Soaking In Success At Ouray Hot Springs

By Walker Christensen

Situated in the San Juan Mountains of Southwest Colorado and referred to as the “Switzerland of America,” Ouray is a true gem of the Rocky Mountain Region. The city’s beloved hot springs facility serves the community of 1,000 people as a recreation center as well as a tourist destination that contributes greatly to the local economy. The project—to reimagine the facility—responded to the desire to upgrade the visitor experience without sacrificing the history and character of the original pool. Above all, the goal was to serve citizens and visitors through an inclusive and inviting design. By careful consideration of the resource, the team increased the usable capacity of the pools. The hot/soaking pools now have capacity for more people but are designed to feel more intimate and peaceful. Through collaboration, creative solutions, and a comprehensive public process, the team rejuvenated this treasured amenity so it could return the favor for generations to come.

The Ouray Hot Springs Pool was originally built in the 1920s as a summer facility. In the 1980s, modifications were made that allowed the facility to be open year-round. Over the years, the patchwork of additions and remodels left gaps in the city’s ability to maintain and operate a facility that meets the expectations and needs of visitors. The overall facility includes an outside pool, a two-story bath house, and filtration/pump facilities to supply geothermal mineral water. The goals were to increase capacity, celebrate the mountain surroundings, and pay tribute to the historic oval form of the original pool.

Improving The Visitor Experience
Reconfiguring the original oval into separate pools allowed the design to maintain the overall historic shape, while improving year-round function and maintenance. The three pools are now organized to create grouped activity zones for louder/active areas as well as for quiet soaking areas. Local boulders showcase the regional geology, and concrete paving flows into lawn areas for sunbathers and picnickers. Increased lawn and deck space create more spacious and scenic lounging/gathering areas around the pools; informal pool shapes create more edge and deck space for better circulation and organization of activities. Even though the pools accommodate more people, the space is carefully articulated to make visitors feel less crowded or exposed.

Celebrating The Mountain Setting
The new layout of the pool offers 360-degree views of the mountains, with special focus on Mount Abrams to the south. By developing additional edge space in the pool through longer, linear shapes, more people can now sit along the edge with a view toward Ouray’s most distinguished peak. The climbing wall was a community-driven element, as rock- and ice climbers flock to Ouray from across the region. Citizens brought personal photos to meetings to inform the wall’s ultimate character that reflects and highlights the city’s unique climbing appeal. Other new features include a regulation lap pool, LED water lights to replace the bright over-hanging lights, shade sails, and new water slides designed to sit better within the overall natural surroundings.

Maintaining The Family-Recreation Facility Atmosphere
While many hot springs around the country are private, the Ouray Hot Springs Pool is owned and operated by the city, so it needed to meet the stricter accessibility, community process, and safety guidelines of a public infrastructure project. The pool serves not just the citizens of Ouray and its visitors, but also the surrounding communities that use it to augment their own municipal recreational programming. The design met ADA Guidelines for Recreational Facilities, which include lifts, transfer walls, and sloped entries; transfer walls provide access for the soaking pools. A key safety feature of the pool design is the ramp and shallow pool area that are located directly adjacent to the bathhouse. As a result, visitors (especially excited kids) who enter the outdoor pool areas from the building will have easy access to shallow water as they orient themselves to the different types of pools available. The layout improves the accessibility between the pools, making it easier for parents and lifeguards to observe and enter.

The geothermal resources were engineered to heat 27,000 square feet of pools, using the latest technology to pull all the energy out of the natural water. The team utilized the existing pool shells as much as economically and physically possible to limit the amount of material hauled off-site. Selective demolition decisions were made to change the depth of the pools—a technically difficult task on such an old structure. With the new multi-pool design, the city can now close certain pools in the winter to preserve the geothermal heat; the city is also able to perform maintenance on one pool at a time without shutting down the whole facility.

Challenges And Solutions
The pool’s significance to the local economy and location in an extreme climate at high elevation was a unique challenge that required construction to happen over the off-season winter months. With a radically accelerated timeline, in a high mountain-town climate and geographically remote location, it required a high level of project management to maintain schedules, budget, construction administration, and quality control. Often this type of pool-facility project sees an engineer or architect taking the lead role in design. As landscape architects, DHM Design first brought a site-planning perspective to the visitor experience that was then supported by the technical engineering team. From the public meetings through design and construction administration, the firm managed all aspects of the project and the many consultants and contractors involved. 

Public Process
Similar to developing a community park, the team had to respect and respond to the desires of a tight-knit community that felt a high degree of ownership over the facility. The public was not interested in creating a high-end, resort-level experience that might potentially price people out of the pool. It took a strong public process to understand and accommodate all the different ways people use the hot springs from day to day and generation to generation. The community insights offered a valuable window into the user experience developed over a lifetime of visitation that led to meaningful design solutions in form and function.

Significance To The Economy
The unique nature of this project stems from its prominence as the economic and recreational hub for the entire community and the special considerations known only to large, geothermal mineral-spring facilities. To achieve success, the project required significant effort in planning, facilitation, and coordination between disciplines that landscape architects find themselves uniquely qualified to manage. The expansive curved design of the pools now allows them to hold 750,000 gallons of water that is naturally heated. This means the hot/mineral pools can support over 400 people—an economically significant increase from 80 in the original hot pool. Pools were successfully opened on Memorial Day 2017, and during the busy July Fourth weekend the facility saw 1,400 people through the gates—roughly 50 percent more than the entire city’s official population.

Wallace Stevens once wrote, “Human nature is like water. It takes the shape of its container.” This effort to reimagine the Ouray Hot Springs Pool was a monumental feat in planning, engineering, and public participation so the human experience of visiting one of the largest hot springs in Colorado could be elevated by a creative and purposeful design. The diligent, coordinated interaction between the design team, city, and public shaped a new pool facility that now meets the high expectations of visitors and residents to soak, sunbathe, and rejuvenate. Visitors come from all over the world for the health benefits of the hot mineral waters. The facility is the heart of the community and now provides a more inclusive, accessible, family-friendly, relaxing, and exciting way to experience the pools and amazing scenery for years to come.

Walker Christensen is a Principal with DHM Design in Durango, Colo. His professional experience specializes in public parks, stream and wetland restoration, stormwater reuse, and sustainable design. Reach him at