Guide to Utah’s Geographical Jargon

I grew up a flatlander in New Jersey, where describing a geographical feature would be limited to the following: street, hill, woods, or the beach. Since then, I’ve been exposed to what people would consider real, mountainous terrain in New England. Up there, we’d throw around terms like: Mountain, Summit, Ridge, Lake, and Elevation. All of which are pretty self explanatory and not too hard to follow along with in a conversation. But here in Utah, that list of geographical jargon has grown by 100x. And I’ll be honest most of the time I have no idea how to describe where a spot is on a mountain or in the desert. Is it a gulch or a canyon, a mesa or a plateau? The list goes on and on. So I’ve decided to put together a glossary of jargon you should know to sound like you know what you’re talking about… or at least what someone else is talking about.


Mountain: A natural feature >1,000 feet tall in elevation from the surrounding area, all else is a hill (personal definition)
Summit: Highest Point on the Mountain a.k.a. the tippy top
Peak: A pointed top of a mountain, but not necessarily the summit
Alpine: The high mountain environment
Elevation: The height above sea level
Altitude: See Elevation
Vertical Gain or Cumulative Elevation Gain: The sum of every gain in elevation through an entire trip
Lookout: View over a landscape
Cliff: Steep rock face
Pass: Any route from one valley, over higher ground, to another valley
Cirque: Bowl-shaped valley high on a mountain
Valley: Low area of land between hills or mountains, typically with a river or stream flowing through it
Gorge: Narrow Valley between hills or mountains, typically has steep rocky walls and a stream running through it
Canyon: Deep gorge, typically one with a river flowing through it
Ravine: Deep, narrow gorge with steep sides
Gulch: Narrow and steep-sided ravine marking the course of a fast stream
Runoff: The draining away of water from the surface of a hill or mountainside
Couloir: Steep narrow gully on a mountainside
Crevasse: A fracture, split, or gap in a glacier’s ice
Ridge: Long narrow hilltop or mountain range where peaks connect
Col: The low point on a ridge joining two peaks
Spur: The part of a mountain that projects outwards, laterally away from the main body
Treeline: The line or altitude above which no trees grow
Exposed: Portion of the mountain where steep drop-offs exist; or no protection from the elements can be found
Snowpack: The mass of snow on the ground that is compressed and hardened by its own weight. Sticks around well into spring/summer months and a critical source of water in the West
Whiteout: a blizzard that reduces visibility to zero
Socked In: When a dense fog or weather system moves in and obstructs visibility
Avalanche: A tumbling mass of snow/ice which occurs when the snow’s weight, drawn by gravity, overcomes the frictional forces holding it in place on an angled slope
Traverse: The act of moving horizontally across an angled face
Ascent: Moving upward on a mountain or a hill
Descent: Moving downward on a mountain or a hill
Ute: Native American Tribe in the State of Utah
Drift: A pile of snow blown by the wind into a large mound
Winter Inversion
: Trapping of a dense layer of cold air under a layer of warm air causing pollutants to be trapped under the cloud layer until a storm comes in to flip the inversion


Types of Snow

Concrete: Heavy, deep snow
Corduroy: Freshly groomed run
Corn: Granular snow that results from alternating freeze-thaw cycles, usually during the spring months
Crud: The Phase that follows a pow-day where the snow is packed into certain places and piled in others.
Crust: Icy layer on top of snow after an overnight thaw-freeze cycle
Dust on Crust: New snow on top of hard, icy snow
Dusting: A small amount of new snow
Groomers: Ski resort runs that have been groomed
Hard Pack: Snow that’s been compressed and packed down over time and doesn’t move when stood on
Hero Snow: So much Powder that will result no injuries if anything is thrown into it
Ice: Ice
Man Made: Snow made by machines at the ski resorts
Packed Powder: A ski resort term for when they had a pow-day prior, but now it’s all packed down into groomers
Powder: The fresh fallen snow. Also known as: Heaven, Nirvana, Perfect, etc.
Pow-day: The day that it has snowed a substantial amount of fresh snow
Sticky: Snow that is melting during warmer temps and causes your skis/board to stick on the snow and ride slow
Slush: Spring snow conditions where the snow is melting but also very forgiving to fall in
Freshies/Untouched: Untracked powder that has yet to be skied through
Free Refills: When it is snowing so much that your tracks are immediately filled back up for an endless pow-day


Deseret: An area that receives less than 10” of rain annually
Arroyo: Dry desert gully
Butte: Narrow flat-topped hill of resistant rock with very steep sides
Mesa: Broad, flat-topped hill rounded by cliffs and capped with a resistant rock layer
Plateau: Area of relative level high ground
Playa: A very flat, dry lake bed of hard, mud-cracked clay
Clay: Fine particles of aluminum silicates and other minerals, usually shades of orange, tan, or red
Bedrock: The solid rock that underlies loose material, such as soil, sand, clay, or gravel.
Dunes: Mounds of loose sand grains shaped up by the wind
Hoodoo: Column or pillar of bizarre shape caused by differential erosion on rocks of different hardness
Hogback: An eroded, steeply tilted ridge of resistant rocks with equal slopes on the sides
Natural Arch: A naturally-occurring, horizontal undercut remnant in sedimentary rock with the span remaining at the same level or below the supporting end walls.
Wash: A narrow, constricting dry bed of an intermittent stream, as at the bottom of a canyon, typically dry but subject to rapid flow during flash flooding
Paiute: The Native American Tribe who live in Southern Utah
Petroglyphs: Rock Carvings
Pictographs: Rock Paintings
Hot Spring: Natural spring of water at a temperature of 70 F or above, heated by thermal activity in a fissure in the earth’s crust

After putting together this glossary, I’ve come to learn one thing. Most of these words describe the exact same, or at least almost the exact same thing. So get out there and start dropping you newfound knowledge about buttes and gulches. Or if all else fails, attempt to draw out the feature in the air with your hands. Eventually, someone will understand you.

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