Arizona desert town home to 2 million snowbirds

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Editor’s note: This is part of a four-story package on Quartzsite, Arizona — a snowbird mecca that draws a huge cross-section of Americans, including hundreds of retired Latter-day Saints.

(Video by Megan Bahr)


QUARTZSITE, Ariz. — Place yourself in this tiny Arizona desert town in the middle of summer, and you’ll be one of the few hundred that remain to roast in the heat. But come winter, you’ll find a mobile metropolis nearly twice as large as the population of Salt Lake County.

According to the 2010 census, the population of full time residents in Quartzsite was 3,677, but thanks to warm weather, the winter months boom with an influx of more than 2 million snowbirds and travelers every year.

RVs pack the streets. There are over 60 RV parks to stay in at Quartzsite. (Photo courtesy of Kym Scott)
RVs pack Quartzsite, Arizona. There are over 60 RV parks to serve the swarms of snowbirds that flock to the town each winter. (Kym Scott)

The major attraction for Quartzsite today is the annual Tyson Wells Rock and Gem Show hosted at the beginning of January.

Tyson Wells RV Park Manager Barbara Alberts said people travel great distances to attend this show.

“They buy pallets of rocks and take them back to wherever they go — Australia, Morocco, Africa — I mean, all over the world,” Alberts said.

Before quartz was discovered, giving the town its name, Quartzsite served as a watering stop in the middle of the desert for travelers on their way to California and for imported camels.

Eventually, a new settler named Charles Tyson built a fort to provide protection against Indian raids in 1856. The area was called Fort Tyson or Tyson’s Wells in his honor, until quartz and other precious rocks were discovered and it was renamed and officially established as a town in 1867.

Quartzsite attracts more than 2 million snowbirds and visitors during the winter season. This is largely attributed to the Tyson Wells Rock & Gem Show and other various shows during the late winter months.
Quartzsite attracts more than 2 million snowbirds and visitors during the winter season. This is largely attributed to the Tyson Wells Rock and Gem Show and other various events during the late winter months. (Megan Bahr)

This year will mark the 150th anniversary of Quartzsite, which is known as the “rock capital of the world” and the “desert phenomenon.”

Despite the visitors coming and going, there are a few locals who can’t imagine leaving. Tyson Wells RV Park Owner Kym Scott said he has lived in Quartzsite his whole life and is the fourth generation to do so.

“When I grew up, there was only about 400 people,” Scott said. “The only two paved roads were Highway 95 and the business loop through town. So we just kind of rode our bicycles and our motorcycles and played in the desert.”

Quartzsite is located between I-10 and Highway 95 in the southwest corner of Arizona and is just 17 miles from the California border. The town is 22 miles from Blythe, California; 74 miles from Lake Havasu City, Arizona; 125 miles from Phoenix and 214 miles from Las Vegas.

Overhead view of Tyson Wells RV Park. Visitors from all over the world come for the various shows Quartzsite has to offer. (Photo courtesy of Kym Scott)
Overhead view of Tyson Wells RV Park in fall 2016. Visitors from all over the world visit Quartzsite for the various shows the desert town has to offer. (Kym Scott)

Despite being hundreds of miles from any major city, the tiny desert town attracts flocks of snowbirds for the warm weather, RV and ATV-friendly atmosphere, and the plethora of rocks.

“We now have a tourism chamber because we want to show all the things you can do in Quartzsite,” said Beverly Cunningham, a local resident who serves as Relief Society President for the LDS Quartzsite Branch. “This is the rock capital of the world. There are 1,000 off-road trails around the area. There are old mining sites and old cabins. There’s a lot to see.”

The majority of visitors that come are recent retirees and elderly couples who enjoy the winter warmth and the wares offered at seasonal shops, which specialize in merchandise  ranging from handcrafted jewelry to leather.

What may have started as a watering hole in the middle of the desert is now a desert phenomenon that attracts millions of people.

The view of Quartzsite from Q Mountain. According to the 2010 census, the population is 3,677.
The view of Quartzsite from Q Mountain in fall 2016. According to the 2010 census, the year-round population is 3,677. (Megan Bahr)
This store stacks it deeper and sells it cheaper in Quartzite, AZ. (Kelsey Robertson)
This store “stacks it deeper and sells it cheaper” according to one of its many signs. (Kelsey Robertson)

It was dark when we arrived in the middle of nowhere, but Google told me, “You have reached your destination.” I wanted to believe it, but it didn’t look like any destination at all. The only things I could make out in the darkness were a tree and a giant tumbleweed to add to the 3,000 people that populate this town in the middle of the Arizona desert. See full article here

A view of Quartzsite from Q Mountain. There are 18 active members in the LDS Quartzsite Branch during the summer season. (Megan Bahr)

Only 18 individuals regularly attend the small LDS branch located in Quartzsite, Arizona during the summer season despite the 65 year-round members on the roster.

But in a desert town that hosts more than 2 million visitors a year, the branch gets hit with more than 30 times its average summer attendance in the winter months. See full article here

This sign marks the entrance to Celia’s Rainbow Garden in Quartzsite, Arizona. (Kelsey Robertson)

Celia Winer ran around the park laughing and playing just like all of the other 8-year-olds that night in 1994. No one at the elementary school open house in Quartzsite, Arizona, could have guessed her past or could have known that a town legacy was to be born from a mother’s worst nightmare. See full article here

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