Anyone who travels a lot by RV eventually hears about Quartzsite, Arizona. Reputedly the biggest RV phenomenon in North America—maybe in the entire world—it started with an enthusiast rock swap and grew into a massive snowbird pilgrimage.
To those who have only heard of “Quartzsite” as an RV phenomenon, it may appear as mysterious as the Bermuda Triangle. The dusty little Arizona outpost is north of Yuma, two hours west of Phoenix, just across the Colorado River from Blythe, California, and not really near anything. Rumors about it border on legend. Various sources claim anywhere from one to four million visitors every winter, which is often exaggerated to “a million RVs” parked in the desert.
While there certainly aren’t a million RVs at any given time, there’s no question tens of thousands come to park in one of the 60-odd RV parks and enormous open BLM lands that surround the town of Quartzsite. Nobody really knows how many RVs come, but certainly there are tens of thousand in peak season from January through March. It has been variously called a “Senior Citizen Pow-Wow,” “Burning Man for Boomers,” “Woodstock in the Desert,” and “The World’s Largest Flea Market.”
At its core, Quartzsite is a boondocker’s paradise. In the BLM-administered La Posa Long Term Visitor Area (LTVA), you can pay just $180 for a seven-month season of camping from September 15 to April 15. According to BLM, an average of 8,650 LTVA permits are sold each year near Quartzsite.
There are no assigned spaces, no hookups, and hardly any roads. For your money you get access to potable water, sparsely scattered pit toilets, a dump station and trash bins. Pick a site from the 11,400 acres of open land and you’re home.
Park for free
If you are really on a budget, you can park for free a few miles from town in non-LTVA areas administered by BLM. The only catch here is that the amenities are miles away, and technically you are supposed to stay only 14 days. No doubt many hardy souls hang around longer, commuting back and forth to town for what they need and hoping the overburdened BLM staff don’t notice.
No doubt also that many could afford to pay for a full-service campground for the entire season if they wanted to, but they seem to get a thrill from staying somewhere for virtually nothing. As one desert boondocker snorted when another visitor said he was going to buy a short-term permit to stay at South La Posa LTVA for two weeks (a whopping $2.85 per day): “Sure, if you want to waste money!”
An exercise in self-sufficiency
No matter which option you choose, once you’ve chosen your own little spot in the desert, surrounded by creosote bushes and (mostly) white boxes, you are king of your domain, free from real estate taxes, utility bills, campground fees, fuel prices, neighborhood associations, and snow. There is something to be savored in the feeling of having very little of civilization around you. It is an exercise in self-sufficiency and perhaps stubborn nature to stay the entire season, but thousands do it and thrive on the experience.
All Airstream and RV owners welcome
They come in motorhomes, trailers, fifth wheels, converted buses and vans, and in tents. There are rugged individualists, small groups banded together (circling the wagons, in a modern way), and large groups, all parked in the desert to feel the Quartzsite vibe. Some have been coming for years, returning to a favorite site, which they have marked with rock-lined drives (although “saving” unoccupied sites is not allowed under BLM rules). Long-term visitors often expand their domains to include screened “porches” and massive solar panel arrays.
World’s Largest Flea Market
Being close to town means being close to Interstate 10, the basic amenities that Quartzsite provides, and several giant flea markets which are the center of attention. Going by names such as Rice Ranch, Tyson Wells, The Main Event, and Desert Gardens, the open-air marketplaces host a variety of “shows.” These are actually a series of events that run through the winter, specializing in hobbies and crafts, gems and minerals, jewelry, classic cars, and RVs. Most are like Florida flea markets, riddled with an indescribable variation of new and old products far beyond their title, plus all the snack foods of a county fair. A lot of annual visitors simply say, “We’re going to the show,” and their RV friends know they mean Quartzsite.
The town itself features all the basic services of a southwestern desert highway stop: gas stations, barbecue restaurants, and seedy little grocery stores (several of which are run from tent-sided buildings during the season). Owing to the heavy RV emphasis there are also several places to get propane, RV supplies, and used or cheap tools.
Interested in visiting Quartzsite some day? Check out Part 2 of this series to be published in a future edition of Outside Interests, for more tips on what to do and how to prepare.