I like to visit places other than the usual crowded tourist destinations. Yes, sometimes it’s fun to see what the huddled masses are looking at in the conservatory at Bellagio or in the depths of Carlsbad Caverns, but I prefer to stay off the beaten path. One such unusual discovery was Zzyzx, California.
According to Wikipedia, Zzyzx is an unincorporated community in San Bernardino County. It was formerly known as Soda Springs.
I know I saw the exit sign on I-15 when I passed that way in mid-October of 2015, but I didn’t stop. I probably wondered about the name, but I was in a hurry to get to my friends in Las Vegas, so I kept driving. During some period of research, (probably of the giant thermometer or the Alien Fresh Jerky shop, both in Baker, CA), I saw a link about Zzyzx on the Roadside America website.
On the edge of a dry lake bed, you’ll find a bizarre pseudo-town: “Zzyzx” (pronounced “Zye – Zex,” rhyming with Isaac’s). Travelers between Las Vegas and Los Angeles sometimes stop in the Mojave Desert along I-15 to pose next to the novel highway sign for Zzyzx Road. But few realize that heading several miles down a narrow, mostly paved route will deliver them to an oasis with an oddball history…
LA radio evangelist Curtis H. Springer, self-proclaimed minister (and quack doctor), decided the [oasis was] the ideal location for a health resort. He and his wife filed a mining claim on a 12,800 acre parcel of what were public lands. He named it “Zzyzx Mineral Springs and Health Resort,” touted as “the last word in health” and the last word in the English language — a gimmick so it would be the last listing in any directory…
Most of the concrete buildings still stand. You’ll find a mix of well-maintained structures…and then complete derelict buildings along the shore…There are a couple of low concrete buildings, doors and windows gone… one with a mysterious row of unattached toilets.
Well that sounded interesting, so I added Zzyzx to my mental list of places I wanted to visit someday.
In December 2016, I was once again on I-15, making my way to Vegas. This time I planned to make a side trip to Zzyzx.
I found the grounds of the former Zzyzx Mineral Springs and Health Spa had been taken over by the Desert Studies Center, a field station of California State University. The good folks of the Desert Studies Center apparently cleaned up the grounds; gone were the mysterious toilets mentioned by Roadside America. In fact, a casual tourist might not realize the place was once a health spa run by a man many would call a charlatan if not for the informational signs in the parking lot. Of course, there are probably few casual tourists in Zzyzx. Perhaps a few curious souls are pulled off the interstate by the strange word on the exit sign, but most people who make the 4.5 mile drive from the exit to the Desert Studies Center campus have either heard about the center or the colorful past of the mineral springs and spa.
I left Barstow around sunrise so I could visit Zzyzx early in the day, and I was glad I did. Although my visit happened in early December, the desert sun was already hot by mid-morning. I wore my sunhat and wandered around the grounds.
Conferences are held at the Desert Studies Center with attendees housed in the rooms where folks who came to take the waters (a scam, the aforementioned Roadside America article explains: “The ‘natural’ hot springs feeding..mineral baths were completely artificial, heated by a hidden boiler”) and otherwise get healthy once stayed. On the morning of my visit, young adults (high school seniors? college freshmen?) were clearing out of the guest rooms and packing their luggage into the vans that had brought them to this desert spot. I thought someday I wanted to attend a conference there so I could sleep in one of the cute little rooms.
Other buildings left over from the health spa days are also used by the Desert Studies Center. The Main Building seemed to house administrative offices, but there was also an area open to visitors with several informational exhibits which, quite frankly, looked like they began their existence as 1990s era high school social studies fair projects. The most interesting exhibit featured early settler artifacts found in the area. Other exhibits were about local plants and animals and the history of the twenty-mule teams that ferried borax out of Death Valley in the 1880s.
Lake Tuendae is on the property too, making the area a literal oasis in the desert. The aforementioned Wikipedia article says the lake is really an artificial pond and is now a “refuge habitat of the endangered Mohave Tui chub.”
I probably spent about two hours walking around the old site of the Zzyzx Mineral Springs and Health Spa. I enjoyed learning about its place in the history of U.S. health scams, and I enjoyed looking at Lake Tuendae and the educational exhibits in the visitor area of the Main Building. Mostly, I enjoyed knowing I could now say I’d visited a place whose name most folks will never be able to pronounce and even fewer will ever visit.
You can find directions to Zzyzx on the Roadside America website. That site also has a lot of information on the history of the place.
I took all the photos in this post.