Thursday, June 1, 2023


You see them everywhere, but are cairns a help or a hazard?

You’ve probably seen them in campgrounds, on beaches and on hiking trails and paths, but if you don’t know, a cairn is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as a mound of stones built as a memorial or landmark, typically on a hilltop or skyline. Better known today as rock stacking, the practice of building cairns dates back to ancient times. The word originates from a term in the Gaelic language which means “heaps of stones.”

Who started stacking?

Cairns can be found throughout the world. In Mongolia, stone stacks were erected to mark graves. They warned sailors away from Norway’s dangerous coastline long before lighthouses came into existence. Alaskan natives and their sled dogs followed cairns as trade route markers. And on and on it went.

Why stack stones?

Rocks were readily available in many areas of the ancient world. Stacked rock formations were not negatively affected by weather or time. They were the perfect medium to use when people wanted a location marked for posterity.

Today, people stack rocks and post photos on social media. It’s become an international art phenomenon across the entire world. You may have witnessed folks building cairns at the beach, along a forest path, or in a park.

Are cairns good or bad?

Park rangers have two words for today’s cairn builders within National Parks: Please stop!

In remote regions of some of our National Parks, cairns are purposely built to help hikers follow the trail. For example, if you’re hiking in the desert, everything can look the same. Rock stacks can help guide you. Note: Hikers should always have additional means (besides cairns) for following remote trails.

Unofficial cairns can easily mislead hikers and backpackers away from the trail, potentially causing harm or even loss of life. In addition, placing more rocks atop an existing tower may confuse hikers or cause the cairn to collapse. Don’t do it!

Building these towers often disturbs the soil, making erosion more likely. Stacking stones can also negatively affect fragile vegetation and micro-ecosystems that live beneath the rocks.

A place for everything

I appreciate the patience and steady hands it takes to build an elaborate cairn. However, there is a place for everything, so stack your rocks in places that allow it.

Always check with authorities before building a cairn anywhere except your own property, of course. Follow the “leave no trace” motto, and our parks and wilderness areas will remain wild and beautiful for generations to come.

Have you ever followed cairns when hiking? Tell us where you were in the comment section that follows.



Gail Marsh
Gail Marsh
Gail Marsh is an avid RVer and occasional work camper. Retired from 30+ years in the field of education as an author and educator, she now enjoys sharing tips and tricks that make RVing easier and more enjoyable.


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Patrick deHertogh
9 days ago

I think all our efforts should be put together to come to solutions on our massive amounts of waste and the norm of buying tons of temporary junk to be tossed in pre determined life spans. And with huge infrastructure being built in 3rd world country’s so everyone can become the mad consumer such as us. Africa’s already becoming world designated garbage heap.
Now they can contribute to the pile just like us. After we fix this buy as much as possible till you die paradigm cause nothing can last cause how I gonna make money. Then we will go after these rocks freaks.
Meanwhile keep on piling🖖

22 days ago

An ethic should be introduced that makes clear where and what kinds of cairns are acceptable or not. For instance, artistic cairns built in areas where cairns are used to mark trails should be discouraged, whereas such creative rock work stacked in a stream bed that will be knocked down in the next spring flood are fine with me and a marvel to appreciate. “A place for everything, and everything in its proper place” works for me.

15 days ago
Reply to  Cal20Sailor


Neal Davis
23 days ago

Interesting. Thank you, Gail!

Ross Williams
23 days ago

There is a difference between cairns as graffiti and cairns as trail markers.

25 days ago

When hiking the Wonderland Trail, there had been several recent bridge and riverbed washouts. The kind hikers that marked the temporary trail with cairns were much appreciated. With out the markers in one place it would have taken hours to get back to the trail. We were very appreciative

25 days ago

Once we were having lunch on the Virgin River near the Temple of Sinewava in Zions NP. We noticed a woman up the river building a bunch of huge cairns. I think this is a no-no in the park. After she built about six of them she admired her work and left. Less than a minute later, two men came and knocked them all down. I guess you don’t want to build cairns in Zion 😁

25 days ago

There are many trails in the Arizona desert that would be impossible to follow without cairns. (Even with a map and GPS.)

Useful ones are usually a pyramid of rocks. Tall skinny “artistic” ones, like the photo, can’t be trusted.

Brad Teubner
25 days ago

I’ve built a cairn at a remote location where the ground was too hard to bury a BM. Makes me view them differently now.

25 days ago

When I get to a beautiful overlook which someone has marked with a cairn, I guess like a dog marks to say they were there; well, they tend to get kicked and collapse. What a shame.

Russell Strube
25 days ago

On a hike in Arches NP we got disoriented on one of the trails (sorry forgot which one). We saw a cairn and followed it. Then to the next and the next and so on. Soon we realized that cairns were built all over the solid rock surface that made it even more confusing. After searching with another couple we found the official trail.
I realize that the NPS doesn’t have enough help to take down or monitor the building of nonapproved trail marking. If you find this happening contact the NPS for that park.

25 days ago

Followed cairns in the High Huts of the White Mountains on the Appalachian Trail many years ago.

Will B.
27 days ago

Wouldn’t be that hard to distinguish “official” … *stacks of rocks* from those that aren’t official. Also, maybe a sign, on a post, instead of an easy-to-mistake-from official pile of rocks?

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