What do you get when you cross one million snowbirds and desert rats, and add blocks of swap-meet junk? You get Quartzsite, AZ, in January.
Starting in the fall, tens of thousands of bargain hunters head their RV’s to the western Arizona town of 3,643. Most choose dry camping on surrounding federal Bureau of Land Management desert, seen for miles in any direction. Find a spot in the sand, and there’s your campsite.
In the middle of it all is the big white exhibition tent, the size of Bing Crosby Hall at the Del Mar Fair. Add numerous RV dealers showing off their latest rigs, and blocks of swap meet tents and makeshift sales tables. It’s so huge I couldn’t get to most of it in my three-day visit.
A picker's paradise
On Main Street to the north, and Kuehn Street to the south, both paralleling the I-10, you'll find acres of makeshift pop-up tent sales booths. Some just park an old RV, throw out a table, and sell their stuff. Most anything can be sold in Quartzsite as long as you obtain a $50 seller permit from the city. It’s a picker’s paradise. It's not billed as such, but it has to be the largest swap meet in the world.
Quartzsite is famous to rock hounds, with many stores offering gems and mineral rocks from around the world. Upon stopping at T-Rocks, right off I-10 at the Quartzsite Boulevard (Exit #17) I gazed upon hundreds of bins and tables with categorized rocks. Who knew there were so many shades of quartz? I thought I bought some turquoise... but it very well could have been blue-dyed gravel. The only rock I probably should have had an interest in was "Leaverite", as in leave'er right there – an often-repeated joke among Quartzsite folks.
Being in the sunny desert, sellers have no problem leaving all their stuff outside. Because the wind blows, everything outside – cars, antiques, junk, and even some people – are covered with a light coating of dust. Even stuff sold in what looked to be permanent buildings had dust all over the merchandise. But almost nothing is permanent in Quartzsite.
If you go
By March, the weather will start to heat up and most the snowbirds, swap meet’ers, food stands, and RV dealers will be gone. By July, when temperatures can reach 120 degrees, the only thing left will be a few restaurants and gas stations. And a few broken down RV’s left like sunken ships, but in desert sand.
Some junk stores, rock or jewelry shops brave the heat and wind, and stay open year-round. It’s worth a stop anytime if you happen to be driving through, even just for gas – usually 50 cents less than across-the-border Blythe, CA.
November through February are the big months, but January is when the big exhibition tent is up, and the local Chamber of Commerce and the Quartzsite Improvement Association hosts several concerts, gem and mineral shows, and a Pow Wow.