What to Expect in Quirky Quartzsite: Gems, Expired Groceries, and Swap Meets
April 1, 2021
Travel date January 2021
Quartzsite, in the Sonoran desert of Arizona, is a popular winter destination for RVers and nomads. It is a unique place with sites you won’t see anywhere else. Everyone should visit at least once. This article provides everything you need to know before you visit so you are prepared and know what to expect in Quartzsite.
Quartzsite is known as a snowbird destination among RVers and traveling nomads. The quirky town was featured in the movie Nomadland, which follows the story of a nomad and gives a glimpse into the lifestyle for some.
Quartzsite is a small town in the middle of the Arizona desert with less than 4k residents. But during the winter months, the city grows to over 250k residents with nearly one million people passing through.
We have never seen so many RVs boondocking in one location until we arrived in Quartzsite. The city is surrounded by BLM public lands. From our campfire we counted over 50 rigs in the distance. When driving into town, there were hundreds of more rigs boondocking all over the desert.
What is boondocking on BLM?
Dispersed camping, aka boondocking, aka dry camping is camping without electric, water, or sewer connections. Pippi has solar panels and large storage tanks for fresh water and wastewater so lack of connections doesn’t affect our quality of life. To learn more about how we added solar and upgraded our electrical system, check out this blog.
Dispersed camping on public land is free for everyone, usually with 14 days stay limits to protect the land and prevent permanent residents from dominating the available spots. In Quartzsite, the 14-day stay limit is rarely enforced. The posted rules state camper must move at least 25 miles away after 14 days but I can imagine many RVers bounce around the various BLM spots close to town. If you want to follow the rules when staying longer than 14 days, see below about LTVA.
Quartzsite Fun Facts
The town started as a water hole on the trail from Phoenix to California.
Originally named Tyson Wells but changed to Quartzsite when the discovery of quartzite attracted miners to the area.
Pre-Columbian petroglyphs and grain grinding holes have been discovered throughout the area.
Big Tent RV Show was started in 1983 and was geared to the growing number of snowbirds.
The town’s mascot is a camel.
Quartzsite is also known as quirk-site due to the quirky people it attracts.
The town was the main filming location for the non-fiction book turned movie, Nomadland.
Rubbertramp Rendevous (RTR) is a free annual nomad gathering in the deserts of Quartzsite, organized by the Home on Wheels Alliance.
Camels in Quartzsite: The Story of Hi-Jolly
Quartzsite embraces the quirk and still celebrates the history of Hi Jolly and camels in the area. They hold a Hi Jolly Daze Parade in January to celebrate his legacy. Hi Jolly’s Tomb and Monument is Quartzsite’s top Tripadvisor attraction.
Hadji Ali or “Hi Jolly” was hired by the US Army Experimental Camel Corps in 1857. Jefferson Davis started the project to test transporting people and freight across the desert Southwest using camels. Hi Jolly was Turkish with Greek and Syrian parents and was immigrated along with 70 camels to kick off the project. His primary role in the Army was a camel herder. Sadly, the start of the Civil War caused the Army to abandon their experimental camel program before it could prove viable.
The Army left Hi Jolly and the camels in the Sonoran desert at the end of the project. They stayed until their deaths.
Hi Jolly lived the remainder of his life in Quartzsite. He held several jobs including mining, postal delivery, scouting, packing, and selling water to tourists. Locals built a petrified wood and stone pyramid to honor him at the time of his death.
Camels were last spotted in the area in 1942 but camel photos and statues are posted all around town. Camels on the town sign welcomes hundreds of thousands of RVers each winter.
Why are there so many RVs in Quartzsite AZ?
The attraction of Quartzsite can be unique to each individual. Based on our visit we believe the cheap camping, party atmosphere, mild weather, and area attractions keep drawing winter visitors back year after year.
I observed a social/party atmosphere in Quartzsite where you can meet up with old friends and make new ones. The desert is vast and groups can meet up without reserving campsites or worrying about finding a space large enough to accommodate everyone. During our stay, our group ranged between three to nine rigs. We enjoyed campfires chats and cookouts with new and old friends in Quartzsite.
Kevin joined friends on an offroad trip to the Desert Bar, north of Parker. The Desert Bar is another quirky location. It is a remote solar-powered bar that is only open on weekends. It is a very popular spot but is only accessible by dirt roads with two options. There is an easy route for low clearance vehicles or a back route for 4×4 vehicles and OHVs.
Warm Winters and Beautiful Sunsets
Quartzsite winters are very mild and we enjoyed sunny 70 degree days and cool 50 degree nights in January. It was great camping weather. Our favorite part of camping in the desert was the sunsets. Most days, the sunsets lit up the evening sky with a rainbow of color. A friend told us the dust particles in the air make the desert sunsets extraordinary.
Quartzsite has developed over the years into a winter destination and commerce has followed. Well, sort of.
Quartzsite is an industrious little desert town with most of its businesses operating in non-traditional structures. Most are tents and temporary. We saw more permanent shops that looked like storage units with big roll-up doors. A local told me the tents don’t require the same permits to operate as permanent structures.
The town is quite small with few permanent shops and restaurants however in the winter this changes. Semi-permanent tents pop up all over town including several large markets with food tents, rock vendors, and more resellers than you can imagine. Shopping in Quartzsite is bizarre and should be experienced first hand. Many of the returning winter visitors have also established membership clubs in town to keep themselves busy. Also, the January RV show attracts thousands of visitors.
Cheap and Free Camping in Quartzsite
The tiny town has been called an RV Mecca but I won’t go that far. Thousands of RVers flock to Quartzsite for the abundance of free or cheap camping and the freedom of desert living.
Quartzsite has many private campgrounds in and around town. A campground with hookups is the most expensive option available but is still quite affordable. Monthly prices were posted as low as $200 for full hook up campsites. We didn’t see any resort style campgrounds in Quartzsite so expect basic gravel lots with neighbors nearby.
Cheap Dry Camping
The La Posa LTVA, Long Term Visitor Area, is operated by the Bureau of Land Management and offers dry camping with access to trash dumpsters, RV dump station, and freshwater for a few bucks a day.
Annual winter passes are $180 and allow continuous use from September 15th until April 15th. Shorter-term passes are available at $40 for 14 days. Annual summer passes are $75 and allow continuous use from April 15th to September 15th but hot summers make the area less desirable during this period. Passes are valid at all LTVA locations in California and Arizona. The LTVA is ideal for those who want to stay more than 14 days without worrying about the standard BLM stay limits and for visitors that have tank capacity limitations.
One of the LTVA areas even has a clothing optional camping section called The Magic Circle. That is quirky Quartzsite at its finest. There are signs posted along the road so visitors know what to expect and don’t stumble upon naked campers in Quartzsite.
We joined friends at Plomosa Road BLM and camped for free just a few miles from Quartzsite. Plomosa Road is a very popular spot and offers easy access to wide-open desert from the paved road. We saw numerous groups meeting up along Plomosa Road.
There are many other free camping options in Quartzsite that are available on Campendium.
What to know before you go to Quartzsite?
Despite the free and cheap camping in Quartzsite, there are a few inconveniences of the small town. The town infrastructure was built for the few thousand residents and struggles to keep up when the population surges to several hundred thousand in January. Traffic can be stop and roll during peak times and parking can be hard to find at local shops.
RV Logistics to know before you go
The biggest issues of living in an RV are everyday tasks like getting mail or finding a place to properly dispose of your waste. Here are a few of the RV logistics about Quartzsite to know before you go.
If you are looking for some depressing and funny stories, ask fellow RVers about getting mail delivered in Quartzsite. The local post office isn’t adequately staffed to handle the surge of winter visitors. They offer general delivery but packages can only be picked up a couple of hours per day and the wait can be up to an hour-long in January. Based on online reviews, I knew what to expect at the Quartzsite post office and chose to drive a little further to avoid it altogether.
We used the general delivery service in nearby Blythe CA. Blythe is less than half an hour away and picking up our mail was quick and painless. We multitasked and added shopping in the larger city while there. To learn more about getting general delivery or other options for mail on the road, check out the tips and tricks in our How To Get Mail While Traveling blog.
Laundry & Showers
Water hungry tasks like laundry and showers are sometimes better done offsite even for RVers with their own showers and washing machines. We saw people camping in tents and cars so their only option for these tasks were in town.
Some of the private campgrounds offer laundry rooms for their guests however BLM campers all use the few laundromats in town. The largest is Main Street Laundry and the laundromat roof sign can be spotted from the intersection of Highway 95 and Main Street. There is a smaller option, Palm Plaza Laundromat, on Highway 95 but I recommend being brave and joining the crowds at Main Street Laundry. Prices were the same at both locations on our visit but Main Street has about quadruple the total number of machines as Palm Plaza.
Main Street Laundry is huge and the parking lot was crowded every time we drove by. I went mid-day on a weekday and had no trouble finding empty washers. For under $10, I was able to wash and dry a couple of weeks’ worth of clothes, sheets, and towels.
Main Street Laundry offers twenty minute hot showers for $9 per person. They also rent big plush bath towels. I don’t know anyone who has used the showers so I don’t know what to expect with the public showers at Main Street Laundry in Quartzsite. The other shower options are the nearby truckstops (Pilot and Loves) which are more expensive unless using rewards credits. However, the most expensive option is booking a single night at a local campsite to use the campground’s facilities.
We had sufficient AT&T signal in Quartzsite to work and stream video in January. After hearing horror stories of overburdened cellular networks being too slow to use, we did expect to have connectivity issues in Quartzsite. We didn’t have any friends mention poor data connectivity either so this issue appears to have been resolved or not relevant on Plomosa Road.
Handling Waste: Trash and RV Tanks
Quartzsite makes it easy for RVers to dispose of their waste with a free trash dump and a one-stop shop for propane, dump and water.
Trash and Recycling
Quartzsite has a county transfer station that accepts trash and mixed recycling from Sunday to Wednesday from 7:30 am until 2:30 pm. There is no charge to drop off trash. The facility is located on Highway 95 between Plomosa Road and town and can be easily accessed in big rigs. We found the location and service convenient but the limited hours were a hassle.
In our travels, we’ve visited locations that didn’t offer trash disposal to non-residents and the public lands around these were full of trash. La Paz County’s transfer station in Quartzsite is a great service that greatly reduces the amount of illegal dumping in the area.
Dumping RV Waste Tanks
If staying at La Posa LTVA, on-site RV dump access is included in the price. Also, some of the local campgrounds offer RV dumps and fresh water refills for a small fee. However, the primary RV dump in Quartzsite is the RV Pitstop. It is a busy place during January but it is a one-stop-shop for all of your RV tank needs.
They offer campsites, RV dump, freshwater (filtered well water or RO drinking water), and propane. RV dump prices are based on rig size and range from $5 to $18. Expect to pay a few dollars extra for access to a water hose to flush your tank. We paid $5 to fill our large onboard tank with filtered well water. They run an efficient operation with rigs moving through quickly. To speed the process, and since they already use filtration, they do not allow customers to filter the water as they fill their tanks. Like much of Quartzsite, RV Pitstop does not accept credit cards and only accepts cash payments.
Propane was available at many locations around town but the price was consistent at all.
Grocery Options in Quartzsite
We did not expect many grocery options in Quartzsite and stocked up before arriving. The most comprehensive grocery store is Roadrunner Market. They have a small deli, butcher, and produce section. Don’t expect unique or specialty products but you can definitely buy a week’s worth of groceries here. We have vegan and keto friends who were happy to shop at Roadrunner.
Several other shops in town sell limited groceries such as Coyote Market, Dollar General, Family Dollar, and Ken’s Discount Grocery. But I wouldn’t expect to find everything you need at any of these. Roadrunner is your best bet for the closest to a full grocery store in town. If you are willing to drive a little further, within half an hour drive is Parker, AZ or Blythe, CA. Both towns offer multiple supermarket options and Parker has a Super Walmart.
What to Do in Quartzsite
For a small town with only a few shops, Quartzsite doesn’t lack free or cheap attractions. Here is a quick round-up of what to do in and near Quartzsite.
Shopping in Quartzsite
Quartzsite has tons of shopping opportunities if you willing to pay cash at a tent. Honestly, the experience is just part of the Quartzsite quirkiness. Embrace it and check out some of the top spots.
Tyson Wells Area
The Tyson Wells market is a large area full of vendors ranging from kitchen supplies and tools to gemstones. The main show is called the Tyson Wells Swap Meet. A swap meet is another term used for flea markets or garage sales. Most of the items for sale in Tyson Wells are new but some are pre-owned. It’s unlike anything else I’ve seen in it’s massive scale and randomness of products available.
Scratch and Dent Grocery at Tyson Wells
Our favorite tent at Tyson Wells was the Scratch and Dent Grocery Tent. The tent accepts cash or check. They offer surplus groceries that can sometimes be past or close to expiring. Many of the products are not nearing expirations but do check the dates.
It is fairly well organized and some great deals can be found. My best deal was a can of Bush’s Cuban flavored beans for $0.50. They are triple the price at Walmart. While in Quartzsite, don’t expect to do your grocery shopping here because fresh products are really limited. It is more of a fun detour to see what deals you can find.
Adult Daycare : Beer Belly’s
After browsing Tyson Wells for a deal, stop at Beer Belly’s for refreshment. It is another quirky Quartzsite attraction. Beer Belly’s is an outdoor patio bar with a big sign out front for Adult Daycare. We enjoyed the live music, cold beer, and $1 happy hour hamburgers at Randy’s food truck.
The burgers weren’t anything amazing but they were full-sized burgers served with grilled onions for $1 from 4 pm until 6 pm. We recommend “splurging” $3 for a side of tater tots with the burger. However, we saw many people ordering multiple burgers with nothing else. At $1 you can’t beat the price. Insider tip – you can add cheese to the burger for $0.25.
Randy’s Burgers did accept credit cards but Beer Belly’s bar is cash only.
Quartzsite Farmers Market
The Farmers Market is only two tents located in front of Ken’s Discount Grocery. We purchased a quart of local mesquite honey for $8 and are still enjoying it several months later. Do not expect to stock up on produce at the Quartzsite Farmers Market. In January, the only other items for sale at the Farmers Market were coffee, breads, and Medjool dates.
Ken’s Discount Grocery
Ken’s Discount Grocery is located in a permanent metal building and offers mostly expired grocery items. Beef jerky packages 3 for $5 was the best bargain for us. We found the selection at the Scratch and Dent grocery tent at Tyson Well to be much broader. Like most of Quartzsite, Ken’s only accepts cash.
During our time in Quartzsite, I was teaching myself WordPress website design and wanted a few specific books. We visited Readers Oasis Bookstore because the online reviews said it was a Quartzsite must-see location and I was hoping to find at least one of the books on my wish list. Sadly, the infamous naked bookseller passed away in 2019 and is no longer the main attraction at Readers Oasis.
I love visiting bookshops on our travels but this was the quirkiest one by far. Readers Oasis is open-air and most books were in plastic sleeves to protect from the desert dust. Also, there were several local authors with tents in front of the shop promoting and signing their books.
I didn’t find anything on my list. Readers Oasis is a good place to visit with an open mind. But don’t visit expecting to buy a specific title while in Quartzsite.
What to Expect at Quartzsite Shows in January
With a town bulging with winter RVers, Quartzsite take full advantage of the potential consumers by holding multiple trade and craft shows during January. Expect crowds and busy parking lots if you visit these shows in Quartzsite. Early weekday mornings tend to be less crowded.
QIA Craft Faire – 1st Saturday of the month
On the first Saturday of the month, the Quartzsite Improvement Association holds a craft faire and yard sale. Admission is free. The craft faire is held inside the QIA building and is worth visiting to browse the goods for sale by the local talented crafters. To raise money for the QIA, a snack bar offers an affordable hot breakfast during the faire.
Big Tent RV Show
In mid-January, an RV show sets up next to Tyson Wells. It is often called the Big Tent show however it is not a large RV show. Actually, it is tiny compared to the Tampa Supershow, also held in January, but it is worth an hour or two if you are in Quartzsite.
Admission is free and they had several RVs available for touring in addition to dozens of vendors in the Big Tent. We spent less than an hour wandering around the tent and an hour or two touring RVs on a separate day. Our group of six RVers only purchased an RV tank treatment, Happy Camper, that can easily be purchased on Amazon.
If you’ve been to other RV shows, do not expect a large number of vendors or RV manufacturers in Quartzsite as many of the national brands are not represented, especially during a COVID year. However, the tent and RVs can get crowded during peak times, so arriving early is recommended to miss the crowds.
Quartzsite Pow Wow Rock and Gem Show
Roundhounds, aka rock enthusiasts, travel from across the country for the Arizona gem and mineral shows. The Quartzsite Pow Wow Rock and Gem Show is held towards the end of January annually. With over 400 vendors, daily attendance during the five-day show exceeds 10k.
Join a Quartzsite Club
If you are in Quartzsite for more than a week in winter, there are many local clubs you can join to stay engaged and entertained.
Quartzsite Improvement Association
Check out the Quartzsite Improvement Association which offers exercise, educational, and crafting classes daily. Annual membership is less than $20 and provides access to an abundance of classes and social activities.
Roadrunner Gem and Mineral Club
I joined the Roadrunner Gem and Mineral Club and would highly recommend it to anyone interested in learning a new skill. The annual membership fee is $20 and grants you access to all of their workshops and classes, including gem finishing, silversmithing, beading, leather crafting, and lapidary (stone finishing). I attended silversmithing classes ($4 plus materials per half-day session) at the club and made four silver rings and a pendant while in Quartzsite. The classes exceeded my expectations for a hobby club in the tiny town of Quartzsite.
I love learning new skills and would highly recommend this volunteer-run organization. New member orientation is held every Thursday morning at 8am.
Hiking in Quartzsite
If camping in the desert in Quartzsite, you are literally surrounded by hiking opportunities.
Walk the Quartzsite Neighborhood: Expect Sore Feet
We walked around Plomosa Road most days and enjoyed the warm weather and exercise. The ground is uneven and rocky and walks can be painful in soft soled shoes. In my sturdy hiking boots, the rocks still bothered my feet after several days of walking.
Palm Canyon Hike
Half an hour south of town in the Kofa National Wilderness is the Palm Canyon Trail. It is a one-mile out-and-back hike to view a palm oasis among the canyons. The drive to the trailhead is several miles along a washboard dirt road but manageable in passenger vehicles. The walk to the palm viewpoint is well marked and easy walking.
A few of our group decided to hike further into the canyon to get closer to the palms. They never made it to the palms and said their route was strenuous requiring some scrambling.
Buckskin Mountain State Park
North of Parker Arizona, Buckskin Mountain State Park offers several hiking and biking trails. We parked at the nearby Desert Bar 4×4 road and walked 5.4 miles along the Buckskin Gulch and Market Trails.
The trails are well marked along rolling hills and were easy walking with great views of the Colorado River.
Knowing What to Expect is Key to a Quartzsite visit
Quartzsite lives up to its quirky reputation but it’s a rite of passage for RVers. Everyone should visit at least once. Many RVers come back year after year because of the free camping, social atmosphere, mild winter weather, and the unique attractions in the area. Enjoying Quartzsite is all about knowing what to expect and keeping an open mind.