What are Rock Cairns & Why You Shouldn’t Build Them

Pin Me!
What are those rock structures on the trail? Understand the importance of rock cairns, who builds them, and what they are & aren't for.

What are Rock Cairns?

What are rock cairns? Generally, rock cairns are a way of marking the right way on not-so-well-defined trail. Lately, I’ve been noticing more and more rock cairns in places they shouldn’t be. On beaches, in the desert. It might not be obvious why this is a big deal, so we wanted to put together a post that shares more information on the purpose of rock cairns, their history, and why we should avoid building them for fun in the backcountry.

Trail markers differ depending on the territory you are in. The Appalachian Trail is famous for it’s “white blazes” that mark the route through 14 states. If you head farther North to Acadia National Park in Maine, you’ll find stacked rocks, known as “cairns” marking most paths. Venturing towards the West Coast and towards the southern United States you’ll come to find even more routes marked with cairns. Cairns in the simplest form are stacked rocks with a meaning or purpose. For outdoor adventure junkies, the purpose is generally navigational, as they mark the route of a trail.

History of Rock Cairns

Who had this crazy idea to use rocks to mark the path? It isn’t a new idea at all. Sailors often used stone mounds before lighthouses to support navigation. Stone piles were and are still very common for route-marking in the Andes mountain range, the Tibetan plateau, and Mongolia. Many of the mounds that stand today in these mountains are ancient and historical.

Cairns, in history and today, have also been used for non-navigational reasons. They have been built as burial monuments, for defense, for ceremonial purposes, or to hide a food cache. Similar in look to rock cairns is the new modern art and hobby of “rock balancing,” where people create abstract towers with rocks.

What are those funny rock structures? Understand the importance of rock cairns, who builds them, what they are and aren't for, and how to properly use them.

Photo Cred: Fougerouse Arnaud

What Rock Cairns Are & Aren’t

Rock cairns are for navigation.

Rock cairns are for safety.

Rock cairns are for marking trails with minimal disruption to the natural environment, helping to avoid the need for unnatural and expensive signage along trails.

What are those funny rock structures? Understand the importance of rock cairns, who builds them, what they are and aren't for, and how to properly use them.Decorative rock cairns can take away from the natural beauty of an area and disregard Leave No Trace principles.

Rock cairns aren’t for aesthetics.

Rock cairns aren’t for competition to see who can build a taller cairn.

Rock cairns aren’t for having a seat for a picnic.

Rock cairns aren’t for rangers to hide emergency gear.

Who Should Build Rock Cairns

Generally, rock cairns along trails and in the backcountry should only be made by park rangers, trail maintenance volunteers, or trail creators. Unless you are one of these people, you should avoid building rock cairns for fun in places where they could be confused as trail markers. Doing so could send hikers in the wrong direction by misrepresenting the trail.

Leave No Trace principles aren’t just about trash. Leave No Trace means leave no sign that you traveled through the area. That’s zero impact. When you move rocks to create decorative cairns you are altering nature for the next visitor and leaving a reminder that you were there.

It should also be noted that moving rocks in National Parks could be considered illegal since it disrupts the natural state of the ecosystem. While enforcement of this law is rare, keep in mind that each of our National Parks receives over 10 million visitors a year, on average. Image if every visitor built their own rock cairn. Our parks would be completely covered, taking away from the natural beauty of the landscape. In Acadia National Park, rock cairns have been used historically for navigation. Today, rangers are struggling with visitors building their own aesthetic cairns and knocking down accurate trail routing cairns. This is a serious problem for those who depend on real rock cairns for navigation or to mark safe stream crossings.

What are those funny rock structures? Understand the importance of rock cairns, who builds them, what they are and aren't for, and how to properly use them.kara brugman

We hope this post helps clarify the purpose of rock cairns and emphasizes their importance for navigation. 



There are 28 comments on this post.

About the author

Hi! I'm Kristen....blogger, hiker, sunset-watcher, and dance floor shredder. I feel most alive in the outdoors and created this website to help you enjoy the best that the West has to offer.

28 Comments on “What are Rock Cairns & Why You Shouldn’t Build Them

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Thanks for sharing the post. I agree and have seen more and more lately, mainly around beaches or water sources.

    Love this post, thanks for writing! Unnecessary cairns drive me nuts. I knock them down when I’m sure they’re not needed for navigation.

    I have used cairns while navigating backcountry routes (off trail) in places like Zion NP. Though backcountry users should have route descriptions and maps, I realize that kind of navigation isn’t for everyone – a single, well-placed cairn works.

    I’ve also hiked in some desert areas (like the Big Bend region of Texas) that have cairns on actual trails through desert and scrubland, where trails are underused and thus hard to see, and the landscape is inhospitable to other means of trail markers. Totally appropriate and comforting there!

      I do the same. I was just about write that I knock them down when I know they’re not navigation tools.

    Great post! This is important, as more than a few times proper cairns send me in the right direction, especially in rocky terrain where it was difficult to place proper trail markers. I wouldn’t want to follow someone’s “art”! It’s too often people treat Nature as their own private sandbox 🙁

    Happy hiking!
    A Woman Afoot

    Thanks for making this point. I recently relied on rock cairns to navigate trail near tree line in the Sierras and they are critical for that purpose. But something has been bothering me about the aesthetic or rock-balancing cairns people build and now I can put my finger on it: They’re just another (inappropriate) way for humans to leave their mark on the wilderness.

    Backpacking through Needles District of Canyonlands National Park, we found the cairns to be well-nigh indispensable in some places. We had detailed topo maps, compasses, and GPS units. We could (theoretically) have navigated without the cairns but it would have been very difficult, time-consuming, and potentially dangerous because there would be no guarantee of water.
    A single, false cairn in the wrong spot could cause hikers to miss the trail, with potentially catastrophic results. They call it “slickrock” for a good reason.

    Have used rock cairns to navigate my way through many day hikesing the Sierra Nevada. Drives me nuts when people add their own “artistic” cairns. People, please. Understand why they are there

    Back in the sixty when I first learned to do rock cairns in the boys scouts and it was for navigation. My memory is a little fuzzy but I remember only 3 stones were used and only 3 combinations for left, right and straight.

      That is interesting to hear and awesome that the Boy Scouts taught that they were for navigational purposes!

      There ya go see a cairn with more than three rocks, just ignore it as navigation and enjoy the art.

        I was abducted by a fellow from Switzerland to guide him along the Mogollon Rim and the Verde River headwaters. I took advantage of the opportunity to scout an area as a potential site for a future elk hunt. I was surprised to see towering rock cairns marking a trail. As I recall they were all about 5′ high. Why piled so high? So early pioneers could navigate in the snow. I would surmise cairns of less than a box of rocks or only three high are not trails that get much use in winter. Come winter some of us hike trails wearing snowshoes or cross county skies and find the use of cairns very helpful. When everything is white and you are in blowing snow, seeing a stack of rocks is a good omen!

    Thanks for this article. Rock Cairns, when properly placed/built along a trail are a good thing. They keep persons on the trail rather than bushwacking unecessarily and destroying the environment as well as keeping persons from getting lost. Many hiking trails are not “maintained” in the wilderness, thus, there is no authority that will construct/maintain navigational aids. Cairns are part of the natural environment and preferable to painting or tying colored plastic but PLEASE keep them discreet and erect them ONLY along the trail to avoid misleading hikers to needlessly damage soil structure.

    As a ranger down here in Tasmania I completely agree. I despise non-navigational cairns as I believe they spoil the connection to nature by introducing unnecessary man-made objects and I kick them down when I see them. I’m very lucky as I get paid to do so, hehe.

      I don’t build them, but I like to see any rock cairns when I’m hiking. I like to think about who built them and what they were doing.

    They are fun to build on beaches with friends and family .. those who think not should loosen their underwear

      Hey Tom, thanks for your response. Our post is more specific to rock cairns in the backcountry and on trails. Building rock structures on the beach is a little different.

    What Are you the rock queen? Who left you in charge? I love seeing carins on a beach. Its obvious they are not for direction, but more as artwork…chill out and enjoy the rock sculpture…

      Thanks, Nor, we appreciate and hear your thoughts. We understand in some areas people are using them as artwork, we just would prefer to view the natural setting as is without human interruption. Our post is speaking much more to cairns on trails and in the backcountry. Happy adventures!

    Good post, good points, unfortunately the Instagram fame whores of the world don’t care what happens after they get that perfect selfie.

    You briefly mentioned rock cairns that were used and placed by indigenous peoples for burial and other purposes, but I can tell you that there are places in South Dakota in the Black Hills that take those cairns very seriously. They are sacred places and of historical importance. To think they are only for navigation and marking trails is incorrect. I also do not encourage the practice of kicking them over or disturbing them in any way due to the historical, cultural and spiritual implications. If you do so because you think it’s just someones attempt at rock art, you’re sadly mistaken. Tread lightly, be respectful. If it’s not yours, don’t mess with it.

      This discussion is obviously about do’s & don’ts in the USA – and it seems there is a majority view…but not quite a consensus. I’d like to add an outsider point of view: many people who trek also do so outside the US, in places like the Himalayas (Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan etc.) where rock cairns are seen everywhere: not just on trails, and not with just 3 x rocks. Their meaning is not obvious to the untrained eye, unless you are deep into Buddhism & local culture – but one thing is REALLY clear: they are serious things and NOT meant to be disturbed. Anyone deliberately kicking down a rock cairn in Tibet would probably be strongly frowned upon by the community.
      So, it seems there are different rules & customs in different places.
      => Perhaps it would be useful to put some guidelines in writing for visitors, in the places & parks where they mostly serve as orientation markers?

        Agreed. Reverence for “rock piles,” at least for *cough * white people, can be traced back to European roots (look up Scots, Gaelic history). Just because it doesn’t please your touring eye, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be there. Hold the same, if not more , respect on the “North American” continent, please.

    I saw them in the Sierras de Tejeda, Almijara y Alhama, in Andalusia, southern Spain.
    Nice to read some more about the background.

    I was hiking this this summer in mountains where gps and compasses can’t always be trusted and the summits are flat and bare. Unless it’s a clear day and you are able to navigate using the spectacular view and and the sun then you’re pretty much reliant on the little stone mounds to find a safe way home. Please stop putting up false ones so I can get home safely.

    I bought quite a few rock cairns to use in my back yard as yard art. I think they’re beautiful in landscaping that incorporates stones and rocks, make for great conversations, and are a symbol of all the hard work that was done to plant a tree in a big hole that was once filled with clay soil and rocks of all sizes,

    There are appropriate times and places where one should indulge in making cairns. For example, on Thanksgiving day when you are hiking with family and you come upon a popular rock strewn beach but it is different this day. It has been sprinkled with beautifully balanced rock piles. This symbolic celebration to interact with the unknown footsteps that came before you, sharing in the love of nature and the importance of balance between nature and man. Never say never.

    We used rock cairns last spring when hiking off trail down a steep cliff face to help find the way back to where we started. We took them down on our way back. We did not let them roll but placed the in a natural way. They helped a lot. Some of the route was difficult to navigate coming back up.

A little Instamagic