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A sculpture of the sun marks the start of the Planetenwanderweg hiking trail in Nonnweiler, Germany. The trail is designed as a scale model of the solar system; hikers begin at the sun and pass markers bearing information about each planet.
A sculpture of the sun marks the start of the Planetenwanderweg hiking trail in Nonnweiler, Germany. The trail is designed as a scale model of the solar system; hikers begin at the sun and pass markers bearing information about each planet. ()
A sculpture of the sun marks the start of the Planetenwanderweg hiking trail in Nonnweiler, Germany. The trail is designed as a scale model of the solar system; hikers begin at the sun and pass markers bearing information about each planet.
A sculpture of the sun marks the start of the Planetenwanderweg hiking trail in Nonnweiler, Germany. The trail is designed as a scale model of the solar system; hikers begin at the sun and pass markers bearing information about each planet. ()
Hikers work their way back to the start of the trail at the Planetenwanderweg hiking trail in Nonnweiler, Germany. The hike is unequivocally beautiful, with sprawling views of a lake, rivers, tree-lined banks and the charming town of Nonnweiler.
Hikers work their way back to the start of the trail at the Planetenwanderweg hiking trail in Nonnweiler, Germany. The hike is unequivocally beautiful, with sprawling views of a lake, rivers, tree-lined banks and the charming town of Nonnweiler. ()
A winding road leads deep into the woods at the Planetenwanderweg hiking trail in Nonnweiler, Germany.
A winding road leads deep into the woods at the Planetenwanderweg hiking trail in Nonnweiler, Germany. ()
A marker with information about Saturn stands along the Planetenwanderweg hiking trail in Nonnweiler, Germany. The trail begins at a sculpture of the sun and offers markers bearing information about each planet in the solar system.
A marker with information about Saturn stands along the Planetenwanderweg hiking trail in Nonnweiler, Germany. The trail begins at a sculpture of the sun and offers markers bearing information about each planet in the solar system. ()
Two intersecting rivers and a lake provide the setting for the Planetenwanderweg hiking trail in Nonnweiler, Germany.
Two intersecting rivers and a lake provide the setting for the Planetenwanderweg hiking trail in Nonnweiler, Germany. ()

It’s not the final frontier.

Men, women and definitely a lot of dogs have gone there before.

I discovered pretty quickly that the Planetenwanderweg falls a bit short of fully executing its spacey concept as a scale model of the solar system. What it is, however, is a beautiful, serene hike along a stunning stretch of Saarland scenery.

The Planetenwanderweg — which, as one of those satisfyingly literal German compound words, translates to planet hiking trail — was unveiled in 1996, a cooperative effort between the city of Nonnweiler, a local astronomy scholar and the authority that operates the dam upon which the trail begins.

The concept behind the trail is simple, if a bit of an awkward fit. It’s a representation, on a scale of one to one billion, of the distances between the planets.

The hiker begins the journey at the sun, a large yellow orb sticking out of a metal pole. A short distance later there’s a small brick column bearing information about Mercury, the planet closest to the sun. Soon after there’s one about Venus, then the Earth, its moon and Mars. This continues all the way out to the potentially controversial inclusion of disgraced former planet Pluto.

The hike itself is unequivocally beautiful, with sprawling views of a lake, the Prims and Altbach rivers, their tree-lined shores and the charming town of Nonn-weiler far below.

The space theme, meanwhile, falls somewhere between an annoyance and a pleasant, random diversion. The five initial signposts are reached in the first 228 meters of the six-kilometer trail. As I stood on the concrete sidewalk near the marker for Mars, I peered into the distance and tried to imagine a supply ship docking with the International Space Station. But all I saw was a Peugeot delivering a crate of Coca-Cola to the kiosk.

Beyond Mars, the trail takes a sharp turn up a steep incline to a ledge around the lake. This offers even better scenic vistas at the expense of thematic cohesion; if the trail was meant to evoke the vastness of space, a straight line might have been preferable to the abrupt right turn.

The theme continues to fizzle out as one encounters the increasingly anticlimactic distant planets, and collapses in on itself when the one-way trail ends at Pluto and abandons hikers to either retrace their steps or follow an unadorned six-kilometer trail looping back to the sun.

It’s best, then, to think of Planetenwanderweg as an outstanding 12-kilometer hike with a really bizarre set of signposts. It’s a world-class example of purely terrestrial beauty.

broome.gregory@stripes.com

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