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When on holiday in a region I like to do day hikes to enjoy the outdoors and the scenery. Sometimes the local tourist office has some information but when that's not the case I try to use on-line resources to identify interesting hikes. My question is about the latter case and I will use a recent example to illustrate the question below. However, it's just an example and I would like to learn more general techniques to tackle the problem of identifying if a trail will have good views.

Recently I went to the Vosges region in France. Once there, I used wikiloc and alltrails to find hiking trails that matched some criteria (i.e. loop trails, suitable for a day, a duration matching my available time, etc...). Often I felt overwhelmed with the number of possible trails and just picked one, more or less at random. The hikes were nice, but I sometimes wondered if I could have made a choice where the hike would be even more beautiful*.

How can I identify from a map how visually appealing the views from the trail will be? I hope to do this in a similar fashion as I can use contour lines to gauge how steep a path will be.

*I realise that beautiful means different things to different people, I consider hiking with a view of the surroundings beautiful and find hikes where you walk through e.g. pinewoods less interesting.

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You're right to expect that a good map will help. Familiarity with the region will also help you know what to expect; photos or even Street View along roads running through comparable nearby terrain can be compared with the map. Also if there are roads nearby, look for map symbols indicating viewpoints and try to find a parallel, probably higher, trail (viewpoint symbols, which are often a partial circle of wedges spreading from a point, may be shown on trails too, but IME are more common on or very near roads).

Using the contours again you can get an idea of how expansive the views are, at least. It helps if the map indicates whether you're in forest or open country, but if the land drops steeply you should get views between the trees in places, so if there's a screen of trees between you and the view, look out for openings where the trees nicely frame what you can see.

Let's assume a candidate trail runs along a hillside, fairly high up - that's a good starting position. Follow the contours down the hill, and back up again. Over a wide arc, you want some distance, probably several km, before the land rises to about the altitude of the trail, and it should probably keep rising. You can use trigonometry to work out if you'll see further hills behind the closest ones - this simplifies though - a hill twice as far away needs to be twice as far up from you to be at the same inclination angle. To get the effect of stacked ridges, you want hills that get higher faster than they get further away - or to be at a similar height yourself to the hills you're looking at.

Time of day is worth considering alongside the openness of the views. If you start before dawn, you may want to be in place for these open views to face east to the sunrise, and if you're out at dusk (perhaps planning a camping spot), west towards the sunset. But if you're not out quite that early/late, walking towards a low sun doesn't give the best views; instead look for the dramatic shadows as the sun side-lights the high bits while leaving the valleys in darkness.

The map will also show you water. You may want to pass low next to a lake if the weather forecast suggests it will be still, to get reflecting views (but if this is important, look for indications of boating activity to avoid).

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Some maps have markers for particularly nice viewpoints.

In general*, they consist of "rays" (narrow triangles, circle sections or the like) going from the viewpoint into the directions of the view. Color is not standardized, I've seen them e.g. in blue, red, brown or black - with red often preferred on tourist maps, black on topographic maps.


These are the viewpoint symbol used by openstreetmap: viewpoint (carto renderer), opentopomap viewpoint opentopomap and Kompass** map viewpoint symbol red

There may be variants with the "rays" going only into certain directions which will then indicate the direction of the view.

Example from opentopomap, view towards western directions:
viewpoint towards west

Kompass map: view towards western directions

There are further relevant symbols, e.g. opentopomap uses lookout tower symbol for lookout towers, Kompass enter image description here.


More "touristy" maps often have more viewpoints marked, whereas the reader of a topographic map may be expected to be sufficiently proficient in map reading to identify obvious view points by themselves. As an example in the Vosges, if the map indicates a ballon with grasland on top, you may be expected to conclude on your own that you'll have a nice view (as outlined in @ChrisH's answer). On a generally wooded hill or from a trail that is winding along in between rocks, it may be impractical to try finding the nice views from topography only (you'd need both large scale map to determine whether there is nothing to block your view immediately, plus large area overview to determine what you'll see further away. Plus you'd need to know whether the indicated type of local vegetation is likely to block your view).

Examples:

  • Hoherodskopf (the directed viewpoint example from above). Here, general topography allows to spot this as a good viewpoint: the top of a meadow, just below the forest that covers the highest elevation in the region. The western direction is towards a longish valley that opens into a flat before the next hill range starts some 40 km away.
    The viewpoint symbol confirms that - it is actually a regionally famous viewpoint.

  • Bärenstein
    Bärenstein

    A hill sticking moderately out of its surroundings. However, it is completely covered by wood, so less chance of a view. OTOH, it is pretty steep, which increases chances for a view within a wooded area. In fact, there are several view points - but we could not have concluded further than the chance to encounter viewpoints from the topographic map alone here. (There also used to be an observation tower which is not indicated in the map)

  • The ridge from Kuhkopf to Dachskopf
    Winterstein - Kuhkopf

    ... currently offers some nice views towards south east. However, there is no whatsover indication in the map. The views exist only because of recent storm and draught damage which has been cleared away. Already in a few years, the viewpoints will be much less because of tall grass, bushes and brambles. That would be too short a timeframe for marking viewpoints on a map.
    You may be able identify such areas from satelitte imagery together with the map.

    I extended the map section to the north east to include an observation tower which is more permanent.


* I can really speak only for the map symbols as used commonly in Central Europe.

** Kompass is an Austrian map publisher who have lots of touristic hiking maps in their program. Personally, I don't like them much. I've found them not as reliable as I'd have wished (and as I'm used to from the official topo maps or the Alpine club map series).

Personally, I go for the official topographic maps or the Alpine club maps which give me better topographic detail (e.g. finer elevation lines). However, the Kompass maps focus much more on touristic symbols, including viewpoints. In my opinion, it also has low information density, i.e. the amount of information (elevation lines, symbols, ...) are often what I'd find appropriate for a smaller scale map. So they may meet OP's requirements to help finding viewpoints.

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The simplest idea I use is: choose a trail which follows a ridge. These should be beautiful regardless of which specific sites they pass by. As an added bonus, if you are in a new area, such trails can help you get a general idea of the surroundings, and give you inspiration on which additional sites you want to visit next.

Maps usually show where trees are; you probably want to avoid these.

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