The Dales comprises river valleys and the hills, rising from the Vale of York westwards to the hilltops of the Pennine watershed. In Ribblesdale, Dentdale and Garsdale, the area extends westwards across the watershed, but most of the valleys drain eastwards to the Vale of York, into the Ouse and the Humber. The extensive limestone cave systems are a major area for caving in the UK.
The word dale, like dell, is derived from the Old English word dæl. It has cognates in the Nordic/Germanic words for valley (dal, tal), and occurs in valley names across Yorkshire and Northern England. Usage here may have been reinforced by Nordic languages during the time of the Danelaw.
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 Yorkshire Dales spread to the north from the market and spa towns of Settle, Skipton, Ilkley and Harrogate in North Yorkshire, to the southern boundary in Wharfedale and Airedale. Natural England define the area as mots of the Yorkshire Dales National Park with fringes of the Nidderdale AONB, but without the towns listed above apart from Settle. The lower reaches of Airedale and Wharfedale are not usually included in the area, and Calderdale, south of Airedale , is not often considered 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.
Most of the larger southern dales, Ribblesdale, Malhamdale and Airedale, Wharfedale and Nidderdale, run 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. Many upland areas consist of heather moorland, used for grouse shooting from 12 August (the Glorious Twelfth).
Much of the rural area is used for agriculture, with residents living in small villages and hamlets or in farmsteads. Miles of dry stone walls and much of the traditional architecture has remained, including some field barns, though many are no longer in active use. Breeding of sheep and rearing of cattle remains common. To supplement their incomes, many farmers have diversified, with some providing accommodations for tourists. A number of agricultural shows are held each year.
Lead mining was common in some areas of the Dales in the 19th century, particularly during 1821 to 1861, and some industrial remains can still be found, such as the Grassington miners’ cottages. Certain former mining sites are maintained by Historic England. The Grassington Moor Lead Mining Trail, with its many remaining structures, has received funding from a variety of sources. The National Parks Service provides an app for those who wish to explore the relevant areas.
In this primarily agricultural area, tourism has become an important contributor to the economy. In 2016, there were 3.8 million visits to the Yorkshire Dales National Park including 0.48 million who stayed at least one night. The parks service estimates that this contributed £252 million to the economy and provided 3,583 full time equivalent jobs. The wider Yorkshire Dales area received 9.7 million visitors who contributed £644 million to the economy.
Visitors are often attracted by the hiking trails, including some that lead to beautiful waterfalls and by the picturesque villages. The latter include Kirkby Lonsdale, Hawes, Appletreewick, Masham, Clapham, Long Preston and Malham.
The dales are 'U' and 'V' shaped valleys, the former enlarged and shaped by glaciers, mainly in the most recent Devensian ice age. The underlying rock is mainly Carboniferous Limestone, which results in a large areas of karst topography, in places overlain with shale and sandstone and topped with Millstone Grit, although to the north and west of the Dent Fault the hills are formed from older Silurian and Ordovician rocks.
The underlying limestone in parts of the Dales has extensive cave systems, including the 87-kilometre (54-mile) long Three Counties System, making it a major area for caving in the UK. Some caves are open to the public for tours.
The systems include:
- Gaping Gill System
- Alum Pot System
- Mossdale 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
- All Creatures Great and Small
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- Yorkshire Dales Tourist Board
- Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority
- Yorkshire Dales Community Pages
- Yorkshire Dales Society
- Yorkshire Dales Rivers Trust