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, Image Cropped).
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.
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.
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.
Totally agree. They tell people to “leave no trace”, but then they go and build hundreds of these things. Makes no sense.
In some traditions it is said that each stone holds a song. I believe nature is better left alone but after reading this article and seeing your telling people to better yet take them apart- please reconsider that statement and leave it in the hands of the trail maintenance and park personnel- they know best. I live in New Mexico and if lots of people start talking then appear you will be personally responsible for standing someone without direction in a remote dangerous place- do you want that?
As I said in the article, some cairns are indeed meant for trail marking and are absolutely essential for hikers. But as the article states, those are easy to tell apart from those that SHOULD be taken apart.
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I completely agree, except that in your sub-headline you note that folks should take down ANY cairns you see. That could be very problematic for the park service or a wayward hiker looking for a trail. I know you go on to clarify, but a lot of folks aren’t going to read this whole article. Maybe an edit is appropriate?
Thank you. It is nice to have information about protecting the environment down to the tiniest creatures that do so much for our world. Even the people who consider themselves ‘one with nature’ seem incapable of visiting it without making changes.
I couldn’t agree more! Loving near the ocean in the northeast I’ll often go to the rocky beach only to see cairn’s sticking up everywhere. They completely ruin the natural view and landscape of the shore line. Meanwhile people are taking pictures of them. I don’t get it. Thank you for the excellent article.
Okay I don’t wanna sound like a douchebag but like, are you f***ing serious rn? Stop being so contradictory, you literally make a statement about metal or spray paint markings to mark a trail then say “leave no trace” like isn’t a spray paint marking on a rock leaving a more long lasting mark than a f***ing stack of rocks? Then you make comments towards the end about park rangers using them to mark trails instead of putting up signs, but you’re over here knocking them down? Not to mention the fact that my 12 rocks out of the 500000000000000000000 rocks on the planet aren’t going to effect sh*t
Hey Kayden, if you read the article you’ll notice there are clear differences in the statements regarding the different kinds of cairns on trails. The ones that need to be knocked down are not trail markers, and the ones that are used to mark trails are obvious in their difference and purpose. Any rocks that a single person moves can and does have an effect on local ecosystems, and that is only magnified when people follow the example and build cairns because they see that others have done so.
Okay this is the dumbest thing I’ve ever read, and I’m obsessed with nature.
People build brand new homes for themselves instead of buying existing ones. Animals, however, are highly adaptive and despite your spray paint or nailed in bits of metal (how…kind?) – they do just fine.
Aside from your hiking boots and walking sticks and tossed apple cores and the hair you drop… they’re doing just fine.
Aside from the bridges built on trails from chemically soaked wood so your boots don’t get wet while you cross the creek and those chemicals leech into the air and ground… the wildlife does just fine.
Stop this bullshit.
I’m not sure what you mean by “doing just fine”. Wildlife is severely threatened in all parts of the globe. While animals are adaptive, there are limits to what they can tolerate. Building cairns by taking rocks out of the water destroys habitat they use for their homes, in addition to the other effects it has on water quality. This is not a matter of opinion, this is a fact.
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I will gladly take any down that I see.they look ridiculous.
I was hiking at Capitol Reef National park, trying to get to the backside of Cassidy Arch. I hit a patch where there was nothing to guide me…other than the cairns. I was able to complete the hike thanks to the Cairns. I call them pathfinders. They show you the way. Without them I probably would have turned back
Like it says in the article, cairns like those are meant to mark the trail. There are clear differences between those and the ones that people make near bodies of water.
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