We’ve covered a lot of divisive issues, but none seems to generate more heat than the subject of rock cairns. The last time we looked at the subject, the focus was primarily on whether cairns were necessary for navigation and their impact on the sense of wilderness and solitude that so many of us seek. Since then, however, social media has amplified the practice and now, in practically every part of the world (but especially national parks), it’s exploding.
This isn’t just an aesthetic problem. In a Facebook post in late 2018, the folks at Zion National Park in Utah pointed to more tangible damages:
They may in some cases have a useful purpose such as defining a critical route over hard ground where there is no visible path or perhaps marking an otherwise obscure trail junction. In Zion National Park trails are well used and the route is almost always obvious. Trail intersections are signed with directional arrows and mileage so cairns are not needed. Most often, visitor-built cairns appear with no intent to direct hikers, but seemingly erected as a personal mark left behind, perhaps just as a way to say “I was here.”
Leaving your mark, whether carving your initials in a tree trunk, scratching a name on a rock, or stacking up stones is simply vandalism. Visitors who build cairns probably don’t look at building cairns as vandalism since rocks can be unstacked easily, but moving rocks around still can lead to resource damage by exposing soil to wind and water erosion. Moving rocks also disturbs the many critters that make their home in the protected underside of a rock. Leaving behind stacks of rocks also can lead hikers astray, possibly into dangerous terrain. Most importantly, most visitors enter the back country to get away from signs of civilization and do not want to see mementos left by others, whether stacked rocks, trash, or graffiti. So please, enjoy the park but leave rocks and all natural objects in place.
I have had a somewhat mixed relationship with cairns. They have been tremendously helpful over the years. In the fog on New Hampshire’s Mt. Washington, I went from cairn to cairn to the summit; without GPS it was really the only way not to get lost. But in many places, they are pointless. In the bottom of a canyon in Utah? Along a well-worn trail in Joshua Tree National Park? In places where they serve no purpose but to act as handrails, I’ve been enthusiastic about scattering the rocks (while also feeling slightly superstitious about karma). And that was before I started considering the impacts Zion outlined above and the amplification of social media.
So, what’s to be done about it? Building cairns violates Leave No Trace principles. Over two years, volunteers at Acadia National Park took down more than 3,500 cairns on just two mountains. The parks don’t want them and lots of other people don’t want them. But the question today is how do you, AJ readers, deal with them?
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Photo by Thomas Diis