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Step inside Quartzsite, Arizona, where snowbirds flock for warmer weather and a cheap place to park their RVs

Monica Humphries   

Step inside Quartzsite, Arizona, where snowbirds flock for warmer weather and a cheap place to park their RVs
  • Quartzsite, Arizona, is a small highway town where snowbirds flock each year.
  • For $180, visitors can stay on public land for up to seven months.

You'll find all types of people living in all kinds of setups in Quartzsite, Arizona.

Some nomads have massive fifth-wheel RVs, while others call a plastic tarp their home. School buses, vans, horse trailers, ambulances, semi trucks, and every other vehicle in between exist in the small town off Interstate 10.

Each winter, hundreds of thousands of snowbirds arrive, stake out a spot on public land, and call Arizona's dusty desert their temporary home.

On a recent road trip, I explored the town. There, I discovered a quirky place filled with movie-worthy characters and some of the country's cheapest living.

Quartzsite is home to cheap public land and dozens of RV resorts

When describing Quartzsite, you'll often hear people use the words "balloons," "explodes," and "swells."

For half of the year, the small town is just that — a small town with about 2,400 residents. Come winter, things drastically change when the town welcomes more than 2 million visitors, according to the Quartzsite Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism board.

Some visitors pass through, but others are temporary residents searching for a warm place to spend the colder months. And they specifically pick Quartzsite for its cheap, long-term camping.

Quartzsite is one of seven places where people can stay on public land for months at a time during the winter. The Bureau of Land Management typically limits camping on public land to two weeks. It's made the exception for a handful of places in an effort to both house winter visitors and protect desert land from overuse, the Bureau of Land Management's website states.

One of those places is Quartzsite's La Posa long-term visitor area.

People can pick up a seven-month permit for $180 or a two-week permit for $40. It makes Quartzsite home to arguably the cheapest rent in the country.

However, the cheap parking has its drawbacks. La Posa's visitors don't have access to electricity. Instead, the people live off-grid and rely on a handful of vault toilets, water faucets, and dumping stations the Bureau of Land Management has placed on the land.

If off-grid living won't fit a visitor's needs, Quartzsite is home to more than 50 RV resorts.

Casey Osborn, one of Quartzsite's many snowbirds, told me he's been traveling to the town from the northeast for decades. Osborn discovered Quartzsite on a trip to Mexico for a teeth cleaning. He's been returning ever since and sells antiques at a flea market called The Hi Al Swap Meet.

Osborn doesn't stay at La Posa. Instead, he rents a space in a nearby RV resort because he prefers "a little electricity," he said.

I arrived in Quartzsite at the end of October, and while hundreds of people had already set up in La Posa, residents and veteran snowbirds told me that the town was deserted compared to how it would look and feel in a few months.

"It's empty now," Bob, a booth owner at The Hi Al Swap Meet who declined to share his last name, told me. "Come back after Thanksgiving."

Although early in the season, I planned to explore Quartzsite for the next two days. I arrived in a Ram ProMaster I rented from Native Campervans. As I looked around, I knew the vehicle would fit right in.

I, on the other hand, stuck out. I was decades younger than the average person I saw in Quartzsite and lacked the thin layer of dust that seemed to coat everyone.

While some people prefer electricity, I was eager to explore La Posa. At 11,400 acres, it's essentially a free-for-all.

Mini neighborhoods will slowly form throughout the season. Some are friend groups that will park together. Others are designated areas where anyone is welcome — as long as you embrace their values. For example, an area of La Posa called The Magic Circle welcomes nudism. The nearby Lit Cactus is known for its Friday night drum circles.

I drove down the dusty road feeling overwhelmed. I had endless places to park. In every direction, open land was dotted with RVs, vans, tents, and buses.

Colorful kites and flags flew in the air, serving as landmarks so people could find their way home in the sea of similarity. Others marked off their campsites with rock borders.

As I meandered around La Posa, I debated how close was too close to park next to a stranger. I wondered if there were rules I wasn't aware of and if I needed to know anything before claiming a spot.

I flagged down a man walking his dog. I needed parking advice. He told me what I already knew — I could park anywhere.

Eventually, I settled on a dusty patch of land that looked like all the other dusty patches of land on La Posa. My landmark would be a nearby saguaro cactus with lanky arms.

As I chatted with La Posa's long-term visitors, some were thrilled to be back for the winter. For some retirees, RV life in Quartzsite is the highlight of their year.

Others, after calling the area home for just a few weeks, were ready to leave.

"This is a life I can afford on Social Security," I overheard one man living out of an old maintenance truck say.

"Hell, I'm bored, though," his new friend responded.

Dotting the town's main streets are stores and warehouses filled with minerals and gems. During peak season, vendors set up tents outside to sell everything from amethyst to petrified wood.

Paired with the gem and mineral shows are countless swap meets where vendors sell antiques, oddities, collectibles, and practically anything you can imagine.

But beyond that, there isn't much else to the town. There are fewer than a dozen restaurants, a handful of fast-food options, churches, and gas stations. The open desert offers trails for hiking and ATVs, and there's a cemetery home to a famous camel driver who came to the town in the 1850s.

In 2020, Quartzsite became a Hollywood backdrop

Most people recognize the name Quartzsite from the Oscar-winning movie "Nomadland," which was released in 2020.

"Nomadland" follows the main character Fern — played by Frances McDormand, who won best actress for her role — in the aftermath of the Great Recession. After losing her husband, she decides to move into a van.

Fern ends up in Quartzsite to learn how to live off the land. Then, she falls in love with the town.

Parts of the movie were filmed in Quartzsite and featured the real-life people who make up the town.

Paul Winer, the former owner of Reader's Oasis Books, was one of them. Winer was known for wearing nothing but a thong and for his piano skills. In the movie, he's clothed as he performs his song "Next to the Track Blues."

The Quartzsite Yacht Club also makes an appearance in the movie.

I popped into the bar and grill at 3:30 p.m. on a Monday, expecting the place to be deserted. Instead, about a dozen people lined the bar. TVs aired sports games, and the sounds of pool balls colliding filled the room.

The Quartzsite Yacht Club has made a name for itself based solely on irony. There's no ocean in the middle of the desert, yet it claims to have the largest yachting membership in the world. Interested members can join for $49.99, which grants them a certificate and membership card.

It doesn't take long to explore Quartzsite, I learned — especially during offseason. And especially as someone without an interest in minerals. I wandered through aisles of stones and eyed dozens of tables of goods. I didn't need much more than a day in the town.

But I also understood the destination's appeal. There was a sense of freedom living on La Posa, and almost everyone I met was friendly and eager to chat.

Beyond that, it was clear two main things allure people to this tiny town: warmth and affordability.

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