Quartzsite in Arizona is coming alive for the season right now. Make plans now to get there, if you haven’t done so already. The culmination of rock related activities related in Quartzite will be the 2020 QIA PowWow, a four day show that starts on January 15th and ends on January 19th. But Desert Gardens will get started January 1st as well as lots of other venues. More below.
I recommend staying two full days in Quartzsite if you haven’t gone before. Lodging is extremely limited in town, however, you can sleep in your car in the desert. Are there any other questions? Oh, okay.
The article below is the fifth piece I wrote for Rock&Gem Magazine. It appeared in the April, 2017 issue and it is here now due to the gracious consent of the current managing editor, Antoinette Rahn.
I’ve updated information where necessary and made good the links. There is additional material at the end of the article which comes from my Places to Visit and Collect in The Southwest file. Good luck, I will see you there.
Quartzsite: Rockhounds Gather in The Desert
by Thomas Farley
Quartzsite, Arizona is a town and a meeting place. In winter it is a gathering of the clan for recreational vehicle Snowbirds, flea market enthusiasts, ham radio operators, off-road motorists, geo-cachers, and rockhounds. Especially rockhounds. Quartzsite is rock and gem heaven.
While many Quartzsite locations sell rocks in the winter months, the biggest production is January’s QIA PowWow Gem and Mineral Show. In 2017 it featured over 550 spaces and 272 vendors. Put on by 300 volunteers, seller’s wares had to be 75% gem, rock, mineral, or jewelry related. Running concurrently with the PowWow at another site, the Desert Gardens Gem and Mineral Show concentrates mostly on rocks, with a little less jewelry than the PowWow. Then there’s the Tyson Wells Rock and Gem Show. And the Prospectors’ Panorama. But I am getting ahead of myself.
Quartzsite is in southwest Arizona, 244 miles east of Los Angeles and 127 miles west of Phoenix. Las Vegas is 213 miles to the north. Located in the La Posa Plain, La Paz County, Quartzsite is bordered to the south by the Dome Rock, Castle Dome, and Kofa Mountains. In its heyday, 39 mines operated around Quartzsite. Mostly gold mines, with one or two cinnabar and lead. A profusion of old mines and collecting sites gave rise to Quartzsite in the mid 1960s as a rockhounding paradise. Quartzsite’s population now stands at roughly 3,000 people.
In 1856 Charles “Charly” Tyson dug a well that would provide water to cross country travelers, nearby ranchers, and to mine workers in the surrounding mountains. He built a small adobe structure and called it Fort Tyson. It eventually became a stagecoach stop on the route from Ehrenburg, Arizona to Prescott. By that time one building had become several, the compound taking on the fuller name of Tyson’s Well Stage Station.
Quartzsite owes its present appellation to postal naming conventions. The postmark “Tyson’s” served the town until 1895 when mail service ended due to the local postmaster falling ill. A new post office opened in 1896 at another location. The Postmaster General decreed that discontinued place names couldn’t be used and, further, only one-word names were acceptable. Quartz Site is what the townsfolk wanted, from all the quartz at a nearby stamp mill. The postal service shortened it to Quartzsite.
The PowWow Gem and Mineral Show first started in 1967 with 18 locals selling items at a small school to about a thousand people. The event progressed into what may now be the largest public rock and gem show in the country. Over these fifty years the entire town has become dotted with rock shops, auction houses, and trading posts of all kinds. While I was there a venue announced the sale of a pallet of American flag products, 4,000 helium balloons, and over 10,000 old Playboy magazines. Essentially, if something has been made, it’s probably been sold in Quartzsite.
Quartzsite’s popularity as America’s largest yard sale and winter retreat probably peaked in the year 2000. In January of 1999, Huell Howser, California travelogue producer par excellence, took his film crew outside the state for the first time to cover Quartzsite. In a warm and engaging hour, which is free to view online, Howser interviewed many townsfolk, mostly about the history of the community. Then, in 2000, National Geographiccame to visit. They called Quartzsite Nowhere, Arizona. Until November:
“Then, like a mob of chattering starlings settling into a too-small tree, the snowbirds start landing in November. By mid-January, the mechanical car counter at the Interstate 10 exit is ticking off 26,000 vehicles a day. Within weeks 175,000 RVs cram inches apart into 79 trailer parks, onto front yards, and spill out seven miles on either side of town. Every year more than a million people reset their internal navigation and drive from Everywhere, North America, to this western Arizona dot on the map. Luxury motor homes, fifth wheels, cab-over campers, trailers, and converted school buses plunk down on the same patch of land.” “America’s Largest Parking Lot” by Cary Wolinsky. National Geographic, January, 2001.
Things have settled down since then. My visit started on Wednesday, January, 18, 2017. Empty RV parking spaces in town seemed numerous. Space looked plentiful at BLM land outside of town. But since few venues charge for admission or parking, there’s no real way to keep count. The BLM did tell me approximately 28,401 people stayed at their free and pay areas in fiscal year 2016. And the Arizona D.O.T. says Main Street now averages 12,400 vehicles in each direction over the course of a year. The city website says 2,000,000 annual visitors. Whatever the numbers, the rock shows continue to draw vendors in record amounts, with waiting lists common for spaces.
As to the PowWow itself, Wednesday was ideal. Bright sunshine and short sleeve weather. I regretted not bringing sunscreen and I later bought a hat from the Quartzsite Gem and Mineral Club. More on them in a bit. To begin with, the PowWow is located just off Main Street at 235 East Ironwood Drive. Follow the cars. A parking lot doesn’t seem obvious, but keep moving along and you’ll find it; everything funnels to the main lot. Two tractor pulled shuttles take visitors to any entrance they like. Drivers give everybody time to get on, including those with walkers. Shuttle, parking, and admission are all free.
I came simply to look around, this being my first time in Quartzsite. Listing everything I saw would be like reciting a lengthy gem and mineral guide. Items varied from Bruneau jasper to lapis lazuli to malachite to Oregon sunstone. One booth sold “Hot Rocks”, with a Geiger counter next to them in case you had doubts. Another vendor had over a hundred sample boxes filled with different rocks and minerals, all arranged in alphabetical order. 21 boxes under “C” alone. That assortment ranged from Terlingua, Texas fluorescent calcite, to Coontail quartz from Magnet, Arkansas, to coyote teeth from British Columbia. And that was just one seller’s table.
A dinosaur sculpture greeted me on one aisle. On the next, oil paintings on marble. As I wandered, I came across Timothy Harned’s tables. He owns Bustin’s Glass and Minerals. I last saw Tim at the 2016 Logandale Fall Festival in Logandale, Nevada. The promoters advertised a Rock and Gem Faire at the event but Tim turned out to be the sole vendor. It was good to see him again and we talked. Again, Quartzsite is a meeting and gathering place.
The QIA building is PowWow’s center. QIA stands for the Quartzsite Improvement Association. Within their building is a limited number of dealers, display cases, and the kitchen and dining hall. Food is sold throughout the day, with all proceeds going toward supporting the QIA and its many community causes. The dining hall makes a great place to reconnoiter with your group, study the vendor list, and then plan what to see next.
The PowWow in 2017 ran from January, 18th until the 22d. As I mentioned, the Desert Gardens Rock, Gem, and Mineral Show was running concurrently and through February 28th. This venue is on the other side of I-10 at 1050 Kuehn Street. It has no parking lot shuttle service. A walk around Desert Gardens was similarly staggering, especially because of larger material. This is the place to find big pieces of rough. Need a spectacular garden rock? You’ll find it at Desert Gardens. The Desert Gardens venue was less busy than the PowWow and had a more relaxed feel. You should visit both. But the appeal of Quartzsite extends beyond the rock shows, to dedicated rock and gem shops and to the clubs that operate throughout the winter. First, the clubs.
The Quartzsite Roadrunner Gem and Mineral Club is one of the largest and most organized rock clubs in the country. Membership is only $15 a year and they are active October through March. Field trips go every Tuesday through the season and twice a day during PowWow. Non-members pay $2 a trip. Roadrunners this year during PowWow went to find bacon rock, desert roses, geodes, apache tears, and green banded rhyolite. Among other things. Round trip mileage ranged from 40 to 162 miles over a variety of roads, many of them tough. http://qrgmc.org
The Quartzsite Metal Detecting Club consists of coin shooters and gold prospectors. Membership is a terrific bargain at $20 a person. This lets you in on the club’s 14 claims encompassing 280 acres of gold bearing ground. The club is most active November through the middle of March, however, you are free to work in summer if you can stand the 118 degree heat. If you are a coin shooter, you can participate in their many winter season hunts. $20 for each hunt.Do not mail your dues to them, instead, pay in person at the Miners Depot described further on.
I stayed in Quartzsite for three days, however, with so many club activities, a week would have been a better choice. And then there are the stores.
Quartzsite is peppered with stand-alone and pop up stores selling rocks, gems, and minerals. Quartzsite’s business and souvenir map reveals retail shops like Gem World, T-Rocks, Sunwest Silver, and, less obvious, Hardies Beads and Jewelry. That last store is a Quartzsite institution. While mainly selling collecting supplies and beads, they have an outstanding rock collection installed on their interior east wall. Their museum contains quite a few specimens from the Quartzsite area, including gold in quartz. See the image below.
For gold prospectors, make certain to stop in at Blake and Lisa Harmon’s Miners Depot on North Central Boulevard. Miners Depot is a desert prospecting store and the unofficial clearing house for gold information in the Quartzsite area. Inquire about the metal detecting club. As with everything in Quartzsite, hours are seasonal.
While shopping, don’t miss a chance to visit the Tyson’s Well Museum. It’s free and enthusiastic volunteers will tell you the history of Quartzsite as a stage station and a supply depot for nearby mines. Speaking of which, outside in back, is the original assay office of the Mariquita mine. The many items speak to the everyday life of miners. The volunteer I talked to was also a member of the metal detecting club. He discussed at length the many mines surrounding Quartzsite. Be sure to notice the museum ceiling made of saguaro ribs.
Other winter shows include:
The Prospector’s Panorama:
Tyson Wells Rock and Gem Show:
The Gold Show.
Desert Gardens — lots of big rough there, see picture below:
Quartzsite doesn’t take itself too seriously. The square dance club is called the Cactus Dodgers, a propane supply company is called Passmore Gas, and one street is named, well, No Name Street. Camel references abound and you should know the story of them and of Quartzsite’s most famous citizen before you visit.
In 1857 the War Department directed Edward Beale to pioneer a wagon trail from New Mexico to California. In his company were about 75 camels purchased from North Africa and the Middle East. This constituted a great experiment as to the worthiness of camels as pack animals in the great Southwest. Questions were many, such as, could camels swim the Colorado River? On this journey as packer and guide was one Phillip Tedro, born in present day Turkey and later a Syrian countryman. After converting to Islam, Tedro called himself Hadji Ali. The men in Beale’s company had difficulty pronouncing the name, however, and instead called him Hi Jolly.
After completing the journey, which Beale said went “without an accident of any kind whatsoever”, the troupe of camels were disbanded. (It Happened in Arizonaby James Crutchfield. Falcon Press, 1994) Speculation has it that the camel’s sensitive hooves, although perfectly suited to loose soft sand, could not endure the Sonoran Desert’s often rocky surface. A travel guide adds this, “The camels adapted well to their new environment but were never used successfully, partly because the sight of them caused horses, mules and cattle to stampede.” (AAA Arizona and New Mexico Tour Book, 2014)
Hadji bought a few camels from the company and returned with them to Arizona, where he engaged in various pursuits, including mining and acting as a government scout. He became an American citizen, married in Tucson and finally settled in Quartzsite. At a certain point he released his camels to the desert. He died in 1902 and is buried in Quartzsite’s cemetery. In 1935 the State of Arizona built the pyramidal Hi Jolly monument which you see today. According to the 2017 Quartzsite Visitor Guide , it is the town’s most visited spot. The legacy of camels echoes throughout Quartzsite in postcards, sculptures, and as ornaments in maps and guidebooks.
At any booth you’ll find miners who found and worked up material from their own property or claim. It is this direct connection that makes buying more personable than purchasing a rock through eBay or another second hand source. Two talks with vendors were memorable.
Karen Britton of Britton Apache Turquoise has been mining and working variscite and turquoise for 29 years in central Nevada in Lander County. Her late husband, Lee Britton, had even earlier ties to turquoise and turquoise like rocks. He first staked a Lander County claim in 1974. Their most famous property was the Apache Turquoise Mine. Karen mentioned a Rock&Gem article done by Mark Hatch where he described how he produced a stunning necklace starting from Apache Mine rough. (“Make an Apache Turquoise Necklace” by Mark Hatch Rock&Gem January, 1971). I read the piece later and it was indeed a tribute to the black included stones Britton regularly mines. I bought a cabochon from Karen, partly as a collectible, partly to support her continuing efforts.
After the show I read up on the Apache Mine. Two writers wrote that Apache Mine material once thought turquoise has now been identified as variscite. (Minerals of Nevada, Stephen B. Castor and Gregory Ferdock. Nevada Bureau of Mines and Geology Special Publication 31, 2004.) What impressed me on that Wednesday, however, was Karen’s dedication to her beautiful rocks. She soldiers on with no web presence, appearing only at shows like those in Quartzsite. Besides talking to this veteran, I was also struck by a young couple just making their presence known in the rock business.
John Keady and Chelsea Thompson operate Rockchuck Gem and Mineral Gallery in tiny Schurz, Nevada. It’s just north of Walker Lake in Mineral County on I-95. The pair create cabs and jewelry, notably using turquoise and variscite from different Nevada locales. They also mine their own Hellsfire agate. Keady is by training a stone mason. I didn’t know all this until I came across their booth. I vaguely recalled a rock shop sign near Schurz but I never investigated it. And now, here were the owners. The shop had come to me. There’s more.
The last time I passed Walker Lake I stopped to read different information signs. They were installed on impressive monuments made of local stone. It turns out Keady built one. What were the odds I’d meet the builder of something I noted on a lonely road to Reno? And what were the chances I’d run into two such young and creative people almost six hundred miles from their home? As I said before, Quartzsite is a gathering and meeting place. For people you’ve already met. And for the people you will.
Some Quartzsite Tips
Many sellers and restaurants take only cash so be prepared. The only bank in town is the Horizon Community Bank. Take a notebook to keep track of purchases, vendors, and details. Bring sunscreen and a cap. A raincoat and a heavier coat for rain and wind that may well happen. Don’t forget your loupe and a camera. Remember, too, that Arizona is on Mountain Standard Time. Most things get going around 10:00 a.m. And look out for pedestrians while driving at night. They are everywhere and all dressed in black. One more thing. Bring your patience — you’re among friends.
Essential and mostly free publications to pick up around town:
Quartzsite, Arizona Visitor Guide
Quartzsite EZ-Guide (a map of vendor spaces for the four major shows)
QIA PowWow Gem and Mineral Show Guide (available at the PowWow)
The Quartzsite Nugget and Winter Visitors Guide
Where IZZAT Business Map (Absolutely vital for navigating Quartzsite. $2.00)
Desert Messenger News (Community paper)
Most publications won’t be available until the end of the year. Until then, keep abreast of Quartzsite happenings with the excellent Desert Messenger. Read it here:
Consult the Quartzsite Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism: http://www.quartzsitetourism.com.
Lodging. Very limited in town.
Super 8, Quartzsite: (928) 927-8080. 2050 Dome Rock Road. Quite far from town but the biggest motel. Two stories. No elevator. Book before October.
Quartzsite Yacht Club: (928) 927-5628. 1070 West Main Street.
Stagecoach Restaurant and Motel
904 West Main Street
No true web presence. Call.
People also stay in Ehrenberg, AZ or Blythe, CA, about 18 miles and 22 miles away, respectively. Parker, AZ is about forty miles north on I-95 but the road crosses many washes and could be cut off in a rainstorm. Still, I like the drive and often stay at the Hampton Inn in Parker.
A Yelp list of RV Parks is here:
Camping in the desert? Here’s one BLM link:
Quartzsite, Arizona – City and Major Rock Event
Quartzsite comes alive in winter. January sees a gathering of rock, gem, and mineral collectors and sellers from all over the world. I’ve written about this extensively at my blog, https://southwestrockhounding.com. See you there in January.
Quartzsite Museum aka the Tyson’s Well Stage Station
161 West Main St
Quartzsite, AZ 85346
33°39.971′ N 114°13.182′ W
Mining artifacts and assay office. Seasonal hours. The Tyson’s Well Museum is a must-stop. It is free and enthusiastic volunteers explain the history of Quartzsite as a stage station and a supply depot for nearby mines.
Hardies Beads & Jewelry
1250 W. Main St
Quartzsite, AZ 85346
33°39.754′ N 114°14.256′ W
Outstanding rock, gem, and mineral collection on display. Most material collected locally. Not many rocks for sale, mostly things bead related. A Quartzsite institution. Seasonal hours.
Quartzsite Roadrunner Gem and Mineral Club
65 Ironwood, Quartzsite, AZ (Quartzsite Improvement Association building)
33°39.925′ N 114°12.843′ W
PO Box 338, Quartzsite, AZ 85346
The Quartzsite Roadrunner Gem and Mineral Club is one of the largest and most organized rock clubs in the country. Extremely active, especially October through March. Field trips go every Tuesday through that time and twice a day during the QIA’s PowWow. Non-members pay $2 a trip. Roadrunners may go to find, among other things, bacon rock, desert roses, geodes, apache tears, and green banded rhyolite. Major shop facilities and classes.
566 North Central Blvd
Quartzsite, AZ 85346
Messaging through their website
33°40.538′ N 114°13.033′ W
Miners Depot is desert prospecting store and a clearing house for gold information in the Quartzsite area. Detectors, tools, screens, lots of screens, the place to stop before heading out. Generally open six days a week during the main prospecting season, from about November through mid-March.
Quartzsite Metal Detecting Club
PO Box 3102
Quartzsite, AZ 85359-3102
Meeting address (Miners Depot)
566 North Central Blvd
Quartzsite, AZ 85346
33°40.538′ N 114°13.033′ W
A club of coin shooters and gold prospectors. Membership is a terrific bargain at $20 a person. This lets you in on the club’s 14 claims encompassing 280 acres of gold bearing ground. The club is most active November through the middle of March, however, you are free to work in summer if you can stand the 118 degree heat. If you are a coin shooter, you can participate in their many winter season hunts. $20 for each hunt.
Of special note, they do not mail memberships. Sign up and pay dues at their club meetings, coin hunts, their table at the PowWow in January, and at Miners Depot. Really, though, get out to Miners Depot. It is well worth your visit.
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