Opinion: It’s Time to End Cairn Building

A stack of rocks does nothing more than remind us that other people were there before us.


Stones: We’ve built pyramids and castles with them and painstakingly cleared them out of farm fields, using them to build low walls for fencing. We marvel at the rocks in the Grand Canyon, Arches and Grand Teton national parks. Yet a perplexing practice has been gaining ground in our wild spaces: People have begun stacking rocks on top of one another, balancing them carefully and doing this for unknown reasons, though probably as some kind of personal or “spiritual” statement.

These piles aren’t true cairns, the official term for deliberately stacked rocks. From middle Gaelic, the word means “mound of stones built as a memorial or landmark.” There are plenty of those in Celtic territories, that’s for sure, as well as in other cultures; indigenous peoples in the United States often used cairns to cover and bury their dead. Those of us who like to hike through wilderness areas are glad to see the occasional cairn, as long as it’s indicating the right way to go at critical junctions in the backcountry.

Stone piles have their uses, but the many rock stacks that I’m seeing on our public lands are increasingly problematic. First, if they’re set in a random place, they can lead an unsuspecting hiker into trouble, away from the trail and into a potentially dangerous place. Second, we go to wilderness to remove ourselves from the human saturation of our lives, not to see mementoes from other people’s lives.

We hike, we mountain bike, we run, we backpack, we boat in wilderness areas to retreat from civilization. We need undeveloped places to find quiet in our lives. A stack of rocks left by someone who preceded us on the trail does nothing more than remind us that other people were there before us. It is an unnecessary marker of humanity, like leaving graffiti — no different than finding a tissue bleached and decaying against the earth that a previous traveler didn’t pack out, or a forgotten water bottle. Pointless cairns are simply pointless reminders of the human ego.

I’m not sure exactly when the practice of stacking stones began in the West. But the so-called Harmonic Convergence in 1987, a globally synchronized meditation event, brought a tighter focus on New Age practices to Sedona, Arizona, just south of my home. Vortexes, those places where spiritual and metaphysical energy are reputed to be found, began to figure prominently on national forest and other public lands surrounding Sedona. Hikers near these vortexes couldn’t miss seeing so many new lines of rocks or stacks of stones.

Since then, the cairns, referred to as “prayer stone stacks” by some, have been multiplying on our public lands. Where there were just a dozen or so stone stacks at a much-visited state park on Sedona’s Oak Creek 10 years ago, now there are hundreds. What’s more, the cairn craze has mushroomed, invading wilderness areas everywhere in the West.

Why should we care about a practice that can be dismantled with a simple foot-push, that uses natural materials that can be returned quickly to the earth, and that some say nature will remove eventually anyway?

Because it’s not a harmless practice: Moving rocks increases erosion by exposing the soil underneath, allowing it to wash away and thin soil cover for native plants. Every time a rock is disturbed, an animal loses a potential home, since many insects and mammals burrow under rocks for protection and reproduction.

But mainly, pointless cairns change the value of the wilderness experience by degrading an already beautiful landscape. Building cairns where none are needed for route finding is antithetical to Leave-No-Trace ethics. Move a stone, and you’ve changed the environment from something that it wasn’t to something manmade. Cairn building might also be illegal, since erecting structures or moving natural materials on public lands often comes with fines and/or jail time. Of course, I doubt the Forest Service will hunt down someone who decided that his or her self-expression required erecting a balanced stone sculpture on a sandstone ridge. Yet it is an unwelcome reminder of humanity, something we strive to avoid as we enjoy our wild spaces.

Let’s end this invasive practice. Fight the urge to stack rocks and make your mark. Consider deconstructing them when you find them, unless they’re marking a critical trail junction. If you must worship in the wild, repress that urge to rearrange the rocks and just say a silent prayer to yourself. Or bring along a journal or sketchpad to recall what you felt in the wild.

Let’s check our egos at the trailheads and boat launches, and leave the earth’s natural beauty alone. Her geology, as it stands, is already perfect.

No doubt you have an opinion on the matter of cairns. Sound off at AJ’s poll on the issue, Should You Knock Over Cairns?

Photos by Craig Stanfill.

 

Robyn Martin is a senior lecturer in the honors program at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff.
Showing 104 comments
  • Ewen Malloch
    Reply

    Agreed. Leave nothing but footprints : Take nothing but memories.

    • Professor Moriarty
      Reply

      Completely agree and glad I’m not alone in this which I thought I may be. I love knocking these cairns down. They don’t belong unless used for navigational purposes.

      • Roxanne
        Reply

        I agree with Ewen Malloch. Well said…..I live in Lake Tahoe and we have similar problems. Take your art to an art show.

    • Kathy Heckscher
      Reply

      I never thought about it. Naturally we do worse things but indeed, why not try to leave things as they are? Walking and gardening kills off enough insects, and reptiles, we don’t have to move rocks around as well!

  • ian
    Reply

    In the climbing world, Cairns are used often to show the easiest way to the crag. They usually show a small, hard to find, trail that the climbers can take to get to the wall. They have been extremely beneficial because they help us avoid bushwhacking and getting lost. I believe that the bushwhacking that would be required, without the placement of Cairns would be much more harmful to an ecosystem than removing a few stones from the ground.

    • Jmes
      Reply

      Is that precisely what the article is saying? A few that denote a trails location or simplest route to say a “wall” are fine. Literally, “Fields” of them (that I have seen with my own eyes) that stand for nothing other than people going into our wild places to put their mark on them is quite the opposite.

      • Mslarge
        Reply

        I agree cairns have saved me many a time from going down a random wash while hiking the Grand Canyon and the White Mountains.
        Menuhunes (Hawaiian) are the little pillars of rock of thanks that people leave. Sometimes it’s best to let these little stacks be. Just be thankful as It could be a knife carving or spray painting of the past. Try to change your negativity and see the creativeness of some of these. People will leave a remainder I prefer the rocks ??

    • Bruce
      Reply

      Not all cairns are navigational in nature, as pointed out in the article. With so many around, how do we know unless we’ve been at that location previously? People traveling in the wilderness cannot afford to assume they are for navigation; therefore,unless one is proven to be for that purpose, they should be knocked down.

      People just like to leave their mark, I suspect most are a form of graffiti. Do we like the wilderness to be covered with graffiti?

      • Wyndeth
        Reply

        That they “should be knocked down” is a problem for me. There are plenty or legit historic and prehistoric cairns out there all over the American West that are part of our history/prehistory (and they do more than mark trails or graves – they sometimes mimic human figures or serve functions we have yet to discover and may never understand). While I understand the proliferation of stacked rocks is an issue, just knocking them down in Wilderness areas is also an issue. Please – we cannot tell how old many of these are. You may be knocking down the only visible evidence of prehistoric humans on the landscape. These are not pristine environments. People have used them for thousands of years…unless you know what you are doing – and I mean REALLY know – Leave it alone.

        • Tom
          Reply

          I have and will continue to knock down every cairn I come across.Only a fool thinks they stack rocks better than mother nature does.

    • Willis
      Reply

      Have been used in Europe for centuries for the above reasons often marking paths through and over mountain passes. A different story maybe in this country. If there is a trail, people have been there before you anyway. With GPS and the rest of the gimmicks people use they are probably completely unnecessary.

    • Larry
      Reply

      Agreed, Ian. I don’t trust the anti-cairn militant 😉 to decide which cairn is vital to an established route vs one done for human ego.

      • Johnny Virgil
        Reply

        Well, it’s pretty safe to say that most people know where the atlantic ocean is when they are a standing on a rocky beach in Maine. I don’t need hundreds and hundreds of “cairns” to tell me which way to go.

  • Joey
    Reply

    I agree with Ian, I’ve hiked/climbed all over the US and Europe, and so many trails are poorly marked that all you have to go by are cairns. Without the cairns, you’re bushwhacking and making things worse environmentally than a temporary pile of rocks that can be knocked over easily with no permanent ramifications.

    • Brad
      Reply

      Did you miss the part in the article where he said cairns that serve a real purpose, such as guiding you on a trail so that you don’t have to bush whack, are fine?

  • Mike H.
    Reply

    What? Only 800 words on this pressing subject? Surely this could be blown out to a more New Yorker mag length. Perhaps 5000 words? Under the column, FWP (first world problems).

    • Hal Summers
      Reply

      Since most of us live in the First World those are the problems we tend to be most concerned with.

  • Jay Long
    Reply

    Very interesting topic. Once in a while you see some stacks that make you appreciate the time and effort involved, but for the most part they are just reminders of humanity–as stated in the essay. Unless, as Ian stated, these cairns are markers, thus serving a legitimate purpose.

  • Ted
    Reply

    One of the best opinion pieces I’ve read here. Couldn’t agree more and have been toppling them for years. Thanks for the feature!

    • Jake B
      Reply

      Fantastic. I suppose humans somewhere in history should have also erased bushman cave paintings? How dare humans interact with their environment in a non-polluting way.

      • Bruce
        Reply

        In 500 or 1000 years when archaeologists look at them, they will be puzzled, because except for a few obviously marking trails, the rest will have no associated context or discernible meaning. The cave paintings and petroglyphs are found in context with human habitation. what we understand now to be religious or burial sites or provide directions to others of the time. The cairns in question are none of the above, since they are generally found in uninhabited places and built by folks whose motive was simply to say “I was there.”

        They cannot be considered in the same way as the Nazca Lines or ancient cave paintings. Our garbage dumps tell more about us as a people than a mountain top covered with idle cairns. Build your cairn if you feel that’s what you must do, just don’t be disappointed if it has been replaced or personalized by someone else when you go back. The next chapter…”cairn wars”.

  • Kristie
    Reply

    I don’t think cairn building is really an issue. I hike all the time in Banff National Park and people love to build cairns here. I don’t consider it to be a problem knowing that others have enjoyed these beautiful places before me, and I have never found cairns to be misleading and take me in the wrong direction. I am smart enough to check the trail and map before I leave to ensure this doesn’t happen. Yes we go to these wild places to escape from the city and the fast-paced lifestyle many of us lead, but I find many other things more obtrusive than a cairn that somebody took the time to build. People blaring music from speakers as they hike, and attempting to take selfies with wild animals are far more obtrusive than a small rock statue. And why would you want to topple them? That’s like saying “I know you were here before me and you don’t matter”. Those people aren’t taking anything away from the nature area. If you want to take the time to build a cairn and mark your place in the world, go for it.

    • Tracy p
      Reply

      Finally the true voice of reason. Kristie’s comments resonate with me.

    • bre
      Reply

      Yes same! I always appreciate the little rock statues. Im too amazed by the nature to be bother by anything! Especially being bothered by knowing someone else was there before me… im glad to know others are there enjoying and connecting just as i am. Beautiful comment! I had no idea they bothered peopl at all, let alone enough to want to topple them over.

    • James
      Reply

      I read through the entire comment thread and there is one critical aspect of this discussion that I think has been left out. What about situations where people use cairns to mark “social trails”? Just for clarification, when I use the term social trail I am referring to an unofficial trail that has been created by visitors without permission from the organization or people that are responsible for managing a piece of land. Social trails are problematic because they are nearly always created with little to no consideration given to the long term sustainability of the trail or the impact that have on the surrounding environment. Professional trail builders are responsible for avoiding impacts to natural and cultural resources and there is supervision that take place to ensure that the trails they build are properly constructed. There is also thought given to whether there is adequate money available to maintain an official trail as needed. When a individual takes it upon themselves to create a new trail with out adequate knowledge of the resources they may be impacting and insufficient knowledge of how to build a sustainable and durable trail there will certainly create a trail that is going to have an unnecessarily large impact on the land and the resources. As someone who restores poorly designed trails for the National Park Service, my primary request is that people not construct cairns to mark unofficial trails. The best way to reduce your impact on the land is to not shortcut switch backs and if you are going to go off trail don’t create cairns to mark a new trail. When you travel on a hardened site such as a well traveled trail you cause very little additional impacts but when you go off trail it is better to disperse your impact than it is to walk a loosely etched out trail. The reasoning is that it doesn’t take long at all for that vague little social trail to turn into a full blown hardened trail that was created with no foresight. If you spread out as you travel off-trail the impact you cause can recover relative quickly and will be less likely to encourage others to follow the same exact path that you walked. In short: if the trail is hardened use it; if the trail is moderately impacted don’t use it, take a map and compass and find your own route. If you can’t navigate off-trail with a map and compass then learn how. If you rely on marking your route with a few rocks stacked here and there, they might not be there when you return – there’s a lot of people that don’t think they should be there and might get rid of them before you return – and if they do remain they’ll encourage other people to walk the same path you did, which will eventually create a new unsustainable social trail.

      p.s. This comment isn’t directly a response to what Kristie said. I wanted to post this comment in the general thread but the only way I could figure out how to comment on this article was to reply to someone’s comment.

  • Jwesener
    Reply

    Oddly enough my wife was just mentioning yesterday how cairns are now a trendy thing among school kids.

    • Bruce
      Reply

      James makes sense. If you take school kids out to build cairns, please explain to them there are necessary cairns and others which just say, “hey I was here.” The “hey I was there” cairns are just another form of graffiti (albeit more environmentally friendly than some, but graffiti just the same). There is no compelling reason they can’t be taken down and the stones scattered or reused by someone else. Historical cairns on park land are likely already well known and marked.

  • Andrew
    Reply

    Rock Cairns don’t particularly bother me, and they are sometime helpful.

    Consider this, if vague trails weren’t marked with rock cairns, people would just wander ‘off-path’ and trample a whole hell of a lot more vegetation in search of the trail, rather than keep to a more or less established route.

    I am the president of the South Okanagan Trail Alliance; we build singletrack trails under land-access agreement with BC Parks and the Crown all through this area.

    Stop to consider that folks like us who are building / maintaining fully signed and sanctioned trails cause more ‘damage’ to the environment in a single day than a hundred thousand ‘rock-moves’ would cause in a decade (viewed in light of disturbing the homes of little critters).

    Are we evil? I dunno’, but I do know that folks gain joy from using our trails to get themselves and their families into the forest, and up to mountain peaks (which are inevitably flattened and covered with animal poop – as they love a good look-off as much as we do!)

  • Trent
    Reply

    Poorly marked trails mean the wilderness still exist and a pile of rocks is nothing compared to oil/gas leaking from a vehicle or plastic trash left behind. Stop crying and go take an adventure where no one else is you crybabies. Worry about climate change not a rock pile you spoiled brat.

  • rick
    Reply

    people have been doing this for thousands of years, if it was done yesterday you want to nock it over but 800 years ago and its a sacred shrine.
    one mans Petroglyph…graffiti same thing

  • Dan
    Reply

    When I see unnecessarily stacked rocks and when I see discarded water bottles I feel the same way: dissapointed in human thoughtlessness. I see a water bottle, I pick it up and pack it out. I see a rock stack, I dismantle it. If anything, dismantling the stacks is kind of a fun reverse puzzle. It is a challenge to return the stones to a more natural appearance.

  • MICHAEL
    Reply

    this is a ridiculous article. people balance rocks all over the world as a meditative practice. to deal with stress, anxiety, depression, ptsd, as well as simple passion. there are so many other “problems” to get all bent up about. but stacking rocks?!?! please remove yourself from your hole of a comfort zone and live a little. i balance rocks every day, most of which fall within hours and sometimes minutes. i enjoy building them with the added challenge of making them appear as unlikely as possible, and by nature, extremely transient. and before dismantling traditional semi-permanent “cairns”, one should also educate themselves about ancient sites where dismantling such cairns technically equates to illegal action via desecration of cultural history (They do exist)… so please, Robyn, and anyone who supports her purely naive opinion, swallow your egos, and learn a bit of tolerance for different ways of being. maybe buy a plane ticket to different continent and experience something new. personally, i will never stop doing this activity. why? cuz everything about it brings me great joy. plain and simple. and i’m not alone. DEAL WITH IT! :))

    • MLP_Hiker
      Reply

      Three words: Leave No Trace.

  • Jeff
    Reply

    The comments from the “haters” here….wow. I’m amazed, I expected more from the readership, I suppose. The article is not lambasting true cairns – trail markers which serve a purpose – it’s arguing against all those individual, who DO go off trail and build little piles of stones. Let’s say an inexperienced hiker (don’t laugh, there are lots!) follows a small footpath off-trail, then sees this fake-cairn….then they keep going….next there’s an all-out search and rescue for the missing hiker who’s so far off the beaten path and probably doesn’t know better to not continue getting themselves further lost….

    Let the trail builders build the cairns – for everyone else, Leave No Trace – or at least focus on leaving as little trace as possible. How’s it go? If each of the millions of visitors each took one stone from each national park they visit….where would our national parks be?…

  • Jared
    Reply

    Some commenters need a tutorial in reading comprehension. Author says stacked rocks demarcating a difficult trail = good. Stacked rocks that serve no purpose = bad. I agree.

    I would only hope that those that dismantle carins can tell the difference.

  • DK
    Reply

    build one in your own yard…you can then look at it every day

  • JP
    Reply

    Edifice complex at it’s worst.

  • Daniel Gutgesell
    Reply

    Better than graffiti! Get over it , all you up tight , wanna be sierra clubbers. They come in handy on unmarked hikes. its odd that so many spiritual hippsters complain on a fucking computer. “I don’t eat meat but I wear leather sneakers. ” go out and play with rocks for GODS sake.

    • Rocky
      Reply

      Wow…. that escalated quickly.

  • bob
    Reply

    trail markers put up by random hikers…hmmm…I see them and I kick them over. Started kicking them over in the 70s following the example of our tree-hugging hippy sierra club trip leader. He would say, “learn how to read a map and follow a trail how about?” and we did. and for the anti-stress ain’t it cool what i just done crowd…drink a few beers it’s maybe more fun. anyway the popular urge to balance rocks everywhere is just a fad and it too will pass for most people. then we’ll have to find something else to argue about.

  • Tim
    Reply

    As a Forest Service archaeologist, one of the interesting dichotomies I deal with is the perception that prehistoric refuse is somehow more interesting or historically significant than the refuse of Euro-American culture. Prehistoric artifacts are the product of a largely extinct way of life and are perceived as having an exotic quality evocative of a simpler time more in harmony with nature. Euro-American artifacts, whether recent or from the 19th century, are often similar to our own material culture and we tend to perceive them as trash or abandoned junk—and value them accordingly. I find it interesting that the author seems to value “true cairns,” the product of Native Americans or Celts, as vestiges of legitimate memorial or sacred practices but discounts cairns built by modern people as illegitimate and intrusive. For what it is worth, the National Historic Preservation Act does not distinguish between Native American and Euro-American artifacts but rather sets a simple age threshold for assigning potential historical significance. Cairns associated with historic mountaineering or mining (e.g. claim markers) often rise to the level to be considered historic properties protected by statute—something to think about before wantonly toppling one.

    • alicia
      Reply

      Thank you. I just love them.

    • Debbie
      Reply

      Yes, thank you. All valid points. I love them too.

  • Patrick
    Reply

    The practice of over zealous cairn building takes away from the pure experience we aim for in wilderness settings. People do not have a permit to make their “art” in our public lands. If the cairn does not serve a critical porpoise I will destroy it. I hope others partake in this practice.

  • Joe Stock
    Reply

    Well written and researched Robyn! Thank you for your work. In Alaska’s pristine wilderness, cairns are often the only sign of humans.

    Here is a post on Cairn About Alaska: http://www.stockalpine.com/posts/cairn-about-alaska.html

  • Tien
    Reply

    I knock them down whenever I come across them.

  • Steve
    Reply

    It takes a real feat of arrogance to be upset at seeing signs of human trail use…when you are using a trail. Do you understand how ridiculous that sounds? You personally feel “your” wilderness has been intruded upon. OK, well “my” wilderness is intruded upon by you even setting foot in it.

    Cairns are a god-send for those caught in blizzards, heavy rain or thick cloud cover. They also present temporary respite from strong winds when huddled on the opposite side.

    You have written this article from the perspective of someone who has never needed a cairn. Just be thankful and move along instead of trying to destroy something you clearly don’t understand.

  • Jay c
    Reply

    Maps are beautiful and were invented for a reason (well, military purposes to ensure economic dominance in our country). Its fun learning how to navigate with map and compass in all weather conditions. Cairns have no business being in our wild places. Leaving a cairn is like a dog pissing against a tree. Why can’t we move through our wild places without leaving our mark? Just learn the joy of navigating with a map and compass and leave as little trace of your passing as you can, surely? I take great pleasure in dismantling cairns. Ive done volunteer work repairing trails which admittedly themseleves are evidence of human passage, but I and the other volunteers lament people picking apart our good work to build a stupid pointless cairn as they misguidedly think “it’s the tradition” when infact the removal of stones from the path leads to water erosion, more path damage and is detrimental to the local ecology. If your local council re-tarmacked your street, would you go out and dig it up to create a pointless pile of tarmac? Probably not because that would be stupid wouldn’t it?

  • Patrick M
    Reply

    And in other news… Is skipping rocks into the ocean the real reason for sea level rise??? And coming up next… Toddlers who knocked over your block tower, will they ever quit? The answer might not shock you… All this and more after these messages from people who do far more damage in the world than anyone building a cairn…

    • Rocky
      Reply

      #completelymissedthepoint

      • Donald
        Reply

        #I’mwithpaddy

  • Bill
    Reply

    You know what else reminds me that there were people there before me? A trail.

    • jake
      Reply

      Winner!

    • Craig
      Reply

      Bill is my new favorite person in the world:)

    • Susan
      Reply

      Best comment on here!

  • Joel Heidal
    Reply

    Neon flagging tape is worse. But I still don’t like seeing unnecessary cairns. I was taught to use either as a way to mark your way BACK to the trail head and to REMOVE them on your way back. Thus leaving no trace.

  • Donald
    Reply

    I walk and climb a fair bit. I don’t stack rocks but this kind of article or similar on climbing forums annoy me a lot more than a cairn ever did.

  • Jake B
    Reply

    Some interesting points, however I can’t say I agree completely. I’m not so sure being reminded of other human beings who have been there before me is such a big deal, honestly. We all share the mountains and the environment.

    With regards to it not being a harmless practice due to increased erosion by exposing soil — really? If that’s the case we shouldn’t be on the mountains at all or creating any sort of trails through the landscape. Even animals disturb each others’ homes. Obviously, we don’t want to deliberately cause destruction but I hardly think moving a few stones around is a massive cause for concern. And the cairns which do help hikers by showing the way? Are those people excused from exposing soil?

    I see what points the author is trying to make and I understand that we must all try our best to preserve the natural environments we enjoy, but throughout history man has always “altered” the environment in lieu of survival and evolution.

    Pollution is of far more concern to me than cairns.

  • NB
    Reply

    How about a compromise. Ask the park rangers to post a flier on the trailhead explaining where cairns may be built for fun, and where they might be dangerous for hikers needing directions. Use this as a teaching moment, and give some space to the recreational cairn builders, and some space to the trail hikers. Easy peasy.

  • Jake
    Reply

    I’d rather not have people knock over the useful cairns which is bound to happen if you encourage them to knock over the seemingly meaningless ones. Enjoy nature for yourself don’t get all bent out of shape that someone has been there before and shuffled some rocks.

  • Lynda
    Reply

    Yes! Unless they mark a trail, please stop this! In my opinion they absolutely detract from the natural beauty of the Adirondacks.

  • David
    Reply

    Wow! If you are frustrated/angered/offended by stacks of rocks then there is something much worse wrong with you and you might need professional help! It’s a freaking pile of rocks folks! Get over yourselves!

    • Frank
      Reply

      Ever been on Mount Washington when the clouds roll in? I have. A “spiritual cairn” might well lead you to a spiritual experience – death! Not condemning all cairn builders – but before you say that folks who disagree with you may need “professional help”, spend some time looking in a mirror or on top of mountains.

  • Dean
    Reply

    Your premise seems to defeat your argument: you premise your argument on the belief that a rock cairn is a reminder of human presence and isn’t convenient for your getting out-in-nature-and-away-from-all-humans mentality. In fact, you even refer to these trail markers as vestiges of “human ego.” And you argue that cairns should be knocked over, abolished, done away with…My question, and my point, is if you intend to go out in the wilderness to escape civilization, and all traces thereof, then why do you use trail systems that—and mind you—are man-planned, man-constructed, and man-worn? The underlying assumption is, of course, that rock cairns are man-made for the purpose of guiding hikers, and that these would reasonably exist on trails (again… man-made); the inverse is likely true: that cairns wouldn’t exist in bush-wacking, unpioneered terrain where you seemingly long for. If this is all true, then go there, and stop knocking over our cairns that were thoughtfully, and selflessly, constructed (and done in an Eco-friendly way!) to help fellow hikers and to prevent serious injury and fatality. Leave your ego at home, or take with you to virgin terrain.

  • Roman Dial
    Reply

    How are we to tell the functional from the artistic/spiritual/narcissistic cairns, except maybe the last are posted on Facebook/Twitter/Instagram?

    And if you are building a functional cairn but make it artistic or whisper a prayer, then what?

    I would not appreciate the “kill-all-cairns” folk anywhere near one of my nocturnal ice-worming return routes down glacier moraines!

    And most mountaineers have likely matured to the point that when they reach a summit without a cairn, there’s no need to leave one either as they can just post the coordinates on SummitPost or whoever hosts mountain history today.

    Maybe I just haven’t yet seen the offending cairn fields — the cairn fields I have seen in SE Tibet and China’s Yunnan Province were amazing to me. And some of the ones marking trails may have been a bit flamboyant for the cairn policewoman authoring this opinion piece. No doubt she would have said, “Too big! Too much ego!” and pushed them over like a Chinese Cultural Revolutionist toppling a Buddhist shrine.

    I have myself never built a cairn for anything but functional reasons, but I am often delighted by the skill and art shown by cairn builders. These are almost always along well-trodden trails and popular rivers. Usually less than a days slow travel from a road (I.e. front country?). No big deal. I actually think they look pretty cool.

    This is, perhaps, a sign of our general overpopulation in a First World Country: haters destroying anything that doesn’t fit in their world view.

    Again I am not a cairn builder of the type the author of this opinion piece targets — I do build functional cairns but I bet not a single reader of Steve’s Blog could ever identify one that I made. And I have tried but can’t even make my functional ones look that good.

    Maybe the root of this hate is because there are simply too many people — on Earth! not just on the trail (the solution is definitely NOT restricting people even more as that is to me the greatest anathema to real wilderness — human imposed loss of freedom). Maybe this cairn bashing in the front range is essentially the equivalent of road rage.

    Consider these scenarios:
    SEEING PEOPLE CONSTANTLY while walking: walking down any avenue in NYC or Chicago or even Portland or Juneau, we work hard not to acknowledge any other human’s presence except as objects to be avoided. If someone invades our space or touches us –watch out! (arrest those who are making cairns! — explains why rangers in national parks are so militant about this)

    SEEING PEOPLE MAYBE EVERY MINUTE OR SO while walking: Maybe you look at them, nod at the ones who smile. (Confront and challenge those who are making cairns!)

    SEING PEOPLE MAYBE EVERY HOUR OR SO while walking: Say hi, but walk on by. (Get pissed off about the cairns and kick them over?)

    SEEING PEOPLE ONLY ONCE A DAY while walking: Stop and talk, share experiences. (frown about or admire the cairns? General ambivalence?)

    SEEING PEOPLE ONLY ONCE A WEEK while walking: Stop and eat, maybe even camp with them. (maybe make your functional cairns as aesthetic as you can?)

    SEEING PEOPLE ONLY ONCE A MONTH while walking: Decide to travel together. (maybe share stories about cool cairns you’ve seen?)

  • Maria Rose
    Reply

    On our hike last week the trail got kind of iffy and there was a section where you couldn’t tell whether to go right or left. The left hand side of the trail was well-trodden but it led you way off course. If you were only planning to day hike this could throw a wrench in your plans. The left side was also a bit more dangerous for those who are inexperienced. For this reason, I built a small cairn to let others know to continue to follow the trail to the right. I wish I could say end the cairn building but I simply cannot due to the fact that it could save someones time and possibly life if they veer too far off course. Cairns are beautiful structures to look at but they serve way more of a purpose than an ornament in nature. Maybe there’s some other way we can leave the trails well-marked for other travelers aside from cairns but I don’t think that we should be banning them all-together. Great post!

  • Michael
    Reply

    dont like them

  • Amanda
    Reply

    Are we really raising flags over this?

    I’m all for LNT principles and interacting with the environment in responsible ways, but in the grand scheme of issues to be concerned with, publishing articles about about how offensive a stack of rocks along your hiking trail is to you seems ridiculous. I can think of plenty of valuable things to raise awareness in the world today- I’m dumbfounded that this is what is taking steam.

    I’d support a child (and even adults) exploring nature and building things organically OUTSIDE instead of spending the typical 3+ hours a day on video games or computers, or sending 2,000 texts a month, or dipping into drugs & useless habits.

    Switch priorities, guys. How about trying to tackle the litter infestation outside? Or the in-ethical, greedy habits day users have when visiting State Parks or the Foreat Service and use but don’t pay for what they use, or you know.. A billion other things?

    Maybe when we raise the population to have common sense and proper perspective and goals, then the rest will fall into place. But a stack of rocks wil not tear apart the earth or ruin my outdoor adventure anytime.

  • Fred Austin
    Reply

    If there is to many or they are being made where they are not needed then I am all for it, but As an experienced hiker, trail builder, and backpacker there is a reason for them and that is to mark trails over areas such as rock were there is no clear indication of a trail, the leave no trace anti ethical claim is a crock because without them in some areas it could lead to bushwhacking and the creation of false trails, or new trails not needed. Cairns have been used since man began to walk beyond is cave and bonfire, what would be next trail markers and such as used on the North Country Trail.
    On Michigan’s Isle Royale NP rangers tell you leave them alone, without them its easy get lost.
    The argument we don’t need them because we have GPS is irresponsible as experienced backpackers and hikers will tell you can’t depended on technology in the wilderness.

  • Dannie
    Reply

    Perhaps we should avoid writing in beach sand as well. I have seen more than a few trail stacks on hard surface that were quite helpful. In those areas where there are many such stacks, considering those that came before you is usually unavoidable, as often you are staring at their pack emblem, listening to their bear bells, blaring radio or the sundry other ways the silence of the forest is disturbed by the human. I’ll take stacked rocks over toilet paper and water bottles anyday. I don’t, but stack on McDuff!

  • Lance
    Reply

    Ban mountain bikes they are too noisy, too fast, the riders have terrible fashion sense. Ban pack rafts from Yellowstone they are too fluorescent. Ban anyone who wants who wants a little adrenaline with the their wilderness. Are we really to the point that we need to ban stacking stones in wilderness and non wilderness to preserve the illusion that we are the first person to encounter a mountain lake or a secluded beach?

  • Phil
    Reply

    I am truly blessed to live in a country where I can walk around in the middle of nowhere and stack rocks on top of each other. Unfortunately because we live in a country this free the author of this article and many of the commenters believe that their idea of what’s right is more important. So I guess we need a law now that says something along the lines of “You may only stack rocks if you are properly marking a legitimate trail and only after you ask this author if they feel it is okay”.
    Get off your pompous butt and realize that your opinions do not matter more than others.

  • Eva
    Reply

    every time climb a mountain I count my blessings and make a wish, and if there’s a cairn there I add my stone to the top, say a prayer for my loved ones, and I fell blessed, I don’t feel I am doing any significant harm. Get a grip people, we are all just passing through, be kind

  • fred
    Reply

    If there were more active volunteers and people participating in local chapters of trial associations like NCTA and the Appalachian Mtn. Trail Association there’d be a lot less people bitchin about violating ‘Leave No Trace GUIDELINES’ .

  • kathy
    Reply

    I love the stacked rocks. Which we call rock pyramids. What a dumb thing to complain about. You know what I really hate in the wilderness? TRASH. Now there is a subject we should all be concerned about.

  • michelle
    Reply

    Totally agree. They’re everywhere and destroy the scenic beauty of nature. Few and far between, and especially as needed for trails is fine, but I don’t need to see them every 1-3 feet. I love that people topple them. I’m going to stay doing that, and the thought if it gives me extreme pleasure. 🙂

  • rob
    Reply

    I’m very thankful for people taking the time to point out the path. I’ve been helped out in the backcountry a couple of times because someone took the time to verify the path. I live in Moab, Utah and we all go outside, a lot. Cairns are a great way to show us and visitors alike the proper trail, and helps avoid trampling on areas that need to regain healthy status. I think the ego is the person that might find this primitive form of helping out as interfering with their own experience while hiking. Sure, some can be over the top, but rarely deep in. Most have much respect. Also, have you ever tried it? We’re part of nature too, try it sometime, when you get the notion, help someone street on the right track.

  • Deborah
    Reply

    I have cross the country 4x in my 60 years of life. I have hike many forest. When I come across a cairn, and not often. I think of it as a marker or something spiritual. What I fined offensive is when walking on a trail and you come across a pile of dog poop. Not bear, not deer, not mountain lion, but dog poop. The United States has over 80 million dogs Yes I said million. Think on how many do not pick up after their dogs. Many parks has signs. “NO DOGS ALLOWED” do humans listen? Absolutely not!

    • Scott
      Reply

      I agree with Deborah.

  • Scott
    Reply

    They are rocks get over it.

  • Joel
    Reply

    Why do people who can’t see how this is a real problem go to national parks? In a world with such an enormous human population the Leave No Trace principles are obvious and logical, besides the fact that moving stones in wilderness areas destroys habitat for smaller animals that live there. This has lead to near extinction for some species. Is that a First World Problem? When you go hiking, take your sense of direction, and wonder, and respect, and please leave your ego at home!

  • Joel
    Reply

    Perhaps this issue would benifit from a few examples. Since I was a boy, I have visited relatives by Norway’s southern coast, throughout my life. One of the pebble beaches there was popular with people collecting its beautiful smooth stones, mostly only a few each, for souvineers, a paper weight, maybe a door-stop. Certainly they all loved the place, but over the years the beach gradually shrunk, until last time I visited there recently – in my late 30s – you could hardly recognise it at all. There are a lot of well meaning people in this world who thought they were ‘just rocks’. Rules about how we treat natural places are calculated accordingly, not as if we are living in some distant ancient time.

  • dave
    Reply

    Trying to ban the construction of Inukshuk’s is racist and an example of white cultural supremacy.

  • Cat
    Reply

    People build sand castles and decorate with seashells and other beach wash ashores. I feel the cairns are not an invasive or harmful part of playful art on the landscape. I think getting putting energy into preventing creativity with stones would be asking folks not to create. To me although I’ve never created a cairn, they are a beautiful form of self expression.

  • Jeff Leva
    Reply

    I agree with the writer here. Ok for trail marking when needed. Otherwise let me not have to see your unwanted expression in places I’m not seeking them. I will knock them down by the way.

  • bushrat
    Reply

    It is actually very simple, but you need to look at it over a longer period of time:

    Cairns that server a purpose will stay, because people will add to them, rebuild them, etc.

    Those without a purpose will vanish due to weather, erosion, wind, etc.

    And since you and I will vanish for sure, they also tell us something about our purpose. 🙂

  • Fred
    Reply

    Copyright 2014 Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics For more information on Leave No Trace visit http://www.LNT.or or call

    Leave No Trace and Cairns
    It happens every day –millions of Americans venture outdoors to take advantage of our nation’s vast system of public lands. Whether it’s a bike ride, a picnic, an overnight camping trip or a hike in the mountains, Americans spend countless hours each year enjoying the out-of-doors. We are fortunate to find diverse outdoor recreation opportunities, many of which are in sensitive environments such as areas near or above treeline. A prominent feature in many of these alpine areas is the cairn. Special care should be taken to both enjoy these areas responsibly and to ensure that cairns are left as they are found.

    Cairns are intentionally constructed stacks of rocks that mark trails and guide hikers in the mountains above tree line, and in other barren areas. These route markers have been in use in the northeastern U.S. since the 1800’s. Cairns are very important guides for hikers during periods of low visibility (dense fog and whiteout) and in winter when snow covers the trail.
    By adhering to the following guidelines, you can minimize impact on cairns, and ensure that cairns continue to serve as a critical route finding tool for trail users and resource protection tool for the alpine landscape.

    Do not build unauthorized cairns.
    When visitors create unauthorized routes or cairns they often greatly expand trampling impacts and misdirect visitors from established routes to more fragile or dangerous areas. This is especially important in the winter when trails are hidden by snow. Thus, visitor-created or “bootleg” cairns can be very misleading to hikers and should not be built.

    Do not tamper with cairns.
    Authorized cairns are designed and built for specific purposes. Tampering with or altering cairns minimizes their route marking effectiveness. Leave all cairns as they are found.

    Do not add stones to existing cairns.
    Cairns are designed to be free draining. Adding stones to cairns chinks the crevices, allowing snow to accumulate. Snow turns to ice, and the subsequent freeze-thaw cycle can reduce the cairn to a rock pile.

    Do not move rocks.
    Extracting and moving rocks make mountain soils more prone to erosion in an environment where new soil creation requires thousands of years. It also disturbs adjacent fragile alpine vegetation.

    Stay on trails.
    Protect fragile mountain vegetation by following cairns or paint blazes in order to stay on designated trails.

    A Final Challenge
    Leave No Trace combines knowledge and judgment with ethical responsibility. In its simplest form, Leave No Trace is about making good decisions to protect the world around you –the world we all enjoy. Do your part to pass our nation’s heritage of outdoor recreation to future generations.

    To learn more about Leave No Trace practices for the Northeast mountains, please visit http://www.LNT.org or call 1.800.332.4100

  • kelly
    Reply

    Leave no trace. Live by it as much as you can.

  • Dan
    Reply

    I am shocked by the outpouring of sentiment and romanticism regarding rock cairns, as expressed in the comments (opinions). Is there some kind of crazy pro-cairn lobbying going on here? It is very obvious when a cairn is built for wayfinding, and obvious when built for personal amusement / decoration / impulse satisfaction. I can topple and spead 20 cairns in less time than it takes you to build one, so good luck with that! If we share the same trails, and you have no clue how to read a trail in varying conditions and are reliant on cairns maybe you should stick to sidewalks and parking lots… you will not find your cairns as you left them. If it is a wayfinding cairn, I promise not to destroy it. But if the wayfinding cairn is ridiculous in size, I will reduce it to the bare minimum. Three small stacked stones is all that is needed to signal a path…

  • Gene
    Reply

    Not the best picture to accompany the article. Here’s why:

    I too have added to cairns. Specifically in the Atacama in Chile it is customary to take a single rock from the bottom of a large hill or mountain that one is climbing and carry it to the top where one adds it to those taken there by those before them. This practice predates recorded history, and participation in it feels like a link that goes back. One does not do this with every single hill or mountain, and one does not do this every time one climbs the mountain. Only on the first ascent of a place with particular meaning. There are few cairns on the tops of these high places, not many. A climb might add a single stone for the entire team, not multiple new cairns. The photo reminds me of that practice, a practice I would not object to. But what the article describes is something very different.

    The way it is written I envision a trail virtually littered with piles of rocks scrounged from riverbanks or dug up from “quarries” along the trail. That might be an overreach of my imagination as well. But the article deserves a photo that captures exactly what it is that it is talking about, not just the most photogenic cairn the editor was able to find. This article makes many cogent points and it deserves a photo that illustrates the problem being described. This photo doesn’t do that.

  • Joe
    Reply

    Many great responses here. First – if this is the extent of the problems you need to spend time worrying about, congratulations. In the big scheme of things, some rock cairns created spuriously (whether yesterday or 800 years ago) don’t really impact anyone’s lives. Do we really believe we’re someplace NO ONE HAS EVER BEEN before?

    I can agree with some of the author’s points. Many of the piles didn’t need to be created, but they’re there anyway. I can also agree that as a rule it isn’t something that should be encouraged.

    My biggest problem with the article was comparing a rock cairn to a plastic bottle or an old tissue box. Talk about seeing something that ruins a walk among nature – that would be one. A stack of rocks, not so much.

    I see so much real pollution that I have no issues with someone stacking some rocks and branches.

  • redrocks
    Reply

    i’ve been grateful for cairns that mark trails where the going gets sketchy. national and state parks use them. if everybody knocks all of them over be prepared for some hiking accidents – so this article should encourage some clarity about what’s what.

  • Matt
    Reply

    I’m reminded of a trip across the Presidentials in NH. As I approached the Madison Spring Hut on a beautiful sunny afternoon I was struck by the sheer number of cairns along the trail. I could see fifty or more stretching to the horizon. I wondered why the trail was ‘littered’ with them.

    The next morning I understood. Clouds had descended over the ridge and I could barely make out the next cairn, perhaps a dozen feet away. By the time I got to the summit of Mt. Washington the rain was blowing sideways, and I was thankful for the degree of safety afforded by them.

    I don’t build cairns. I leave that to knowledgeable volunteers, whom I appreciate greatly. And I *certainly* don’t knock them down, whether I think they are frivolous or not. I’d be loath to destroy in ignorance something placed for my – and others’ – protection.

  • Mark Fitzgerald
    Reply

    Have you been to Ogunquit, Maine? There are literally thousands of these stupid things stacked up on the rocky shores of marginal way, and for no other reason than some sort of childish epidemic. Someone built one, and someone else saw it and decided to make a bigger, better one, and pretty soon the entire shoreline looks like a pile of crap. I take great pleasure in knocking these particular piles of stones (NOT cairns) down, but even then there are so many I could spend a week at it and not get even put a dent in them. They should make it illegal in certain areas, that’s for certain.

  • Brett Kosmider
    Reply

    Cairn building has become a scourge to the landscape here in Door County Wisconsin. Many of the popular rock beaches will be completely over-ridden with cairns reaching up to five feet high and not a single stone is left on the ground. Not only is this destroying habitat but creating dangerous situations where people (especially small children) could easily get injured when these cairns fall. Theres nothing more defeating than trying to escape the crowds and go to a stretch of wilderness to find 100 cairns there before you. Disgusting. http://www.greenbaypressgazette.com/story/news/local/door-co/news/2015/07/03/rocks-vanish-along-cave-point-shoreline/29662083/

  • Matt R
    Reply

    My initial reaction to your article’s headline and first few sentences had me a little rattled. But as I read on, I also completely agree. Personally, I love scrambling up mountains in the Canadian Rockies – and sometimes those navigational cairns are literally life savers, filling our party with relief that we are indeed on the right track (especially on the more difficult & exposed scrambles where the route is very important).

    When I’m going for a more casual hike with friends who aren’t into the more intense kinds of hiking, coming across man made stone structures that are 6 feet tall and 4 feet in diameter just feels wrong. It’s like “Thank you for the reminder that many, many other people have been here before me…”. Well said my friend.

  • Larry
    Reply

    Meh. You equally are feeding your own ego by fantasizing that you are the lone human and the first to come upon a space in the wilderness. As an academic you know that your ideas are not unique but a synthesis and evolution of the ideas you studied and wrote about on your academic journey. So too, you must acknowledge you are not “the first” or “the only” to be in a natural place, and therefore the lone and superior protector of nature at that point in time. All these holier-than-thou hikers end up sounding selfish and elite as if those “others” who interact with nature are ignorant and uncouth. In this essay I can’t help but hear the tone of parent who overreacts when a child interrupts his/her nap. Maybe you can write a grant to prove that cairns quicken erosion more so than your footprints, tripping over rocks, and the snagging of your branches on your synthetic, all-weather cargo pants. I’d imagine that the salt from your sweat has tipped the balance of nature for a flea.

  • John
    Reply

    Stacking stones, or kicking them down. Either one is self expression. Not a single comment has been made by a human, who is sustaining their lives off of the land they have described as needing to be unmarked by humanity. If it is to be untouched by humans, we wouldn’t know of it’s existence at all. We all want some mystically pious connection to the environment/planet/universe etc., but maybe we need to shut down our smart phones, and blogs,and internet dependencies to actually make this happen. My response to this obscure blog, could not happen if it were not for the mining of metals, among other technologies, which scars the face of our planet, and allows this magical transfer of information, at the click of a mouse. Seriously, why so serious? Take your walk in the wild, and move the phuq on.

  • Mr Puffin
    Reply

    Not agree. In iceland for example you build cairn for having more luck, money, good health. You can do it also when you cross somewhere with big danger, like under Katla Volcano for example, there is cairn at this place more than 300 years old.

  • Maek
    Reply

    Keep it in Iceland.

  • Hikey McGee
    Reply

    Remember that time I hiked for miles and miles through that one beautiful wilderness area, with waterfalls and mountains and nothing but my thoughts, only to have my entire trip RUINED by a foot-tall pile of rocks left by some strange person for some unknown reason?

    Yeah, me neither.

    • Mano
      Reply

      Well, I do. They may not be much of a problem in your area, but an increasing number of destinations worldwide are now getting infested with them.

  • Pavel
    Reply

    Goodness. I just like to take long walks or bicycle rides to get away from daily life and be in nature awhile. It used to be so natural, so easy.

    Until today. I’m so behind, out of touch. I had no policy on Cairns. I thought they were just a pile of rocks. I was naive.

    I do need to take a side I guess. It’s only proper nowadays. I could make an angry “save the cairns” sign – or maybe run out to REI to see if their new Cairn Kickers are in stock? It’s much like ultra-light gear I suppose. One has to properly outfit themselves.

    I realize this issue is importantI, and I do want to make this my life’s purpose but why, oh why, does it have to be so confusing. Who is right? Who has the moral high ground on rock piles? I guess I’ll re-read all the comments.

    Better yet, I’ll take a hike. Fresh air and nature always helps sort things out. It makes life simpler.

    I just hope I don’t bump into a Cairn.

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