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Quartzsite, Arizona

Article and photographs by Cary Wolinsky

It’s Nowhere, Arizona—until November. Then more than a million devotees of RVs roll in from all over for swap meets, socializing, and the sunset-painted sky.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

The town’s not quite dead but is doing its damnedest to look that way. The mid-July temperature is a solid 118. Shops on Main are boarded up. An amber wind lifts tattered flyers over flat roofs and out to the desert. Humming “swamp coolers” strain to refrigerate a few of the 2,300 residents, who wait for winter. Eight months a year Quartzsite, Arizona, isn’t much more than a vast empty RV park, rectangles of dusty land gridded by neatly spaced wooden posts.

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.

“You haven’t had the full RV experience until you’ve been to Quartzsite in January,” says Phyllis Frey, of Livingston, Texas. She and husband Ron have been traveling full-time in their RV for three years. “It’s a sort of pilgrimage,” she says.

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic magazine.

NOMINATE your own wonderful, weird, or wacky choice for coverage in this new magazine series.

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Quartzsite, Arizona, is home to the 47-armed saguaro cactus. To be precise, this cactus is actually located just west of Quartzsite off the old highway. Although no one knows exactly, most estimate that the “47-armed cactus”—its name among locals—is now about 300 years old. This type of cactus normally dies at 150 to 200 years of age, mostly as a result of being uprooted by wind or washouts.

Saguaro cactuses (Carnegiea gigantea) usually can be found at elevations between 1,000 and 3,000 feet (300 and 900 meters) and develop five or six branches. This particular saguaro seems to be doing more than fine at a mere 900 feet (270 meters), with more than nine times the usual number of arms.

The saguaro blooms in the spring and sometimes, although rarely, twice in one season. White flowers spring to life on top of the arms, and later a red fruit will grow.

Sounds beautiful, right? That must be why Arizona chose this particular type of bloom as its state flower.

Quartzsite Chamber of Commerce
A good site for learning more about the community of Quartzsite, its businesses, specific points of interest, and shows and events.

Tomb of Hi Jolly
This tomb illustrates the stature of camel driver Hadji Ali—whose name American soldiers quickly corrupted to “Hi Jolly”—as a local celebrity.

Tyson Wells Sell-A-Rama
Track down the location and other details of Arizona’s largest winter attraction. This year’s 25-acre (10-hectare), 10-day show takes place January 19-28.

Family Motor Coach Association
Want to plan a custom trip in your RV? Here you’ll find routing suggestions, general RV news, and convention information.


Heisey, Adriel. “A Special Place: Sky-High Over the Sonoran.” National Geographic, (Oct. 2000), 30-49.

Thybony, Scott. “Playing the Slots,” National Geographic, (July 2000), 118-131.

Harris, Stephen L., and others. The Wonders of the World. National Geographic Books, 1998.

Vesilind, Priit J. “The Sonoran Desert: Anything But Empty.” National Geographic, (Sept. 1994), 37-63.

Urquhart, Jennifer C., and others. America’s Great Hideaways, National Geographic Books, 1986.


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