Humans, especially hikers, are obsessed with good views. I know I am. We’re exceedingly willing to put ourselves through the ringer for the chance to stand somewhere pretty and look around. But when we finally get there, or are asked to describe the view to others, our words fail us. We may be enjoying the view immensely, but we fall back on the same old superlatives. “Breathtaking! Amazing! Beautiful! Jaw-dropping! Gorgeous!”
Language matters. The more words we have to describe things, the better the discourse on that subject can be. It’s as true for hiking as it is for microbiology. So let’s apply that thinking to the study of views. What is a view and how can we can compare one to another? What do the very best views have in common and what can that teach us? In this article, I’ll break down what a view actually is, separate out the subjective bits, and leave readers with some criteria to objectively describe, discuss, and evaluate views in context.
For starters, let’s go over some terminology. The Oxford Dictionary defines a view as, “A sight or prospect, typically of attractive natural scenery, that can be taken in by the eye from a particular place.” Imagine plopping yourself down anywhere in the world, and looking forward. Everything in your field of vision is a view and it is roughly 200 degrees from side to side and 150 degrees vertically. A view always occurs from a viewpoint, which is a specific place from which multiple views can be had. Looking directly in front of and directly behind you are different views from the same viewpoint.
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But there’s more to how we take in a view than just surroundings, and all of it together can be summed up as the viewing experience. Weather, lighting, crowds and other temporal factors comprise the local conditions. For example, a crowded, rainy Sunday summit might lead to a much worse viewing experience than alone on the following sunny Monday from the same viewpoint. But there’s also mental stuff that affects the viewing experience. For instance, personal preferences, how happy you are at the time, who you’re with, and the context given by all of the other views you’ve ever seen. Those influences are your subjective conditions. And together, the view, the local conditions, and the subjective conditions form the viewing experience.
Every person experiences nature differently, and every trip into nature is different. That’s why local and subjective conditions play such a huge role in our viewing experience. But the very things that make one’s viewing experience unique are also what makes them seemingly impossible to contextualize and compare. Therefore, having acknowledged and described the holistic viewing experience, this article will henceforth do away with viewing experiences, local conditions, and subjective conditions, and discuss only the basic concept of a view in the abstract.
So how can one break down a view even further, and how does one compare a view from the summit of Mount Fuji to that of Delicate Arch? Easy! I believe there are three universale traits that all views share, no matter what you’re seeing: Vastness, Grandeur, and Detail.
The first trait is Vastness which refers to the size, distance, and expansiveness of the view. Put another way: How much openness is there? Examples of views with high Vastness would include looking off the summit of Mt. Rainier, across the open ocean, and out an airplane window. Examples of views that lack vastness include looking into slot canyons, forests, and caves. There’s intrinsically nothing wrong with these places, they simply reduce your line of site.
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The second trait, and my personal favorite, is Grandeur, which refers to the focal point of the view and how much of your field of vision it takes up, both vertically and horizontally. Does a mountain rise up above you? Does the view make you feel small and/or insignificant? Those are signs of a view with grandeur. Examples include looking up from the base of Mt. Rainier or el Cap in Yosemite, or looking out from a middle shelf of the Grand Canyon. Example views that lack grandeur include looking down from an airplane (you know, the cars-look-like-ants metaphor), looking out upon the open ocean, or from atop the summit Mt. Rainier. That last one may come as a surprise. Views from tall, isolated summits like Rainier’s are grand indeed, but lack grandeur because everything around them seems small and insignificant.
The third and final trait is Detail, which refers to all of the surfaces in your field of vision. Is there lots to see and pick out, or is it mostly flat, blank, and textureless? The former indicates lots of detail, while the latter indicates a lack of it. Examples of views with a very high detail score would be looking into the Grand Canyon, down onto a city from a skyscraper, or up at a crevassed glacier. Example of low detail scores could include looking onto a grasslands, Antarctic plains, or the open ocean.
To bring it all together, Vastness, Grandeur, and Detail comprise the three main tenets of what most people appreciate in a view. And this system checks out. From the rim of the Grand Canyon to Taft Point. From the top story of the Empire State Building to Paradise at Mt. Rainier. All of these classic viewpoints demonstrate excellent views with considerable Vastness, Grandeur, and Detail. People simply love looking up and off into the distance at large, varied landscapes. It’s in our DNA.
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So next time someone asks you where to go hiking, help them figure out what they value most in a good view and serve them the best possible recommendation. Or use this language to debate with your friends if the summit of Mt. Shasta is a better viewpoint than Mt. Whitney. However you put these terms to use, you’ll be propagating a system to help everyone understand views a little bit better. How grand is that?