Al Madden opened the Quartzsite Yacht Club Restaurant Bar & Grill and started selling memberships as a joke. By 2010, more than 10,000 people representing every state and numerous countries around the world had become card-carrying members of the Quartzsite Yacht Club.
What to Expect
Be prepared for traffic during the height of the season; I-10 frequently gets backed up in January and February.
It’s dusty out there in the desert, and most shopping takes place outdoors in makeshift tents along rows of RVs. The wind can pick up or a rainstorm can move in suddenly, so be prepared with a jacket, sturdy outdoor clothes, and walking shoes.
If you're not prepared to bed down in an RV, a handful of chain hotels operate in Quartzsite. You can also stay on the west side of Phoenix and venture into Quartzsite as a day trip.