Rock stacking in national parks may seem harmless, or even fun to make, but we invite you to reconsider the problem they pose from a broader perspective. On the one hand, hiking in nature should provide an escape and a refuge from the everyday mundane life. That refuge, ideally, should be in an unadulterated natural setting (or minimally so).
Rock graffiti, even if seemingly impermanent, disturbs the natural state of the environment for other visitors, and have a permanent ecological impact. Also, be aware that it is considered by the National Park Service as a form of vandalism and it is illegal. Please leave the Narrows beautifully natural.
Please see details below:
As part of your New Year’s resolution, you’ve huffed and puffed your way to the top of the local trig point. While the view from the top is worth the effort, the footpath’s summit is also littered with stacked rocks, or cairns. The word “cairn” comes from the Scottish Gaelic word meaning “heap of stones”. What are they, and why do they appear on all those hot-girl-walk Instagram accounts?
What are rock cairns?
These types of rock cairns are typically used to guide hikers through particularly perilous terrain; you can find them all over famous trails like the Camino de Santiago. Cairns, on the other hand, have recently appeared all over hiking trails, often in groups, usually near specific features or rest stops.
Cairns can foster a sense of community among those on the same journey and even assist those with a less-than-perfect sense of direction in finding the right path. However, the US National Park Service claims that the ornamental ones can confuse visitors who are unfamiliar with the area, leading them astray. The practice of erecting cairns violates a fundamental tenet of being outside in nature: leave no trace.
If you move a rock, you may have accidentally disturbed the home of a tiny critter that lives beneath it. Moving stones can also contribute to soil erosion and destroy the delicate microhabitats required by plants and animals to survive. Moving a rock to add to the top of a cairn may also cause the entire structure to collapse, defeating the purpose.
Cairns, on the other hand, are thought to be beneficial because they keep hikers on track, preventing people from getting lost and trampling over protected areas. The number of unauthorized cairns, however, has increased to the point where the US National Parks department believes walkers are becoming confused by the would-be navigation signs. Those who plan to do a lot of hiking should always have navigation tools with them, such as GPS or maps.
Where do rock cairns come from?
Waldron Bates, the lead author of an island path map published in 1896, is credited with the creation of cairns. He was passionate about trail maintenance and wrote a handbook to establish standards for how things should be done. He also established how cairns should be constructed in a style known as the Bates cairn, which is quite different from the simple stacks seen today.
While you may believe that building a rock cairn is harmless fun, consider that the National Parks in America received over 297 million recreational visits in 2021 – that is a lot of potential for damage even if every visitor moved just one stone.
What do you do if you come across a rock cairn?
What should you do if you come across a rock cairn? The National Parks Service advises leaving them alone, with no tampering, building, or adding to existing ones. Don’t even think about kicking them over. If that doesn’t persuade you, perhaps the law will: moving the rocks could be considered vandalism, which is illegal.
Stanley Houk says
Through the years I saw so,many of these in Hawaii. I had friends who built them. Even when one guy moved to the mainland..he built one under the water!
I have lived in Norway now for over 15 years the main sports are skiing, football(soccer) and hiking. The top of the mountains have a rest place or a mini cabin (if you want to stay) they have mail box with a pad in it to say you did the hike. At the end of the year, the person with the most and longest hikes wins something (not sure what..I was never in the running..haahaa)
I’m hawaii you find a rock wrapped in ti leaves on top of a rock , it’s a grave marker from long ago and should not be touched or you will have the worst nightmares. Ever!!
Steve lauermann says
Carins were erected by Arctic explorers and whalers as far back as the early 18th century, many held weatherproof containers that acted as mail boxes or historical/geological points.
We have a spot on the NH seacoast just south of Odiorne State Park…below sea level there are hundreds of the stacked violations.
I dismantle every one I come across on public lands (non-government issue). I remove each stone and place it in an appropriate, nature-respectful location.
I do consider renegade carins an excrescence to be removed
Thank you for this article…where I live, people are taking hundreds of rocks and painting them with messages and pictures and leaving them on hiking trails for others to find….while I understand the intentions of this….I don’t think they understand the implications of the removal of all these stones and the harm the acrylic paints and varnishes can do…could you please do an article on this? Thank you…:)
Will McDaniel says
Judging by many of the comments a lot of people just don’t get it, a sad sign of attitude in todays world.
steve Johnson says
“I want to do what I want to do irregardless of the effect.”
They’re not confined to one generation or societal set.
Dr. Evil says
All of the very best farmland and is now buried under cities of concrete, asphalt and excrement-where people live like caged rats and gerbils. Every weekend, millions get into their SUV’s and RV’s, and go to the countryside. That makes them experts on “nature” which must be “saved” because their cities have pretty much destroyed the natural world around them. Release wild grizzlies and wolves back into their original habitats….downtown skid row.
James Giordano says
It’s actually illegal in Maine to build those..
Nancy Richmond Woods says
When I venture out into the wilderness, I like to think I am the first one to experience the beauty. Coming upon a stone structure just reminds me that others were there. It takes away from the complete naturalness of the place. We should leave the wilderness as we find it…..natural.
The act of trekking through nature is an apocalypse by comparison.
Elizabeth C Dietrich says
I noticed these in Zion NP and yes, one is cute, hundreds ruin the experience.
Kate Schella says
In the far northern part of Canada the native people would built a small stone “man” called an Inukshuk it means “so they know we were here.
Stacking stones is meditative,it is artistic,it is a skill.It is beautiful to see. Your article is ridiculous.
Abel Solis says
There are so many more harmful things going on around. Sadly too many just cannot mind their own business. If this person cooks his food, he is doing more harm than folks stacking rocks… So give me a break “Ken”.
Mike May says
This was the dumbest article – wasted time where I could have been stacking rocks.
Alexandre Forget says
I find them beautiful.
Nature + human spirit is even better. Please don’t see human action as inherently evil.
For sure, hundred in the same place is a bit too much, but a few here and there is not bad in itself. It can remind you of the beauty in humanity and nature working together.
Another example of “I don’t like what you’re doing so it must be wrong and I am right.”
Pee Wee Herman says
Great. Another thing to worry about.