Quartzsite AZ: Visiting this Quirky Desert Town

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Out in the middle of nowhere—between Phoenix and the California border—you’ll find a quirky little desert town named Quartzsite. The town is filled with quirky:

  • The population of 3,700 swells to two million each winter
  • One of the main attractions in Quartzsite is a little cemetery with a monument to a Syrian camel driver
  • People come from near and far to check out the annual swap meet full of rocks, minerals, and oddities
  • Folks gladly put down $49.99 for a yacht club membership, even though there are no boats in the middle of the desert
  • More recently, the little desert town figures prominently in the Academy-award-winning movie, Nomadland?

Quartzsite, AZ is just off I-10 about two hours west of Phoenix, and it’s now famous. Here are some of my favorite things about the quirky desert town of Quartzsite, AZ.

 

Quartzsite Arizona

Quartzsite, the crazy place in the middle of nowhere on the way to somewhere. Photo by Elizabeth R Rose

Quartzsite AZ and Nomadland Sites

Quartzsite entrepreneurs are gearing up for the 2021-2022 winter season. They have crazy ideas for Nomadland souvenirs. Vendors are preparing for an influx of visitors who are interested in visiting places where Nomadland, the award-winning saga, was filmed.

Nomadland, starring Frances McDormand and based on the book by Jessica Bruder, chronicles the wanderings of Fern, a 61-year-old widow who loses everything during a recession. She decides to live in a van, hit the road, and eventually join with a group of like-minded nomads who camp in the Arizona desert. This is where Quartzsite plays an important part.

Nomadland Quartzsite

If you watched Nomadland, you’ll definitely want to stop for a visit to see the quirky little desert town that was featured in the film.

In the movie, Fern joins an annual gathering of nomads—the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous—in the Quartzsite area desert south of I-10. The tribal gathering is run by Bob Wells, who lives in a van, runs the blog Cheap RV Living, and plays himself in the film. The nomads learn techniques on how to “boondock (camp for free),” and dry camp including how to use a bucket for a bathroom. In the winter, you’ll encounter all types of campers out in the desert surrounding Quartzsite.

One evening, the group heads into town and whoops it up at the Quartzsite Yacht Club (Open seasonally at 1090 W. Main Street) enjoying an evening of line dancing, pool, and brews. After the gathering, Fern decides to stay awhile in Quartzsite and picks up a job working at one of the many gem and mineral shows that pop up during the winter.

Quartzsite Yacht Club

The Quartzsite Yacht Club, scene of the nomad’s foray into local nightlife. Photo by Elizabeth R Rose

Nomadland Characters

In the film, Fern is seen listening to a piano performance by Paul Winer, the owner of Reader’s Oasis Books (Open year-round at 690 E. Main Street). Winer, who died in his sleep in 2019 after battling cancer, was notorious as he preferred to wear as little as possible (well, often just a pouch over his privates), and was dubbed the “naked bookseller.”

Quartzsite Cemetery and Hi Jolly Monument

Before Nomadland, one of the main year-round attractions in Quartzsite AZ was the local cemetery. But this is not your average cemetery. In the middle is a large pyramid constructed of layers of local rocks with an impressive plaque placed in 1935 by the Arizona Highway Department. And on top of the tomb is an iron camel. This is the tomb of “Hi Jolly,” a man so important that Quartzsite holds an annual Hi Jolly event to honor this man. But who was Hi Jolly?

Quartzsite Cemetery and Hi Jolly Monument

What does a pyramid and a camel have to do with Arizona desert history? Photo by Elizabeth R Rose

Hi Jolly wasn’t really this man’s name. In fact, he was born Philip Tedro in Syria and was part Greek. At one point he converted to Islam and took the name Hadji Ali after his pilgrimage to Mecca. Ali, a camel breeder and driver, emigrated to the United States as part of a U.S. Cavalry experiment in the 1850s using camels for transporting goods in the desert. The closest the Americans could get to pronouncing his name was “Hi Jolly” and that name stuck.

US Cavalry Camel Corps

Ultimately the “Camel Corps” was disbanded, partially because the smaller animals, like burros, were terrified of the large creatures and partially because funding dried up due to the impending Civil War. Hi Jolly kept some of the camels and remained in the area. He did some prospecting, hauled freight, and served as a scout.

Hi Jolly died in December of 1902 and remains the subject of folk tales to this day. Some of the camels were spotted in the desert as late as 1942. You can visit his tomb in the pioneer section of the town cemetery located just off Main Street on W Elsie Ln and Hi Jolly Lane. There is a sign at the turn-off. It’s a peaceful place with fascinating grave markers and a nice mountain view.

Hi Jolly Tomb

Originally from “somewhere in Syria,” Hi Jolly spent his golden years in the Quartzsite area. Photo by Elizabeth R Rose

If you are in town in mid-January, check on the date for the Hi Jolly Daze Parade. It’s a big event and you may even see a real camel marching along.

Rock and Mineral Shows and Swap Meets

A major draw for visitors each winter is the huge sales events featuring rocks and minerals, flea market finds, antiques, and even an immense RV show and sale. In general, events and sales run October through March annually, which coincides with the influx of snowbirds and bargain hunters. Watch the Chamber of Commerce website for dates of special events. Or pick up a copy of the Desert Messenger newspaper when you get into town.

Quartzsite AZ

My friends from the Pacific Northwest forgot hats but fortunately, there was a vendor selling the perfect solution. Photo by Elizabeth R Rose

When the major swap meets and rock and mineral shows run, you will find that the traffic on I-10’s Quartzsite AZ exits back up.  So, it’s ideal to go early. Don a custom hat and wear sunscreen as much of the fun is outdoors. And wear comfortable walking shoes.

There will be steel drums overflowing with minerals from all over the world, fossils, arts and crafts, and quirky things like tipi’s, animal skins, garden sculptures, and more. There’s Navajo jewelry, petrified wood, hand-made items for your home, and, well…. just about anything you can imagine.

Swap Meet Quartzsite

You never know what you’ll find when you walk the rows upon rows of vendors. Photo by Elizabeth R Rose

While there are rock shops year-round in Quartzsite AZ, the winter shows attract vendors from all over the world. Right after the Tucson Gem and Mineral Shows end, you’ll often find new vendors arriving in Quartzsite after they pack up their goods and leave Tucson.

Quartzsite Gems and Minerals

There are both small and large specimens for sale at the Quartzsite shows. Photo by Elizabeth R Rose

Quartzsite Yacht Club

The Quartzsite Yacht Club has been a phenomenon for years. Now, this is really quirky. The Quartzsite Yacht Club has more members than any yacht club in the world and—there is no water nearby! Back in the 1970s, Al Madden opened the Quartzsite Yacht Club Restaurant Bar & Grill and started selling memberships as a joke. By 2010, more than 10,000 people representing every state and numerous countries around the world had become card-carrying members of the Quartzsite Yacht Club. And, some faraway yacht clubs have even offered free entry to their cushy amenities in reciprocity for the Quartzsite card-carrying members. After all, when you join for $49.99, you get a membership card, certificate, and snazzy sailing t-shirt.

Quartzsite Yacht Club

After a long day of shopping, the beer and burgers at the Quartzsite Yacht Club provided a welcome break. Photo by Elizabeth R Rose

RV Camping in Quartzsite AZ

There are well over 50 RV parks in Quartzsite. While they are not necessarily fancy, they offer amenities that the desert dry campers won’t have. Plus, many are within a walkable distance from shopping and restaurants.

Many people camp out in the desert at the BLM’s La Posa Long Term Visitor Area (LTVA). To camp on the 11,400 acres, your vehicle must be 100% self-contained for waste and gray water. And, during the winter crush, it’s not free.

According to the Quartzsite Chamber of Commerce, LTVA requires a Special Recreation Permit between September 15 and April 15. The LTVA allows camping between April 16 and September 14 at no cost, but the standard 14-day limit applies. Fees are $180 for long-term permits valid for 7 months. They are $40 short-term permits valid for 1 to 14 consecutive days. The minimum fee for camping is the $40 permit which can be renewed by paying another $40.

During the off-season, the standard BLM camping regulations and 14-day limit with no fee rules apply. The permits are valid in any of the six LTVAs in California or two LTVAs in Arizona. You can purchase permits from the Bureau of Land Management Yuma Field Office or on-site from the LTVA host during the winter season.

There are also areas a bit further away from the four-corner intersection of Quartzsite.  You can get current information and driving directions at the BLM site.

There are many blogs and organization websites that give good advice and information to people new to RV camping in Quartzsite. Online you can find maps and information along with campground reviews and photos.

Outdoor Rock Shop Quartzsite

Watch event calendars for the big shows in Quartzsite. Photo by Elizabeth R Rose

Off-Road Vehicle Trails Near Quartzsite AZ

The Arizona Peace Trail, a 750-mile Off-Road Vehicle (OHV) approved trail, draws OHV enthusiasts who enjoy exploring out in the desert around Quartzsite and as far away as Yuma and Bullhead City.

In addition, the area has more than 1,000 miles of BLM OHV-approved trails. Jeep trails are shown on an interactive map at the Jeep USA site. Be sure to check out more of our road trips on Wander, along with ideas for more fun things to see and do when you visit the Southwestern USA.

Out in the middle of nowhere—between Phoenix and the California border—you’ll find a quirky little desert town named Quartzsite, AZ. The little desert town figures prominently in the Academy-award-winning movie, Nomadland.

Written by Elizabeth Rose

Elizabeth Rose is back again in the Phoenix area after more than a decade living in New Mexico and Washington state. She travels throughout the West and beyond writing about destinations, accommodations, festivals, and restaurants, especially farm to table cuisine. As an expert in cultural tourism, her writing reflects that passion. She has won awards for her photography and accompanies her articles with her own images. She also provides photos for magazine covers, web sites and magazine articles (both print and online).

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