Be in the Know, Local Lingo

Newcomers to the desert Southwest are often puzzled by the lingo — er, terminology — used by longtime resident to describe the local terrain. Like other regions of the country, we have coined or adopted exotic words describing features which may not be so common elsewhere.

Here are a few of those commonly used by longtime locals. But be warned that the definitions and explanations I give may not be the only ones appropriate and likely to have different meanings to different people.

Alluvial fans: On steep slopes you can find valleys eroded between peaks. Sediments are carried through these along with water, and are deposited over an area shaped like a fan at the foot of the mountains. These are commonly seen driving around Death Valley National Park, Calif.

Arch: Natural stone arches are formed by weather, which wears a hole through some narrow wall of rock.

Bridge: Rarer than arches in our region, natural bridges are formed in a different way — by a stream cutting its path through stone. The stream may still be present, or long vanished.

lower antelope canyon
Lower Antelope Canyon is a famous example of slot canyon
Photo by Deborah Wall

Box canyon: Typically a canyon with three steep sides. If your hiking route leads into one, it usually ends the hike, unless you brought climbing equipment.

Cairn: A stack or pile of rocks obviously made by human hands, usually at least three atop one another. They may be used to mark a route, or mark a spot where somebody has left a cache of food or water, or to draw attention to some other important local fact.

Chockstone: A boulder wedged between narrow canyon walls, most often in a slot canyon, often carried there by a flood. May be as small as a foot or so in diameter, or as big as a house.

Dryfall: A waterfall which only has water seasonally or after a rain or snow melt event.

Playa: Adapted from a Spanish word meaning a beach or sandy coast, in our region it usually means what some would call a dry lake, particularly if the dry lakebed is quite flat. Water may cover a playa occasionally; never walk on a playa when it is still wet, or drive on one even when it is dry. Tracks can mar the surface for years.

Saddle: A lower area connecting two summits, often smoothly rounded on its interior curves, suggesting a horse’s saddle.

Scree: Loose small rocks covering a steep slope. Crossing a scree slope can be a perilous journey, particularly if descending or without a hiking pole or staff.

Slot canyon: A canyon so narrow that one literally, or almost, touch both sides at once. Formed by years of rushing water and other erosion factors, they are deadly during or soon after rain, yet are among the Southwest’s most enchanting features.

Switchbacks: Sharp turns in a trail ascending a slope, zigzagging across it on grades much less extreme than one directly up the slope would be. Intended to make the trail easier on both hiker and hillside.

Wash: A streambed or gully that is usually dry but subject to flash flooding after a weather event. Sometimes called a dry wash.

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