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The Fascinating Limestone Geology of the Yorkshire Dales

6 min read

By Anna Brownlow, Head of Product
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Limestone Landscapes

The Yorkshire Dales was designated a National Park back in the 1950s, largely due to its fascinating geological history. The Dales as they are today were primarily formed by glaciation and the natural weathering of the carboniferous limestone that characterises much of the area.

The limestone itself is a sedimentary rock and it was formed during the Carboniferous Period around 340 million years ago. The Yorkshire Dales at that time were to be found somewhere near the Equator under a warm, tropical ocean or giant river delta. The waters were full of creatures and corals and as they died their calcium-rich shells and skeletons settled on the ocean floor. This then built up and compacted over millions of years, eventually creating limestone from the sediments and the vast pressure of the ocean water. The shells, skeletons and the mineral calcite gives the rock its white or light grey colour, but this can vary depending on the other sediments that were mixed in with it such as sand.

Carboniferous limestone is a soft rock and if you scratch it with a sharp object it will mark quite easily and produce powdered rock. It’s also soluble to rainwater over a very long period of time and eventually, the many joints and fissures in the rock get eroded away. This erosion along with abrasion from sand and pebbles and spray from waterfalls produces many spectacular “karstic” limestone surface features such as pavements and underground features such as vast cave networks.

Limestone Features in the Yorkshire Dales

  1. Caves
  2. Limestone Pavements
  3. Scars
  4. Shake Holes
  5. Sink Holes
  6. Dry Valleys
  7. Waterfalls


| Walkthrough of Stump Cross Caverns

Caves are a large, but mostly unseen part of the limestone landscape of the Yorkshire Dales with over 2500 known caves. Most can be explored by experienced cavers only, a few you can walk into with care and some are set up as show caves as a tourist attraction.

The Three Counties cave is the longest and deepest cave system in Britain. It has over 90km of passageways connecting a few different systems together and still growing.

Gaping Gill, the chamber cave on the slopes of Ingleborough is large enough to house St Pauls Cathedral. Each year there are a couple of weekends when the local caving club (Craven and Bradford Pothole Clubs) sets up a winch to lower members of the public into the main chamber.

In Victoria Cave in Langcliffe Scar, above Settle (along with other caves in the scar) there were some amazing archaeological finds. Examples include fossilised bones of hippos and elephants over 120,000 years old. There were many bones that were dragged in by Hyenas and Brown bears when they used the cave to hibernate. Reindeer bones were also found and an 11,000-year-old antler harpoon point, the first evidence of people to be found in the Dales. There were also Romano- British objects that showed Romans had used the cave too at some point.

If you’re interested in seeing inside a cave including its many features such as stalactites, stalagmites and underground rivers, you can visit the various show caves. There is Stump Cross Caverns near Grassington, White Scar Caves near Ingleton and Ingleborough Cave near Clapham.

Limestone Pavements

limestone geology of the yorkshire dales

Limestone Pavement on Top of Malham Cove

Limestone pavements are glacially smoothed areas of flat, grey, limestone rock incised with deep fissures. They’re often found at the top of a cliff in the hillside (known as a ‘scar’). It’s a natural karst landscape where the exposed rock surface has been weathered by the slightly acidic rain to form fissures (grykes) and leaving standing blocks (clints)

The pavements are usually in areas grazed by sheep but still manage to be botanically rich, although it might not seem like it at first glance! Have a look down in the grykes where the shelter provides a safe haven for some rarer plants such as ferns and saxifrage.

Limestone pavements are synonymous with the Yorkshire Dales, and the southwestern area has the finest examples including:

Malham Cove

Just outside the village of Malham is probably the most famous having been featured in a Harry Potter film. Its fame is well deserved as its spectacularly situated at the top of a huge cliff which forms a natural amphitheatre where there used to be a waterfall.

Twistleton Scar

Situated above Ingleton. With its twisted and wind-affected trees that have somehow managed to hang on amongst the rock formations, it is a striking area to take a good photo as well as admire the views of the surrounding countryside.


Gordale Scar

There are many limestone scars (cliffs) in the Yorkshire Dales but Gordale Scar is arguably the best. It has a hidden gorge and waterfall rich in dissolved limestone producing the soft, brown, tufa screen. A trip up to Gordale Scar can be combined in a walk to the spectacular cliff of Malham Cove for a fantastic day out.

Kilnsey Crag

Kilnsey is a striking crag as you travel up Wharfedale formed by the massive force of the Wharfedale glacier moving slowly down the valley and cutting away a huge mass of limestone. It’s very appealing to climbers with its fearsome overhang.

Shake Holes

Shake holes are small depressions in the landscape. Formed when surface water washes boulder clay down into cracks or fissures in the limestone under the clay. They’re often grouped together and you’ll see “shake holes” written on ordnance survey maps.

Sink Holes

Sink holes are larger holes that are also known as swallow holes. Buttertubs Pass between Swaledale and Wensleydale has a feature called the Buttertubs. These provide a visible example of vertical-sided sinkholes that have been cut into the limestone, leaving between them undercut and unstable rock pillars about 10m tall.

Dry Valleys


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Above Malham Cove there lies a dry valley known called Watlowes Valley. It’s a limestone gorge which was carved out by glaciers flowing from Malham Tarn above, down to what used to be a huge waterfall over Malham Cove.

The valley no longer has any water flowing as there is an area above which is known as Water Sinks where funnily enough the water sinks into the ground and flows through a cave system before appearing again at the bottom of Malham Cove.

Again this can be combined with a visit to Gordale Scar and Malham Cove on a circular walk.


Ingleton Waterfall Trail

Ingleton Waterfall Trail

Ingleton Waterfall Trail

This walk is a 5-mile loop of a series of waterfalls on two different rivers, the full loop has an entry fee but it’s well worth it. Thornton Force is the jewel in the crown with its 14m high drop over a limestone cliff into a natural amphitheatre.

Aysgarth Falls

Aysgarth Falls

Aysgarth Falls

Located in Wensleydale, Aysgarth Falls is known for its triple flight of waterfalls on the River Ure. The three areas of cascades are known as Upper, Middle and Lower and are made up of layers of limestone and the softer shales and sandstones.

Hardraw Force

Hardraw Force

Hardraw Force

This waterfall is close to the village of Hawes in Wensleydale. It also has an entry fee as it’s on private property, but once through you can view Englands highest single drop waterfall at 30 metres. Like Aysgarth further down the dale, its rock is made up of layers of limestone and shale.

Our Trips in Yorkshire

Meet the Author: Anna Brownlow

I am part of the Operations team, looking after all the trip logistics, although I work in the office day to day, I do get out and guide the odd trip or two. I’m originally from Yorkshire and grew up exploring the dales, mountains, lakes and rivers of Northern England. I still think there is nothing better than a day out in the fells, followed by either tea and cake in one of the many gorgeous tea rooms or a pint in a cosy English pub.

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