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What is a Valley?

Mary McMahon
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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A valley is an area of elongated lowland, typically surrounded by much higher hills or mountains. It is one of many geological features that make up the surface of the Earth, and it is of special interest and importance to humans, thanks to the fact that valleys have a number of uses. This landform is also quite abundant.

Some geologists break up valleys by type on the basis of how they are formed. A rift valley is formed through separation of the Earth's crust, caused by violent tectonic movements; a notable example is the Great Rift Valley in Africa. A glacial valley is on that has been formed by a glacier; they are especially common in Europe and have a distinctive U-shaped profile when viewed in cross-section. River valleys are formed through the slow process of erosion by water over the course of centuries, and they typically have a V-shaped profile.

Unlike a canyon, a valley is broad, with a large area of floor, rather than a narrow profile. Valleys are generally easy to navigate, and they tend to have a different climate than the surrounding area. It is also common for them to have rich deposits of alluvial mud, making these areas ideal for agriculture. As a result, many human civilizations have settled in valleys, taking advantage of the rivers which often wind through them as a source of water.

Viewed from overhead, a valley often stands out from the surrounding terrain because it has different plant life than the surrounding hills and mountains. This can cause the area to appear lighter in color than the surrounding land, especially when the valley has been cultivated or shaped by humans in some way. The sloping sides also tend to give it away, leading the eye to the deepest part of the floor.

Valleys also have unique weather because their sloping sides can trap hot air, causing the area to warm up considerably in the summer. A valley may also act to trap fog and low-lying clouds, creating a very misty environment. People who live there often bemoan their unique weather, with some people choosing to live on the sloping sides to avoid the stagnant weather conditions which may abound at the floor.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a All Things Nature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By StarJo — On Nov 15, 2012

I don't live near any mountains, but I do live in an area that has hills with steep valleys. I've heard these called gullies and ravines, but both terms are incorrect.

Gullies are formed by quick moving storm water, and ravines are formed by rivers. These hillside valleys don't have any water running through them. They are usually covered in kudzu and shaded by trees.

By cloudel — On Nov 15, 2012

I have a fear of heights, so I love valleys! When I went on vacation with my family last year, they wanted to hike up the mountain, so I told them just to leave me in the valley to explore.

I think that the plant life down there was so much more beautiful than the trees and snow on the mountains. I saw all kinds of brightly colored flowers, and the grass had never looked so green anywhere else.

I had a great view of the mountainside, but I didn't have to climb it. I enjoyed my time in the valley very much.

By lighth0se33 — On Nov 14, 2012

@wavy58 – I think valleys are warmer because the wind can't get to them and cool them off. I know that when I go around to the south side of my house in winter where the wind can't reach me, I stay a lot warmer, and this is because the heat is stuck there. The cold wind can't reach it to blow it away.

By wavy58 — On Nov 13, 2012

I think it's strange that valleys are full of trapped warm air. I've always heard that warm air rises and cool air sinks, since cool air is heavier, so it would seem that cold air would fall into the valley and become trapped.

However, I also know that it is cooler at higher elevations, like on top of mountains. I just don't get how this is possible, since cooler air is supposed to sink!

By GrumpyGuppy — On Oct 24, 2010

@dill1971: Death Valley (it is a valley) is actually a long depression set in barren and unpopulated country. It is over 130 miles long but only 12 miles wide. From an elevation at 1000 meters at the northern end, the land slopes down and for 70 miles, the floor is below sea level. It reaches a low point of -86 meters at Badwater. Badwater is the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere.

By WaterHopper — On Oct 24, 2010

@dill1971: Yes, Death Valley is an actual valley. The valley is a narrow and long basin that is 282 feet below sea level and surrounded by steep, high mountain ranges.

Death Valley is the best geological example of a basin and range configuration. It lies at the south end of the geological through known as Walker Lane, which runs into Oregon.

Death Valley’s shape and depth influence the temperatures during the summer. The air, being clean and dry, along with sparse plant life, allows sunlight to heat the desert surface. Night time doesn’t provide much relief. The overnight lows often only dip down into the high 80’s and low 90’s. Masses of super-heated air blow through Death Valley, creating extremely high temperatures.

By dill1971 — On Oct 24, 2010

Is Death Valley in California an actual valley or is that just its name?

By anon68235 — On Mar 01, 2010

this is a great site.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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