Cairns: The Problems Created by Stacking Rocks

Key Points

  • Cairns are stacked rocks used to mark certain things.

  • Cairns can be used for good and bad.

  • Appreciate what cairns can be and don't be part of the problem.

Since the beginning of humanity, people have found ways to leave their mark on the world around them. Call it instinct or call it pride, but like many animals, people have used various methods to mark things or record information. One such method of doing so is the use of stacked rocks called cairns.

Cairn rock stack in the rain

What is a Cairn?

The term "cairn" derives from a Gaelic word and essentially means "a heap of rocks." Cairns have been used throughout history by many different groups of people, including early Norse sailors, indigenous peoples, and European explorers making their way along the Arctic Coast. Cairns are always used as markers, but what they marked has varied for a long time. Some people used them to mark landmarks when exploring, others used them to mark graves.

There is a Mongolian Proverb that goes, "If the cairn were not built, the magpie wouldn't have perched." This suggests that we create our own fortune through the actions we choose. This seems to perfectly reflect the complicated existence of cairns, as they can be used to help others, and can also be used for vain purposes.

Regardless of what they mark, cairns are easy to create and serve as a clear indicator of something significant. Part of what makes cairns such an easy, and thus popular, marker is the simple fact that rocks can be found nearly everywhere. Stacking them– whether it be a stack of a few, or a tall stack– seems to make them stand out as something that is not natural and thus warrants attention.

In the modern world, cairns are often used to indicate a trail when perhaps the path is not so obvious. This makes them an important detail in some parks. However, in the 21st century, it has become popular to stack rocks, simply for the pleasure of creating something aesthetically appealing, amid nature. This, however, can confuse those that rely on cairns for direction. This article explores the advantages and downsides of cairns beyond their navigational function and highlights how they can enhance our connection with nature if we respect nature in the process.

The Benefits of Cairns

While it can be tempting to create a cairn while out enjoying nature, there is a proper way to do so to ensure that you don't leave a negative impact on the area you're visiting. There are many benefits to creating cairns, through how they allow us to be present in nature, but it is important to dispose of them afterward. The upside to that is that knocking cairns down can be as fun as building them.

1. Trail Guidance and Safety

Cairns play a crucial role in guiding hikers, backpackers, and outdoor enthusiasts along trails, especially in wilderness areas where paths can be obscured. By strategically placing cairns, trail markers provide reassurance and prevent disorientation, making outdoor adventures safer and more enjoyable.

2. Environmental Awareness

The act of creating cairns encourages individuals to become more observant of their surroundings. As people search for suitable rocks or stones, they start to pay closer attention to the environment, fostering a deeper appreciation for the natural beauty of the area. This increased awareness can lead to a greater understanding of ecosystems and the need for environmental stewardship.

3. Artistic Expression

Cairns have served as a form of artistic expression for centuries. As people arrange rocks into appealing structures, they engage in a creative process that allows them to express their individuality and appreciation for aesthetics. Both the act of constructing cairns and the resulting installations contribute to the beauty and unique character of natural landscapes.

4. Meditative and Mindful Practice

Building cairns can be a meditative activity that promotes mindfulness and a sense of calm. The repetitive, focused action of carefully stacking rocks allows individuals to enter a state of flow, where they become fully absorbed in the present moment. This mindful practice offers stress relief, enhances mental well-being, and fosters a deeper connection with nature.

5. Symbolic Significance

Cairns hold symbolic value in various cultures and traditions. They can represent the passage of time, indicate sacred sites, or commemorate significant events. By recognizing and respecting these symbolic meanings, we can deepen our understanding and appreciation of the cultural heritage and history associated with cairns.

6. Educational and Interpretive Tool

Cairns can serve as educational tools in parks, nature reserves, and heritage sites. They provide an interactive experience for visitors, allowing them to learn about geological formations, cultural practices, or historical landmarks. Interpretive signage accompanying cairns can offer valuable information, enriching the visitor's understanding of the natural and cultural aspects of the area.

Beyond their primary role as trail markers, cairns offer numerous benefits that extend beyond navigational purposes. They not only guide us through the wilderness but also foster environmental awareness, inspire artistic expression, facilitate meditative practices, hold symbolic significance, and serve as educational tools. As we appreciate the multifaceted advantages of cairns, it is vital to maintain a balance between their utilization and preserving the natural environment. Let us continue to cherish and respect these distinctive structures as we navigate and connect with nature's pathways.

Cairn rock stack by ocean

The Negative Impacts of Cairns

As beautiful and obscure as they can be, cairns are certainly not without their downsides. While they can serve as navigational aids and provide opportunities for artistic expression, the increasing popularity of building cairns has brought about a range of unintended negative effects. Here are some examples of the potential harm caused by people building cairns and the importance of considering the environmental impact.

1. Ecological Disruption

When individuals gather rocks for cairn construction, they often disrupt the delicate balance of ecosystems. Removing rocks from their natural environments can disturb habitats, reduce soil stability, and lead to erosion. These alterations can impact plant and animal life, affecting biodiversity in the area.

2. Navigation Confusion

While cairns traditionally serve as trail markers, the rampant construction of cairns by individuals for aesthetic purposes can confuse and mislead hikers. Overabundance or misplaced cairns can lead to trails becoming obscured, making it challenging for others to find their way and potentially increasing the risk of getting lost.

3. Cultural and Historical Dilution

Cairns have deep cultural and historical significance in many regions, often representing ancient traditions, sacred sites, or ceremonial locations. However, the indiscriminate construction of cairns by visitors diminishes the value of these cultural symbols, distancing them from their original context. This dilution of meaning can erode the cultural heritage associated with cairns.

4. Habitat Destruction

In some cases, cairn construction might involve rearranging natural features, such as disturbing streams or altering rock formations. These activities can have detrimental effects on wildlife, disrupting their natural habitats and reducing their access to essential resources like food and water.

5. Visual Pollution

As the popularity of cairn building grows, so does the visual impact on natural landscapes. Large numbers of cairns can clutter and detract from the scenic beauty of an area, particularly when they are constructed in highly sensitive or protected environments. The result is a compromised visual experience for both visitors and the local community.

6. Risk of Injury

Poorly constructed or unstable cairns can pose risks to individuals. Unintentional collapses or toppling stones can cause accidents, leading to injuries for both those building the cairns and unsuspecting passersby. It is essential to exercise caution when engaging in cairn construction to ensure the safety of oneself and others.

While cairn building can be seen as a harmless activity, it is crucial to recognize and address the negative effects it can have on ecosystems, navigation, cultural heritage, habitats, visual aesthetics, and personal safety. By promoting responsible and considerate cairn construction practices, we can strike a balance between appreciating the significance of these stone formations and preserving the natural environment. Let us foster a greater awareness of the potential consequences of cairn building, encouraging a more sustainable and mindful approach to our interactions with nature.

How the Facts Stack Up

There are many national parks that rely on cairns to mark their trails and other important features. By using cairns, these parks able to keep the features of the parks as natural as possible, while still ensuring the safety and clear directions of guests. These parks include:

  1. Yosemite National Park (California, USA)

  2. Zion National Park (Utah, USA)

  3. Joshua Tree National Park (California, USA)

  4. Rocky Mountain National Park (Colorado, USA)

  5. Glacier National Park (Montana, USA)

  6. Acadia National Park (Maine, USA)

  7. Grand Canyon National Park (Arizona, USA)

  8. Olympic National Park (Washington, USA)

The growing amount of cairns being built by visitors at parks has gotten so bad that in mid July of 2023, Yosemite National Park issued a message for visitors to knock over any cairns that they find. Many other parks have published articles and posted to social media sites to educate visitors about cairns and to encourage them not to build them and even to knock the stacks over if they find them. Many of the parks that prohibit guests from building cairns are parks that use cairns to mark their trails.

It is a pretty lengthy list of parks that have requested guests not build cairns or knock them down, which perfectly illustrates how much of an issue cairns have grown to be.

1. Yosemite National Park (California, USA)

Yosemite National Park has issued a message to visitors, urging them to knock over any cairns they come across as the increase in cairn building has become a concern.

2. Zion National Park (Utah, USA)

Zion National Park discourages the stacking of rocks as it can disrupt the natural environment and confuse hikers who rely on cairns for trail navigation.

3. Joshua Tree National Park (California, USA)

Joshua Tree National Park discourages the building of cairns as it can negatively impact the desert ecosystem and disrupt the natural beauty of the park.

4. Rocky Mountain National Park (Colorado, USA)

Rocky Mountain National Park advises visitors against creating or disturbing cairns, as they can alter the natural landscape and pose risks to wildlife.

5. Glacier National Park (Montana, USA)

Glacier National Park discourages the construction of cairns, emphasizing the importance of leaving natural features undisturbed to preserve the park's pristine environment.

6. Acadia National Park (Maine, USA)

Acadia National Park advises against building cairns, as it can disrupt the delicate coastal ecosystem and detract from the park's scenic landscapes.

7. Grand Canyon National Park (Arizona, USA)

Grand Canyon National Park discourages building cairns, as they can confuse hikers and harm the park's unique geological formations.

8. Olympic National Park (Washington, USA)

Olympic National Park discourages the stacking of rocks, as it can impact the natural environment and diminish the park's aesthetic appeal.

Please note that this list is not exhaustive, and it's always recommended to check the specific guidelines and information provided by each national park regarding cairn construction. Regardless of whether or not the park has strict rules against building cairns, the park rangers and staff at nearly all parks advise against building cairns because of the many complications they create.

Respect Shouldn't Be So Rocky

Aside from creating problems for the staff and guests of parks, cairns lose their spiritual significance when they are thrown together on a whim and without purpose. In fact, many religions use cairns as a form of expressing their faith.

Cairns hold spiritual significance in various religions and spiritual practices around the world. These stacked rock formations often symbolize important concepts and serve as markers of sacred spaces or events.

In many indigenous cultures, cairns are considered sacred and hold deep spiritual meaning. These cultures often view them as a connection between the physical realm and the spiritual realm. cairns can mark sacred sites such as burial grounds or places of worship. They serve as a spiritual anchor, representing the presence of the divine or acting as a spiritual guide.

In Buddhism, cairns, known as "stupas," are highly revered structures. Stupas are mound-like structures containing relics of Buddhist masters or important texts. They serve as places of meditation and pilgrimage, symbolizing the enlightenment and wisdom achieved by the Buddha. Buddhists believe that circumambulating stupas brings blessings and spiritual merit.

In Hinduism, cairns, or "balishtas," are often found along pilgrimage routes and riverbanks. They are used as markers to guide devotees on their spiritual journeys. Balishtas also symbolize the presence of deities and act as a link between the devotee and the divine. Hindus offer prayers and leave offerings at these cairns as an act of devotion and seeking blessings.

In Celtic and Norse traditions, cairns held significance as landmarks and markers for sacred sites. They were often erected at places associated with the gods, ancestors, or places of power. Cairns served as points of connection with the spiritual realm and were thought to possess protective and healing energies.

The spiritual significance of cairns extends beyond organized religions. For many individuals, creating cairns can be a spiritual practice itself. Building and arranging rocks mindfully and in harmony with nature can promote a sense of peace, connection, and oneness with the Earth. It becomes a meditative activity that allows individuals to be present in the moment and connect with the natural elements. Again, they possess these benefits when they are done mindfully, at the right time and place.

Overall, cairns hold spiritual significance in religions and spiritual practices worldwide. They act as symbols of spirituality, guide individuals on their spiritual paths, and connect them with the divine. Cairns provide a tangible representation of the intangible, fostering a deeper connection with the sacred and the natural world. With so many cultures holding them dear, it's easy to see why it is so important to be respectful when it comes to building cairns.

cairn rock stack in front of mountain view

Stop and Think Before You Stack

This article is in no way meant to deter people from building cairns altogether, but rather, it's intended to educate readers about the proper way and place to build them. If you insist on building a cairn in a public park, just be sure that you take it down when you're done. If you want your presence in a place to be recorded, simply take a picture, rather than leaving behind a marker that creates issues for others.

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