Columbia's 23 outdoor pools are the coolest places to be in the summer - if you can find them.
In the planned community known for confusing geography and a paucity of landmarks, residents often have no idea where they can take a dip. Buildings, berms and nondescript landscaping usually camouflage the pools.
To help lost swimmers, the Columbia Association spent about $3,000 to erect new directional signs in some villages by the time the pools had opened for the summer.
"The pools are definitely hard to find; everything in Columbia is hard to find," said Valerie Alexander, who heads the association's sport and fitness advisory committee. "That's sort of in the plan, I think."
Fifteen blue-and-white signs with a picture of a swimmer now point the way to the neighborhood pools in Hickory Ridge, Long Reach, Oakland Mills, Owen Brown and River Hill.
"We've done such a good job of hiding things in Columbia, whether it be pools or gas stations or anything else," said Joan Lancos, a Hickory Ridge resident and former Columbia Council member. "I think [the signs] are a benefit."
But the remaining villages - Dorsey's Search, Harper's Choice, Kings Contrivance and Wilde Lake (Town Center doesn't have a pool) - opted for no signs for aesthetic reasons.
"It was like a street sign," said Bernice Kish, the Wilde Lake village manager, explaining the village board's objection. She said the board believed the signs wouldn't be consistent with the image of the village.
The pools are perhaps the Columbia Association's most popular amenity, with about 636,000 visits last summer. Many are equipped with whirlpools, sand volleyball courts, graded entrances and fountains.
The Columbia Association's community guide offers a map, with blue dots marking pool locations. But the map is difficult to read and isn't entirely accurate. For example, the map shows only major roads and locates the Kendall Ridge pool on the wrong side of Snowden River Parkway.
Residents usually discover the location of the pool in their village eventually, but problems arise when they venture outside of their neighborhood to visit another pool.
"With 23 pools, there's multiple possibilities for lost swim team members," Lancos said.
The new sign for the Kendall Ridge pool helped Yvette Rooks, a physician from Ellicott City. Although she'd visited the pool a year before, during a recent afternoon she couldn't remember where it was until she saw the sign pointing in its direction off Tamar Drive.
"That's why I knew to turn in here," said Rooks, 36. "I don't think I would have found it [without a sign]."
But Victor Washington of Town Center said tracking down pools is part of the fun. He's lived in the area for 10 years and found the Kendall Ridge pool only two years ago.
"It's kind of like an adventure for me," said Washington, 36, a network engineer.
The Columbia Association is also making the pools more financially accessible this year. It is offering residents free admission to all pools July 11 and Aug. 8, and it had a free swim June 13.
The association also dropped the rates for its less popular pools - Faulkner Ridge, Talbott Springs, Hobbit's Glen, Macgill's Common and Jeffers Hill - to $100 per resident family from $175 last year. A new membership for a resident family to all pools costs $273.
Barbara Russell, who represents Oakland Mills on the Columbia Council, pushed for the lower pool fees. But even she doesn't know where all the pools are, despite being one of the town's original residents.
She was recently planning to go to the Huntington pool for her granddaughter's birthday party and had no clue that it was on Murray Hill Drive.
"It turns out I've been driving by there frequently," she said. "But I had no idea it was there."