Can the word inlet be used for mountains, too? I'm looking for a word that describes valleys that reach into the mountain, but don't go across it.

Here is a picture that tries to describe what I'm looking for.

Diagram of geography

I found this picture with a coulee. Is that a good word?

I'm not specifically looking for steep valleys or canyons, but rather for soft valleys.

EDIT: Thanks a lot for the input. I think I'm going with “a valley that reaches into the mountain but doesn't cross it”. I think notch is also good, but isn't as easy to understand for non-native speakers, which are my targeted readers. Seems like notch isn't what I want either. Maybe combe?

  • 2
    It probably depends partly on the specific geological processes that created the feature, but I imagine they'd usually be formed by water erosion. In which case they'd be ravines (the example usage in that definition being "The river washed a ravine into the mountainside"). Commented Oct 22, 2015 at 13:27
  • @FumbleFingers: Is ravine dependent on size? Could a ravine be several kilometers wide? Commented Oct 22, 2015 at 13:30
  • If the [eroding] water was frozen, it would be a [glacial] cirque, but I'm not a geologist. Commented Oct 22, 2015 at 13:32
  • 1
    Coulee are typically made from lava flows. Is your picture of a volcano?
    – Ruut
    Commented Oct 22, 2015 at 13:46
  • 1
    Merriam-Webster defines notch as "a narrow passage between mountains", which isn't quite what you want. Confirmed by the OED, which adds chiefly N. Amer. Commented Oct 22, 2015 at 15:23

14 Answers 14


I suggest valley or, more specifically, U-shaped valley which, I presume means open-ended.

enter image description here http://www.sciencepartners.info/?page_id=1253

ravine a small, deep, narrow valley

cirque A steep-walled hollow in a mountain side, shaped like an amphitheater, or bowl, with one side partially cut away. Place of origin of a mountain glacier.

gully a ravine formed by the action of water.

couloir a steep gorge or gully on the side of a mountain, especially in the Alps.


I have found a diagram that I think covers the subject pretty adequately.

enter image description here

Picture from compassdude.com

  • 1
    I'll add some evidence to support the use of 'valley'. Be right back. Commented Oct 22, 2015 at 13:55
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    A U-shaped valley is U-shaped in cross-section. It has nothing to do with its being open-ended. (Contrast a V-shaped valley.)
    – TRiG
    Commented Oct 22, 2015 at 15:24
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    Where I grew up in California, there were lots of these. We called them valleys, whether they went through the hills or not. Commented Oct 22, 2015 at 15:31
  • 7
    Geography class in school. V-shaped valleys are carved by water; U-shaped by ice. So the name has to do with the shape in cross-section. (Both will be open-ended, yes, but that's not where the name comes from, and "open-ended valley" != "U-shaped valley".)
    – TRiG
    Commented Oct 22, 2015 at 15:32
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    Why post a presumption as an answer? Kind of amazed that anyone in the UK comes out of school not knowing what a U shaped valley is... it seemed in my schooldays that we spoke of little but drumlins, terminal moraines, U shaped valleys and roche moutonnées... :)
    – Spagirl
    Commented Dec 22, 2016 at 11:30

draw (or re-entrant)

Draw (terrain)

A draw differs from a valley or an arroyo, in that the ground always slopes downward from a draw in only one direction, and upward in the other three.


enter image description here

Picture from armystudyguide.com

  • Draws are similar to valleys on a smaller scale. I think a draw is on a too small a scale for me. Commented Oct 22, 2015 at 14:25
  • What scale are you looking for? Commented Oct 22, 2015 at 14:29
  • scale of a valley. Commented Oct 22, 2015 at 14:30
  • Okay, so 'valley'. Commented Oct 22, 2015 at 14:33
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    Okay, I think I've found the definitive diagram. I've added it to my 'valley' answer. Commented Oct 22, 2015 at 14:42

To be more specific than valley, it's a combe. Alternative forms are "comb", "coomb" and "coombe".

It defines a short valley or deep hollow, esp in chalk areas, a valley enclosed on all but one side.


  • The question was specifically about valleys in mountains, what makes a word for a valley in downlands an appropriate answer? The placenames incorporating combe are not noticeably in mountainous areas. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Combe
    – Spagirl
    Commented Dec 22, 2016 at 11:35

Inlet is used only for water-filled valleys, so wouldn't be appropriate. Valley is correct to describe these formations. Most valleys do not go 'all the way across' a mountain. That would be called a 'pass'

Worldwide there are lots of local words for this type of thing. One of my favourites is cwm, (pronounced "koom") originally a Welsh word but accepted in English, meaning a small bowl-shaped valley. You have already mentioned coulee, which is more general and could be applied.

Another English term for something similar, but specifically with steep sides is corrie (from the Gaelic coire). They can also be referred to as 'bowls'.

(Incidentally, the definition of cwm is evidence of the use of valley for a formation that doesn't go all the way across a mountain.)

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    Cwm in Welsh; corrie in Irish & Scots Gaelic. Both words have passed into English.
    – TRiG
    Commented Oct 22, 2015 at 15:26
  • @TRiG Or rather, corrie in English; coire (meaning literally ‘cauldron’) in Irish and Scottish Gaelic. Commented Oct 22, 2015 at 16:00
  • I love using cwm in hangman.
    – Nelson
    Commented Oct 23, 2015 at 6:33
  • Isn't coombe the English spelling of cwm?
    – Marthaª
    Commented Oct 29, 2015 at 18:10

Notches or Saddles.

As you can see on Bald Mountain:

Bald Mountain

A series of notches can create a saddle.

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    A saddle crosses the mountain, that's not what I want. But searching for notch I came across (besides a million pictures of the Minecraft dude) the second picture on this page which could be what I want, thanks! Commented Oct 22, 2015 at 13:42
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    Merriam-Webster defines notch as "a narrow passage between mountains", which isn't quite what you want. Confirmed by the OED, which adds Chiefly N. Amer. Commented Oct 22, 2015 at 15:26
  • A saddle by definition crosses a mountain.
    – Mark
    Commented Oct 22, 2015 at 20:39
  • A saddle is a (flat) point where there are 2 ways up (in this case Reids Peak and Balds Mountain) and 2 ways down. That's not what OP wants. The term "saddle" is also frequently used in maths to describe points on a surface of this type. Commented Oct 23, 2015 at 14:10


: a small, narrow valley with steep sides M-W


: a deep recess or small valley in the side of a mountain M-W

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    Yes, and both of these this support the idea that the general term is simply 'valley'. Commented Oct 22, 2015 at 14:10

I would call such a feature simply a valley. In contrast, a passage going through the mountains, across a saddle point between two or more peaks, is what I'd call a pass.

Note that even valleys formed by rivers or glaciers — which, by their nature, inevitably slope in one direction, away from the mountains — can be quite long, and surrounded by multiple distinct peaks and saddles. Thus, it's quite possible for there to be several relatively low and easily passable ways in and out of a valley — even if, typically, there's only one way out of a valley that doesn't require you to go uphill at all. If I wished to emphasize that a particular valley was completely surrounded by mountains on all sides but one, with just a single easy way in and out, I might describe it as enclosed, or as a cul-de-sac, or indeed simply as "surrounded by mountains on all sides but one".

(And no, whether the valley is "U-shaped" or "V-shaped" has nothing to do with it. Those terms just describe the cross section of the valley, glacial valleys being typically U-shaped, while river valleys are often V-shaped.)


In the southeast U.S. these are called "hollers", which I always thought was a heavily accented pronunciation of "hollows". Or maybe it's because you can shout across one holler, but not from one into another.

An example of usage might be, "I think Jim keeps his still up the holler." Or if you are hiking with a bunch of kids that keep asking how far it is until camp, the stock answer might be "just around the next holler" (of course, this never comes true).


Dale is roughly synonymous to valley, but has a softer connotation I think. See Wiktionary.org:

dale ‎(plural dales) 1. (Britain) a valley in an otherwise hilly area. "Through wood and dale the sacred river ran," - Kubla Khan by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

  • The diagram in the question is clearly of sharper depth than a dale Commented Oct 22, 2015 at 17:27
  • There are some "dales" in the UK Peak District with sheer hundred-foot-high rock cliffs on either side. A picture at zen68262.zen.co.uk/peakwalks-8.html.
    – alephzero
    Commented Oct 22, 2015 at 17:32

How about canyon? And, if it goes nowhere, box canyon.

  • Canyons go between two 'cliffs' and isn't really describing what he has shown on his question.
    – Ruut
    Commented Oct 22, 2015 at 13:44
  • Yes, what @Ruut said, however I think the image I linked to in my edit could be rather misleading. I'll edit again. Commented Oct 22, 2015 at 13:46

Colloquially these are often called crags or clefts.

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    please add some citations.
    – Yeshe
    Commented Oct 24, 2015 at 0:20

A lot of this is very colloquial and the differences between them if any, are very location specific. In the northwestern U.S., the word I most often heard was:

Gorge: (1) a narrow cleft with steep, rocky walls, especially one through which a stream runs. (2) a small canyon. (Source)

Synonyms: ravine, canyon, gully, pass, defile, couloir, deep narrow valley; chasm, abyss, gulf; dialectchine, bunny; clough, gill, thrutch; cleuch, heugh; gulch, coulee, flume; arroyo, barranca, quebrada; nullah, khud; sloot, kloof, donga; rare khor

I suspect most of the problem is that there are a bazillion borrowed words that refer to that small space between two ridges that, themselves, lead to the peak of a single mountain. I was most entertained by the rare synonym "khor," which apparently originated in the Sudan (not usually the place to inspire images of tall mountains) as a "dry watercourse or ravine."

In my locale, a "valley" is something wide and often (usually) the lowest region between two mountain ranges, not simply between the spurs of the same mountain or the pass between two mountains of the same range. However, I wouldn't doubt it's used all the time to refer to any or all separations between two ridges (mountains or not).


Depending on the mountains (and location), the inlets could be considered fjords.


Another word that could work (depending on the imagery you wish to evoke) is slope. In a general sense, that could describe any of the sides of the mountain.

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