Usery Mountain Regional Park celebrates the best the Sonoran Desert offers, but face it: Even the most ardent nature lover can have trouble embracing the outdoors in Arizona's brutal summers.
Now the park is becoming more welcoming to folks who want to learn about the desert, thanks to a new nature center building that will host classes and programs no matter what it's like outside.
The center hosts a grand opening Saturday evening in what park officials hope is the first of many events that will bring new visitors - or get people to visit during the park's quieter months.
The center quietly opened this summer, but park officials waited for cooler temperatures to hold this big event.
One routine event this summer shows the center's potential to draw new visitors. A program about scorpions in the air-conditioned center in the dead of summer drew 54 people, interpretive ranger Brennan Basler said.
"Last summer, I maybe would have gotten five," Basler said.
All programs had to be held outdoors because the rangers were housed in a utilitarian metal structure that didn't have room for the public. In the past, rangers held only about half as many programs for the public in the summer, and shifted those to the early morning or the evening.
"We couldn't do very many of them in the summer with all the heat," park Supervisor Jennifer Johnston said.
Now, visitors can expect more adult and kids programs in the summer.
One new program will target home-schooled children, with classes put on by the park and the Arizona Science Center. Three fall classes will be the first the science center has put on for home-schooled kids outside of its downtown Phoenix location, spokeswoman Kristin Priscella said.
The center travels to schools across the state, Priscella said, but wanted to better serve the East Valley population of kids schooled at home.
"We understand that sometimes it's hard to get down here for a program," Priscella said.
If the classes are popular, the science center may add more - or even offer other kinds of programs.
The new, 4,000-square-foot center is the third of its kind to recently open in the Maricopa County Parks system. It is LEED-certified, also meeting Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standards. The $700,000 structure features a roof with native plants on it to better insulate it and reduce runoff. Solar panels provide some of the energy, and the building is oriented to take more sunlight in the winter while shading some parts of itself in the summer.
The inside includes a small store, a classroom and displays of living desert critters that are sometimes hard to see. That includes a giant desert centipede that has 46 legs, a tarantula, a giant desert hairy scorpion and a Western diamondback rattler.