Quartzsite, AZ or Burning Man for RVers

When I first started reading blogs about RVing, I kept coming across the name Quartzsite. It sounded like a mythical place where hundreds of thousands of RVers converge in late January for weeks of fun in the sun, sort of like Burning Man without the outdoor sculpture. Most everyone we talked to who had been to “Q”, as it’s called, said that it was a must-do on our itinerary of the southwest.

Quartzsite is located in far west central Arizona near the California border in the middle of a very rocky desert – hence the name. It is known for its abundance of minerals such as the eponymous quartz, but also amethyst, geodes, fossils and other fancy rocks. Winter weather is reliably good, and in mid-January there is a large “big tent” RV show. These things, combined with free or cheap camping explain why so many RVers descend here every year.

RVers have been coming to Quartzsite for a long time and camping on the abundant public lands in the area. To better handle the influx, the Bureau of Land Management, which is caretaker for much of the government-owned land here, has created large designated camping areas, setting aside thousands of acres for dry camping (aka “boondocking”, with no water or power hookups). Just the La Posa site we stayed at is over 11,000 acres in size, so there’s room for a small city of RVers. The BLM has set up two types of camping areas: 14-day (free camping, no services), and the Long Term Visitor Area (access to water, dump station, trash pickup), for which a permit is required. Permits cost $40 for two weeks, or for $180 you can stay for the entire winter season. We had never boondocked before (not counting overnight parking at Cracker Barrel) and had wanted to try it out to see what it was like. And the Quartzsite LTVA is about the easiest, lowest risk way to do so.

McDowell Mtn and Quartzsite iPhone-13

BLM Camping

The first question we had to address was, where in these thousands of acres should we park? At a state park things are very well defined, and choosing a site is a simple matter of choosing one that is level, has the nicest view, or is quietest. I had looked at maps and Google Earth to try to understand the topography Q was, but it wasn’t until I set eyes on it that I began to understand the vastness of it and the subtle tradeoffs involved in choosing a site.

We had made a point of arriving a week before the RV show, when it would be much less crowded (many people come just for the show). As newbies, we thought we wanted to be reasonably close to the water/dump station and the “big tent”, but not too close, so we turned off US-95 at the first LTVA entrance, stopped at the BLM gate to get our permit, drove past the first dirt road turnoff and then turned off the gravel road at the next intersection. We later learned that we had turned onto a “bar”, so-named because of its resemblance to a sand bar, although instead of sand it is composed of a reasonably smooth field of rocks. The desert here consists of bars like this one, which are surrounded on both sides by either a wash (natural drainage ditch) or flat plains of creosote and palo verde trees. We drove to the end of the bar, found a large empty space and dropped anchor.

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Our “bar”

As we met our new neighbors (there were maybe ten other RVs parked on our bar, which was about the size of a football field) we learned that most had been coming to this spot for years, some for decades. Like anything else, once you get to know your neighbors and develop a routine around a place, your little patch of desert becomes “home”. Some boondockers have gone as far as marking the boundaries of their “property” with rocks, decorating it with a rock garden, bird feeders and lights. So in selecting a spot there is a bit of common-sense etiquette involved: if it looks like someone’s home, but nobody is parked there yet, it would be good karma to pass it by and look for another spot. Even though this is public land, people can get quite territorial about “their” campsite. That’s not how it’s supposed to work, but staking claim seems to be part of human nature. Even though the spot we chose was wide open and unmarked, we initially felt like we were intruding a bit on a well-established community, but as we (well, as Maureen) got to know our neighbors we felt very welcome in our temporary home.

And like any neighborhood, as the week went on we learned some of our neighbors’ stories:

  • Gary and Claudia – from Montana, sold their house and possessions a few years ago and moved into a fifth wheel trailer (started living “this full-time RVing bullsh*t” to quote Gary), have been coming to Q for years, Claudia is fighting cancer, recently underwent chemo, drives their ATV to a restaurant job in town, Gary goes prospecting for gold every day, has found maybe $400 worth of gold flakes in his lifetime
  • Mike and Sheila – also coincidentally from Montana, Mike used to work for the railroad and is retired now, goes prospecting with Gary in his ATV, plays a pretty good bluegrass banjo, Sheila used to work in the schools, simple but solid folk
  • Larry and Peggy – retired couple from Minnesota, have been bringing their now-vintage trailer down to Q for a long time, Larry doesn’t hear too well, practices “river golf” (more on that later) every day, generously loaned me a voltmeter, most days Peggy sits in the shade of an awning and reads
  • Ross – a widower who lost his wife last year, had been coming down here with her in his now very-vintage trailer for decades, hears less-well than Larry, also goes ATVing with the guys, had his birthday the week we were there and none of his children called to wish him a happy one

What do these vignettes mean? Not much, except that RVers are like everybody else, each of us with a story. We cross paths for a few days or weeks, fellow travelers with some common interests, some different, just trying to enjoy life, but while on the road.

We also had no idea that ATVing was so “yuuuuge” in Quartzsite. Sometimes it seemed like we were about the only people without one. And anything to do with rocks and rock collecting is very popular.

The town of Quartzsite itself is essentially an overgrown truck stop, with a full-time population of 3600 that swells to 200,000 during the peak winter months. In addition to RVers, we saw a lot of people in town that were not very well off, including so-called “rainbow people” who seem to live in their cars or brightly painted school buses. Besides gas stations there are a few businesses that cater to RVers, such as RV parks, propane/water filling stations, RV repair and solar panel dealers.

McDowell Mtn and Quartzsite iPhone-20-1

She never gets tired of holding that sign

As for the RV show itself, it consists of the “big tent” which is surrounded by a temporary new RV dealership lot and a flea market selling all types of RV-related merchandise. Inside the tent there were some RV-related vendors, selling tire pressure monitors, cleaning supplies, RV resorts, LED light bulbs, satellite TV and the like, but frankly I was disappointed that the selection wasn’t better, and that there were so many hustlers selling everything from cheap jewelry to microfiber towels, as you would find at any flea market. We were told that there used to be a much wider variety and extent of small vendors outside the tent, but apparently they have been chased away in favor of the big RV dealers. Some long-time visitors bemoan losing the character that these vendors used to provide, but from what we saw we didn’t miss much.

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Inside the “big tent”

Anecdotally, many told us that attendance to the show was down this year. Theories ranged from the continuing sluggish economy, to changing demographics, to the weakness of the Canadian dollar. Who knows? It still seemed pretty busy to me.

Besides the RV show, we did get some hiking in on the many hills around town.

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Dome Rock hiking

Another popular activity in the area is geocaching, which we tried out for the first time.

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We found it!

We decided to skip the weekly karaoke night put on by folks at the end of our bar.

Thursday Pot Luck and Karaoke

Thursday Pot Luck and Karaoke

I also took a pass on “river golf”, which consisted essentially of chipping a golf ball through the wash until you hit the hole, which was a Coke can.

Not a water hazard

Not a water hazard

We took a day trip to Yuma to explore the area (Yuma is probably where your fresh bagged greens come from). And we enjoyed the regularly scheduled, postcard-perfect sunsets.

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Pretty much every evening was like this

But our most memorable times were probably the impromptu meetups we had with members of Escapees (an organization primarily serving the needs of full-time RVers), Boomers (a group of Escapees members that are mostly Baby Boomers), Xscapers (a subgroup within Escapees for working-age RVers), and our neighbors.

Quartzsite - McDowell - Chicago-36

In addition to happy hours, the Escapees hosted interest group discussions on things like boondocking and RV refrigeration, and the Xscapers hosted sessions on working on the road. But after the “official” Xscapers activities ended was when the real fun began. The group decamped to a secluded location in the Dome Rock BLM area that was much quieter than their original site, something they dubbed the Xscampment. We joined them for one amazing night: two of the Xscapers are Cherie Ve Ard and Chris Dunphy, the authors of the blog Technomadia. Cherie and Chris have a vintage GM bus, and they attached a movie screen to the side of it, aimed an LED projector at the screen, rented “The Martian” on iTunes, sent out a Facebook invitation to the Xscapers group, and hours later about 30 of us were seated in the desert, watching the film (which has a lot in common with boondocking, by the way). This sort of informal gathering and use of technology to facilitate it is how the Xscapers roll. We loved being part of it.

Magical Movie Night in the Desert

Magical Movie Night in the Desert

On another night our banjo-playing neighbor Mike, who separately had met former professional bluegrass guitarist Glenn, invited us to a campfire sing-along, where they played and we sang (badly) bluegrass tunes under the stars for hours.

Sing around the campfire

Sing around the campfire

As for the dry camping itself, for our first experience boondocking, it went better than expected. We carefully managed our water by using paper plates, not showering every day (often enough, OK?), and occasionally topping off our fresh water by filling a 5 gallon jerry can at the water station and transferring that to our fresh water tank. Our solar panel did a good job of replenishing our batteries, with the occasional supplement from our generator. Once a week we headed to the dump station; lines weren’t terribly long the first time, but on the day of our departure we waited about 45 minutes.

Fresh water is scarce in the desert

Fresh water is scarce in the desert

For internet access we used our Verizon hot spot (the Quartzsite public library was overrun and had near-useless WiFi), plus our cell phones, which have grandfathered unlimited data plans. A few times we drove to Blythe, CA – about 30 minutes away – to replenish groceries and do laundry (the Q grocery stores and laundromat were “rustic”, shall we say). In all, we were impressed with our resourcefulness.

Will we be back to Quartzsite? It’s hard to say. The RV show by itself was not worth the trip, and the boondocking experience here was maybe a little rougher than we would have liked. Living on the “bar” meant dealing with some dust and grit. But the weather was spectacular, the price was right, and the opportunity for unplanned, spontaneous happenings like we had with the Xscapers and our neighbors means that coming to Quartzsite was a unique experience worth doing.

And now that we’re no longer boondocking newbies, if we come back we might park in a slightly more picturesque spot and seek out more opportunities for get-togethers like those we had with the Xscapers. Going forward we now have the confidence to mix boondocking in with state/regional/national/RV parks, either as a change of pace or to save a few dollars. It just adds to the feeling of freedom we get from RVing, which in the end, is what this lifestyle is all about.

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