If you’ve made the journey from Southern California to Las Vegas, you’ve probably seen the sign for Zzyzx, the I-15 exit somewhere in between Barstow and Baker, California—about 175 miles from Los Angeles. Curious motorists pass by it, wondering what actually exists beyond it and who would dwell in this inhospitable and desolate place.

The answer would be desert researchers, of course. Zzyzx -pronounced “zy-zicks”- is an ideal location for these folks because it’s home to the CSU Desert Studies Center, a rich research resource in the Mojave.

It’s the perfect place to study the desert’s landscape, plants and animals. The center provides students, faculty and scientists with the opportunity to conduct research, receive instruction and experience the bizarre and beautiful ecosystem.

How did the CSU wind up in Zzyzx? The site’s history is nearly as unusual as its name.

In 1944, self-proclaimed minister Curtis Howe Springer settled in the spot. He built a health retreat and spa that included mineral pools in the shape of a cross. He named the site “Zzyzx”: a word he designed to lure in road-weary travelers, and to be the last in the English language. Zzyzx hosted tourists, retirees and Springer’s followers until 1974—when it was confiscated by the federal government. As it turns out, Springer set up house on federal land without authorization.

In 1976, a cooperative agreement with the Bureau of Land Management established the Desert Studies Center at the Zzyzx site. The agreement gave operation of the property to the CSU system under the condition it would be used as a desert research facility. It also created the California Desert Studies Consortium, an organization of seven southern California CSU campuses that manage the facilities: Dominguez Hills, Fullerton, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Northridge, Pomona and San Bernardino.

Although it’s managed by the Desert Studies Consortium, the Center’s administrative base is Cal State Fullerton. Their faculty members have been directing or coordinating studies at the center since it was created.

The center is now one of the world’s few desert research facilities, critical to studying in the remote and harsh environment. That’s one of the reasons why Dr. Robert Koch, Acting Dean of the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics at Cal State Fullerton, says the center is so important.

“The desert is a fascinating place to study, but offers formidable challenges to teaching and research field work.” Koch said. “So it’s essential to have accommodations that facilitate it.”

And the Zzyzx facilities have worked well to accommodate educational institutions, government agencies and other groups. They provide a place to stay and study for those out in the field. In fact, the location draws more than just locals.

“More than half of our visiting groups are from CSU campuses,” said Dr. William Presch, Cal State Fullerton professor and Director of the Desert Studies Center. “But our facility and the surrounding environment are so unique that we have visiting scientists from all over the world.”

Zzyzx is also attracting future scientists—CSU students. Dr. Koch says the Center’s “outside the classroom” opportunities allow students to experience the desert in ways they had never imagined.

“Few of our students have ever turned off of the highway as they pass Zzyxx on the way to Las Vegas,” he said. “But those who have—they’re awed by the experience and there’s no doubt in my mind that they will see the desert in a different light for the rest of their lives.”

For many, Zzyzx will remain a mysterious sign en-route to sin city. But what lies beyond the exit has transformed the lives of thousands of scientists and students who are unlocking the mysteries of the desert.