The area lies within the county boundaries of historic Yorkshire, though it spans the ceremonial counties of North Yorkshire and Cumbria. Most of the area falls within the Yorkshire Dales National Park, created in 1954 and now one of the fifteen National parks of Britain, but the term also includes areas to the east of the National Park, notably Nidderdale.
The Dales is a collection of river valleys and the hills among them, rising from the Vale of York westwards to the hilltops of the main Pennine watershed. In some places, such as Ribblesdale and Dentdale, the area extends westwards across the watershed, but most of the valleys drain eastwards to the Vale of York, into the Ouse and then the Humber.
The word dale comes from the Nordic/Germanic word for valley (dal, tal), and occurs in valley names across Yorkshire and Northern England, but the name Yorkshire Dales is generally used to refer specifically to the dales west of the Vale of York and north of the West Yorkshire Urban Area.
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Most of the dales are named after their river or stream (e.g., Arkengarthdale, formed by Arkle Beck). The best-known exception is Wensleydale, which is named after the small village and former market town of Wensley, rather than the River Ure, although an older name for the dale is Yoredale. River valleys all over Yorkshire are called "(name of river)+dale"—but only the more northern valleys (and only the upper, rural, reaches) are included in the term "The Dales". The southern boundary area lies in Wharfedale and Airedale. The lower reaches of these valleys are not usually included in the area, and Calderdale, much further south, is not part of the Dales even though it is a dale, is in Yorkshire, and its upper reaches are as scenic and rural as many further north.
Geographically, the Yorkshire Dales spread to the north from the market and spa towns of Settle, Skipton, Ilkley and Harrogate in North Yorkshire, with most of the larger southern dales, Ribblesdale, Malhamdale and Airedale, Wharfedale and Nidderdale, running roughly parallel from north to south. The more northerly dales, Wensleydale and Swaledale run generally from west to east. There are many other smaller or lesser known dales such as Arkengarthdale, Bishopdale, Clapdale, Coverdale, Kingsdale, Littondale, Langstrothdale, Raydale, Waldendale and the Washburn Valley whose tributary streams and rivers feed into the larger valleys, and Barbondale, Dentdale, Deepdale and Garsdale which feed west to the River Lune.
The characteristic scenery of the Dales is green upland pastures separated by dry-stone walls and grazed by sheep and cattle. The dales are 'U' and 'V' shaped valleys enlarged and shaped by glaciers, mainly in the most recent Devensian ice age. The underlying rock is Carboniferous Limestone (which results in a number of areas of limestone pavement) in places interspersed with shale and sandstone and topped with Millstone Grit. To the north and west of the Dent Fault, the hills are formed from older Silurian and Ordovician rocks, which make up the Howgill Fells.
The majority of visitors are sightseers, with 75% visiting to drive around and 65% walking around. This indicates that most are there to take in the beauty of the surroundings. 26% also partake in hiking nature trails and spotting wildlife. 45% visit an information centre and 35% visit a castle or other historic site. 94% of visitors travel in a private mode of transport, with 90% using a car. The remaining 6% travel using public transport.
The systems include:
- Gaping Gill System
- Alum Pot System
- Mossdale Caverns
- Kingsdale Caverns
- Leck Fell Caves
- Easegill System
- White Scar Caves in Chapel-le-Dale near Ingleton,
- Ingleborough Cave in Clapdale near Clapham
- Stump Cross Caverns near Pateley Bridge.
- Goyden System near Pateley Bridge
- List of Yorkshire Dales
- List of peaks in the Yorkshire Dales
- Geology of Yorkshire
- All Creatures Great and Small (TV series)
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- Yorkshire Dales Tourist Board
- Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority
- Yorkshire Dales Community Pages
- Yorkshire Dales Society
- Yorkshire Dales Rivers Trust