What is a Quartzsite?

They’re gathering again. They’ve been rolling in since November by the thousands. Most of them camp in the desert that surrounds a town that’s essentially a truck stop on Interstate 10. By mid-January, they’ll transform the place into Arizona’s third largest city.

If you can't find it in Quartzsite, it doesn't exist! © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This little Arizona town has become famous for luring Snowbirds who like to browse amid recreational vehicles and RV products; and gems, minerals, crafts, and hobby shows—and the “mother of all swap meets.”

The season lasts from late November through March with the biggest shows in January and February.

OK, but what’s so what’s so great about Quartzsite?

Many times I’ve tried to describe Quartzsite to people who haven’t been there, but it’s impossible for them to imagine.

As you descend the last pass into the valley, at first glance, it appears you’ve come across an unmapped city in the desert—there are thousands of small buildings spread out everywhere. But then you realize that these are not buildings—they’re recreational vehicles of every type, size, and vintage. And wherever you look, you see them. It’s the Woodstock of the Snowbird set!

Just where is this gem of a town? Quartzsite is beyond Hope. Heading west toward Quartzsite, you’ll go beyond Hope, Arizona.

Boondocking on BLM land near Quartzsite. Note the solar panel. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Quartzsite is 125 miles west of Phoenix at the junction of Interstate 10 and U.S. Highway 95, roughly 25 miles from the Colorado River which separates the states of Arizona and California.

Some snowbirds will enjoy the reservations they made last year at one of the full-service RV parks in town. Others will slip their rigs into rows of rectangles at no-hookup campgrounds. The vast majority will stake out a claim in the boonies somewhere on 20,000 or so acres of federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land.

According to the locals, the population swells from about 2,100 in the summer to over a million in the winter. Be warned, though. You don’t want to come in the summer. The gypsy-like encampment will have long disappeared and temperatures often exceed 110 degrees.

According to history of the region, the first European to take an interest in the area was Charles Tyson. He built a fort in 1856 to protect his water supply against Indian raids. He appropriately named it Fort Tyson. The fort soon became a stopover on the Ehrenberg-to-Prescott stagecoach route and became known as Tyson’s Well. The stage stopped running and the town was abandoned.

A camel driver named Hahji Ali came to Arizona in the mid-1850s with a large number of camels, which had been ordered by the U.S. Army as an experiment. He was called “Hi Jolly” by the locals, because that’s what his Syrian name sounded like to them. The Army hoped to employ the camels as beasts of burden in the desert country. But, camels were not compatible with the Army’s mules and the entire plan was junked in 1863. Hi Jolly kept a few camels and the rest were auctioned off. His plan was to operate a freighting business between Colorado River port cities and the mining camps to the east. His grave is now the centerpiece of the Hi Jolly Cemetery in Quartzsite. When you visit, you will find a large pyramid made of stones from the area and topped by a copper camel.

The Hi Jolly Monument is a reminder of the unsuccessful attempt to use camels as beasts of burden in the Sonoran Desert. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If the name Hi Jolly sounds familiar, it may be that you once sang the song. “Hi Jolly, the Camel Driver,” while sitting around a campfire at summer camp.

In 1867, a town called “Quartzsite” was established on the site of the old fort. The name was an easy moniker as the area was dotted with quartz and quartzite but the post office inadvertently added an “s” and it’s been Quartzsite ever since.

Set in the midst of the Sonoran Desert, Quartzsite has its own peculiar beauty that most first-timers will tell you, “kinda grows on you.” Desert wildlife and plants are unique and varied in this area and include saguaro cactus, the roadrunner, quail, dove, cactus wren, mule deer, and mountain sheep.

There are plenty of sightseeing venues—the local chamber office distributes a map with dozens of places to visit. Nearby Palm Canyon, in the Kofa Mountains, is famous for being the only place in Arizona where native palms grow.

More on Quartzsite tomorrow…

Worth Pondering…

Quartzsite = $400,000 diesel pusher motorhomes towing $40,000 SUVs looking for free camping.

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