STOP BUILDING CAIRNS

We’ve all seen them, either on Instagram or out on the hiking trails and in creek beds. Sure, it may look cool in your time lapse video, but did you know that every single one of these is causing damage to the environment? (Image credit: Craig Stanfill CC BY-SA 2.0).

Yes, cairns are bad. Yes, they look cool, and yes, you get lots of likes for them, but they are bad for the environment and YOU SHOULD STOP BUILDING THEM! There, now that that’s out of the way, let’s have a conversation about cairns and why you should never, EVER, build another one again (and actually take down any that you see).

Cairns and Nature

Earlier this year I took a trip to Zion National Park in southern Utah. A famous natural park full of incredible views, gorgeous geological features, and ugly piles of rock. Wait, what was that last one? Something about ugly piles of rocks?

I’m referring to cairns, the piles of rocks that people can’t seem to stop making at every single trail and park that I’ve been to in recent memory. Now, I know that in some parks and on some trails, cairns are important trail markers and are sometimes the only way for hikers to know that they are on the right path and not getting lost. That being said, you will never find a cairn meant to mark your path in the middle of a creek. Or in a forest that has trees available for blazes (pieces of colorful metal or spray paint on trees that mark the correct trail). Or on a scenic overlook where there are signs marking the trail (I took down no less than five cairns at Angel’s Landing).

The thing about these cairns is that they require anywhere from a few to dozens of rocks to make, and when humans take these rocks and build these cairns they are not only leaving evidence of their visit (*cough* leave no trace! *cough*), they are also destroying the homes of many different organisms. Sometimes, these rocks that are removed are necessary for the health of the ecosystem, like in streams and rivers. Aquatic insects, fish, and amphibians (like the Hellbender, seriously look this critter up) all depend on the crevices and hollows between and under rocks to make their homes, and when you take them out to build your little stack of rocks you are literally killing them. Additionally, the algae that used to be on the rock can no longer filter the water and provide oxygen to the system, only adding to the problems that are plaguing the water body.

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Graffiti in Joshua Tree National Park. Pretty ugly, right? If wouldn’t use spray paint to deface a natural environment, then you shouldn’t build cairns. They may look better, but cairns have the same detrimental effect, and in some cases can actually be worse for the environment. (Image credit: National Park Service/Hannah Schwalbe, Public Domain).

The General Public and Cairns

I have to come clean and say that I used to think that cairns were the coolest thing. It was a few years ago when this whole craze really kicked off thanks to the explosive popularity of social media, and I saw a video of some “spiritual guru” type building a cairn in the middle of a gorgeous stream. It was seriously cool how he was able to stack all of these differently-sized rocks and maintain the balance, and it was mesmerizing to watch the process. I’ve never built a cairn myself, but had I had the chance back then I would have. I’ve since learned how bad these are for the environment, but not everyone has had the opportunity that I have had to learn a lot about the natural world.

Some people make them as a meditative exercise, or as an expression of their artistic side. Others find it a spiritual experience, with every rock symbolizing a different aspect of their character or some goal they want to achieve. But here’s the thing, all of these different things can be done away from nature, and even if you want to do these things in the great outdoors, there are ways to do it without defacing the environment.

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Cairns such as these serve no purpose as trailmarkers, and only serve to clutter up the natural scenery and destroy habitats. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I have seen sights like this more than once on my hikes (Image Credit: 3dman_eu).

Good usage of cairns

Cairn is a Gaelic word for, creatively, “heap of stones”. As the origin of the name suggests, cairns are not a new thing. They have been used as a navigational tool all over the world for centuries, and as I said above they are still used for this precise purpose. They allow park rangers to mark a trail without disrupting the natural scenery with signposts, and they can be the difference between life and death for hikers who are looking for the trail. I have to actually thank cairns for helping me on a hike I took out in New Mexico at the Bandelier National Monument. My friends and I were in a pretty desolate patch of desert between the pine forests, and the ground was very rocky and devoid of any kind of plant life to support the trail blazes that we had been using up to that point. Thankfully, there were cairns along the trail that let us know we were heading the right way.

Take Home Message

I hope that I have convinced you that the health and natural beauty of our planet’s fragile ecosystems are more important than a cool photo that you’ll forget about pretty soon after you leave. They are the same thing as spray painting all over a rock face, and no one likes to see that, do they?

And hey, if that doesn’t convince you, how about this: IT IS ILLEGAL. You can face legal action if park officials see you building cairns. Not everyone cares about the natural world, but no one wants fines/jail time.

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