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The main ridge of the Krkonoše forms the watershed between the North Sea and the Baltic.The rivers on the south side drain into the North Sea, those on the north side into the Baltic.The Czech writer Bohuslav Balbín recorded in 1679 that the mountains were known under various names: Krkonoše (Cerconossios), Rhipaeos Montes, Obrovski Mountains, Snow Mountains or Riesen Gebirge.
The origin of the name is usually interpreted as a compound of "krk" or "krak" – an Old Slavonic word for Krummholz (a reference to the local vegetation) – and "noš" – derived from "nosit" (to carry).
The alpine vegetation zone, with large rocky deserts, can only be found on the highest peaks (Sněžka, Luční hora, Studniční hora, Kotel and Szrenica). Especially species-rich are the cirque glaciers such as the Obří důl, Labský důl and Důl Bílého Labe on the south side and the dramatic Śnieżne Kotły, Kocioł Łomniczki and the calderas of mountain lakes Wielki Staw and Mały Staw on the north side of the main ridge.
The species-richest areas are called zahrádka ("garden").
The Silesian northern part, in Poland, drops steeply to the Jelenia Góra valley, whereas the southern Czech part slopes gently to the Bohemian basin.
In the north-easterly direction the Krkonoše continue to Rudawy Janowickie, and in the south-east to Rýchory.