While there are numerous attractive dales in Yorkshire including Calderdale in South Pennines and the dales of the North York Moors the term 'Yorkshire Dales' denotes the Pennine region between Skipton where the South Pennines end and the A66 where the North Pennines begin. More prosaically the hills of the region are sometimes referred to as the Central Pennines but the Yorkshire Dales, or simply 'The Dales', is much more fitting. In 1954 much of the area was designated part of the Yorkshire Dales National Park.
The dales themselves are a large collection of river valleys that disect this section of the Pennines. In the southern half of the Dales the principal valleys such as Ribblesdale, Malhamdale and Wharfedale run from north to south. In the northern section the valleys run from west to east (Swaledale and Wensleydale) or from east to west (Dentdale and Garsdale) depending upon which side of the main watershed they sit.
Unlike the predominantly gritstone dominated South Pennines and Dark Peak area of the Peak District it is carboniferous limestone that is the principal underlying rock in the Yorkshire Dales. It is the presence of this limestone that creates the unique landscape of scars, shake holes, pot holes etc that make the Yorkshire Dales such a special place.
Perhaps the best place for a first timer to sample the limestone delights of the Yorkshire Dales is Malham. In a reasonably unstrenuous walk of 8 miles you get the opportunity to visit some beautiful waterfalls (including one you get to scramble up alongside), limestone scars, a large upland tarn, a dry limestone valley and most impressively the sheer drop of Malham Cove.
While Malham is justifiably popular there are fantastic limestone features to be found in nearly every valley. Some of my personal favourites include Hull Pot in Ribblesdale, the limestone pavements of Moughton and Norber, the Buttertubs, Gurling Trough and Conistone Dib in Wharfedale to name just a few.
Unlike the industrialised South Pennine and West Pennine areas the Yorkshire Dales today is a primarily rural area with few towns of any great size in the area. In fact the Dales were once much more industrialised than it is today. The main industry was lead mining and another of the interesting aspects of walking in the Yorkshire Dales are the numerous remnants of these mines and their attendent quarries, kilns, chimneys, small reservoirs and hushes. Indeed it is a fascintating place for the budding industrial archaeologist. Perhaps my favourite mining area I have explored are the lead mines above Grassington. Another fascinating place is the small valley of Apedale which is today little known and deserted but which was once heavily mined.
While limestone is the dominant rock in the Dales there are still pockets of gritstone particularly in the south east on Barden and Embsay moors both of which contain numerous gritstone outcrops including Simon's Seat (one of my favourite summits in the Dales) and even a gritstone edge on Cracoe Fell. Gritstone can also be on some of the higher fells, most notably on the upper reaches of Pen-y-Ghent where there is a very marked change between limestone and gritstone.
Due to the number of valleys criss-crossing this area of the Pennines there is a higher concentration of Marilyns in the Dales than anywhere else in the Pennines. The most popular summits are Whernside, Ingleborough and Pen-y-Ghent known collectively as the Three Peaks. Whernside is the highest fell in the Dales, Ingleborough the most popular and Pen-y-Ghent the most shapely. There are plenty of other fantastic hills though. Standing just outside the National Park boundary is Wild Boar Fell which is the equal to any mountain in the whole Pennine range. Particular favourites of mine are Norber and Moughton, two of the smaller hills in terms of height but both blessed with some fine limestone features.
In 2004 I was invited by a friend to attempt the famous Yorkshire Three Peak Challenge. Our first practice walk was around Malham which was swiftly followed by individual ascents of each of the Three Peaks. Prior to this neither of us had much fell walking experience but within a few walks we were completely hooked and it was not long before we made our minds up to visit all the 2000ft summits in the Dales. It was in the Dales that I therefore served my hillwalking apprenticeship. While I have tried to broaden my horizons in the last few years the Yorkshire Dales will always be my first love even if it currently has rivals for my current affections.