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

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. 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.

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.

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.

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 hiding 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 on the trail. 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 our National Parks receive over 320 million visits a year (in 2019). Imagine 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. 

Where have you used rock cairns for route finding? Leave a comment below.

Written by Kristen Bor

Hey there! My name is Kristen, and this is my outdoor blog. I discovered the power of the outdoors in my 20s, at the time I needed it most. Now 15 years later, prioritizing that critical connection with nature continues to improve my life. My goal at Bearfoot Theory is to empower you with the tools and advice you need to responsibly get outside.

62 comments on “What are Rock Cairns & Why You Shouldn’t Build Them

  1. 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!

  2. 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

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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

  6. 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.

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

      1. 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!

    2. I learned about cairns around that same time too (late 50’s ~ early 60’s) in Brownies or young Girl Scouts , and then 30 years later when I became a leader , I taught my Brownies about them too ! … and we’d only be using cairns, (stacked rocks) snapped branches, rubbing onions on tree trunks, or *some kind of sign * every 10 steps on our scavenger hunts while hiking out in the woods on camping trips ……. but where I lived was on the Chesapeake Bay, near Jamestown, we learned that they were called *Indian trail signs* …. 🙂 … It sure made being in the woods even more adventurous and fun to be navigating with such interesting signs ! …. and then at the end of the hunt’s trail, there’d be a big basket of goodies for them to find that we could snack on and enjoy later while we were sitting around the campfire that nite and singing our Girl Scout songs, and roasting marshmallows and eating S’mores !!! …. 😉 We were in a designated GScout camping area, so I don’t think anyone since then could’ve gotten lost following our signs …. but now I know NOT to build them anymore !! 🙂

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

    1. 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.

      1. Well, they didn’t want to haul spray paint cans so far, so this rock graffiti is infesting the last pristine spots on Earth.

    2. Jeez relax! It’s just some rocks moved around outside. What about all the trash everywhere? Let’s pick that up instead of kicking rocks.

    1. 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.

  9. 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…

    1. 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!

      1. Build the “art cairns” in your yard., or some other non-wilderness space. Nobody gets confused about where to go, and you get your cool sculpture. Use rocks you dig up in the yard, or pick up stuff at a commercial rock yard. You would not put up home-made traffic signs or gravestones wherever you like, would you?

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

  11. 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.

    1. 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?

      1. 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.

      2. The cairns are build to eventually be knocked down due to natural causes. People knocking them down is NOT a natural cause.

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

  13. 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.

  14. 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,


  15. 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.

  16. 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.

  17. To cairn or not to cairn, that is the question
    Whether it is nobler to trek anonymously through the world, or to linger in a favorite place and leave a welcoming acknowledgement to a fellow traveler, ay, that is the rub.

  18. Thanks for this information. I am sure you are not saying that rock art on one’s own property is not good. But building them where they could be mistaken as a marker when they are not, is wrong. Thanks for the heads up.

  19. It is my quest to find stacked rock art while out on hikes and take several angular photographs of them. By knocking them over in a childish rage you are likely doing much more damage to the rock, lichen, surrounding plants and causing undue erosion where the toppled rocks strike the soil. If you must destroy someone’s rocks balancing sculpture please do it by carefully disassembling the art piece and place the stone pieces where they are doing no harm and with their natural up side up. Just minding your own business and enjoying your time out where you obviously do not belong is the best practice.

  20. Look I love this website as I’m huge on mountaineering and you USUALLY have great articles but in reality if “NOT putting up cairns” was that important or fixable there would be REAL media that had already covered it as well as signs and educational info about it. Yes it’s historical and cultural. Also it is true that in some areas the practice has been overused and actually in some cases near rivers can actually upset river beds and sometimes effect the local ecosystem if ever slightly but still.

    I understand the premise but this article is very biased, has major holes and would be more readable and enjoyable if it actually took both sides into account rather than just one.
    It’s fine to have the opinion but… this is almost not worth waiting a comment. Some good info but completely lacking substance and therefore believability.

  21. I first saw and heard of rock piles as “Ovoo” in the Mongolian steppe and Mountain passes. It was taught to me as a Buddhist practice. Passing by an “Ovoo”, one would add a stone and then walk around the pile clockwise three times as a prayer for safe travel for oneself and for future travelers. Some would leave offerings. It was intended as a means of passing forward good will, like the prayer wheels and prayer flags.

  22. Thank you for posting this..several years ago at at a near by lake durring the recent california drought the island at said lake became accessible by foot..but first one would have to walk down a tiny path through rattlesnake breeding area and traverse a field of boulders that cover a portion of the dam..if you knew where the little trail was coming back this was an easy task under fairly dark sky..if you miscalculated it could become a virtual disaster..especially with fishing gear and a 130lb old english Staffordshire (r.i.p. Mr.Peyton) and could send one on a very loud adventure that could result in tragedy as anyone whos experienced such an area knows when one snake rattles they all join in and it becomes impossible to determine if you are too close to one. So Cairns were an absolute must..and after consulting the park staff i was encouraged to go ahead with my offer to do the work (at my own risk of course) so we spent half a day rolling fairly large rocks in a sort of ramp to stack these 250lb(+) boulders in a safe manner so that they wouldnt endanger other visitors and three were made marking a line from the beach to the tiny trail (the safest route strait and simple) then we fished til around 3am and it was still 90 degrees f. early in may of that year..apon our return we find a total of 12 built in random succession scattered and rendering the ones with purpose useless..and we missed our mark after taking a best guess by about 40 yards which put us in the belly on the downhill side of a bunch of irritable rattlesnakes..which could have been a tragic thing had it not been for an elder gentleman a few weeks earlier who instructed me to keep a piece of stiff electrical hardwire about two feet longer than my fishing pole in my tacklebox to use as a “snake moving noose ‘ by stringing it through the eyelets on my pole and putting a slipknot against the last eyelet and a handle loop on the other end so that pushing releases the knot and pulling gently with loop around snakes head will safely hold them in order to relocate or in our case to clear 11 three to four foot rattlesnakes from our not so ideal path to the tiny safe path.. needless to say we returned in the morning with muscle to assist in the removal of unnecessary cairns and a laminated note to explain the reasoning behind the first three and the dangers of adding confusion to the situation. These snakes in a state of aggressive competition and are rarely seen by daylight visitors but get stuck in the middle at sundown with no way to safely move them and you may be completely disoriented by the deafening sound of so many rattles and once bitten it becomes likely you would be bitten by several more before (or if) you reached the top of the dam.. i offer this lengthy descript because it serves as a most perfect example of the dangers of adding cairns for artistic competition when you are building for no other purpose.. (by the way..multiple rattlesnakes buzzing at the same time sounds almost exactly like having your ears next to a punctured high pressure water line..and sounds nothing like a single rattler doing his thing..its completely deafening and disorienting and utterly terrifying in the dark!

  23. I first saw stacks of rocks in Friday Harbor (San Juan Islands in Washington) on someone’s property over 30 years ago. I asked the owner about them. He said, “They’re to energize the birds.” I thought that a bit odd, but didn’t think much more about it. I’ve been living in Nevada a number of years. I just recently saw small stacks of rocks on a piece of property in Pleasant Valley. Then I saw a larger stack of rocks on old 395, probably still in Pleasant Valley. So I decided to check the internet for rock stacking and found your wonderful sight. Thank you so very much. It’s informative and extremely interesting.

  24. You misguided sanctimonious special person that gets to roam freely and critique everyone on your path is so spiritually devoid of what others feel along their way. Cairns mean something different and important to each person that has picked each and every rock and stone to be placed just so to represent something deep in their soul. Shame on all of you who gleefully destroy these sacred places created by someone for their spiritual growth. If you came upon Stonehenge would you endeavor to topple it to the ground.

    1. Hi, Paul!
      Rock cairns when used properly are great aids in route finding, so I’m glad you experienced that atop Mount Washington.

  25. People are a part of nature, what we do IS natural, including technology, it’s an expression of our nature. I agree that they shouldn’t confuse navigation trails, but if you’re on a trail like that without map and compass and the skills to use it, there’s more wrong than a stack of rocks. Destroying other people’s creations because you’ve decided what is right and what is wrong is crazier than building a stack of rocks. At least those people are out engaging the living world, not just staring at their phone.

    1. Thank you. I think it’s funny that so many people don’t like or appreciate other people. We ARE nature, too, no less than a rock, a bird or a stream.

  26. I have used cairns in Wales as route markers to navigate my way. They are a welcome site when walking- just knowing that you’re not lost! The cairns in the Black Mountains in Wales have been in situ for hndreds of years.

  27. I agreed with your comment as to Leave No Trace and the misleading potential of building aesthetic cairns. I am fond of the cairn and use the typically to find the summit in our tree covered mountain tops of Maine. My one criticism is your tone was a bit scornful and if I were a spiteful teenager may proceed to do exactly what you warned against. Thank you for what you do. It is appreciated.
    Pat L
    Mid coast Maine

  28. Wow, Kristen from Washington who Quit Her Job to Hike the John Muir Trail!

    For those of us SoCallies who have hiked, surfed, skied, and lived the outdoors life for all of our lives, me thinks you doth protest too much about the rock cairns. We all bring our unique experience and express that experience in our unique ways. I personally enjoy seeing the cairns on our local beaches and am grateful to those who create them and I honor their expression.

  29. While cairns are for direction and navigation in the west, in the east they are used as a form of meditation, taking great care and patience to build one up. While off trail cairns are a problem, they are also someones hard work and meditation.

    but then again, it could play into the idea that what is built wont last

  30. The trail to the summit of Potash Mountain near Lake Luzerne, NY was not well-defined. Whenever I found I had wandered off it, I constructed a three-stone cairn to help on the way down, and for the next time I planned to climb it that week.

  31. Thanks for this article. Having been led astray on more than one occasion in the wilderness by a random cairn, your points are certainly worth considering. However, one glaring error caught my attention: you said, “…keep in mind that each of our National Parks receives over 10 million visitors a year, on average.” At https://www.nps.gov/aboutus/visitation-numbers.htm, the National Park Service says,”Out of the 419 parks in the National Park System in 2019, there were 62 with the designation “national park” as part of their official name.” Then it lists the 10 most visited national parks in 2019. The only one with more than 10 million visitors was Great Smoky Mountains National Park, with 12.5 million. Number two on the list was Grand Canyon National Park, with 5.97 million. Of all 419 parks administered by the NPS, only two others had more than 10 million visitors in 2019: Golden Gate National Recreation Area, with 15 million, and the Blue Ridge Parkway, with 14.9 million. The other 416 parks all had less than 10 million visitors. Clearly your stat is way off. I don’t think it affects your point, that people shouldn’t build random rock cairns, but the needless hyperbole detracts from your argument.

  32. Interesting that you took down my respectful comment pointing out a factual misstatement in your article about cairns, but left up the false information, namely, “…keep in mind that each of our National Parks receives over 10 million visitors a year, on average.” That is clearly a gross exaggeration of National Park visitation. Evidently you care more about over-emphasizing a valid and legitimate point than in doing so using accurate information. Don’t really expect this comment will be up long, but thought I would call you out. To repeat info I submitted on my previous short-lived comment, only one national park (Great Smoky Mountains) has more than 10 million visitors per year.

    1. Hi Richard – We didn’t delete your comment. We just have our comments set up so that the first time someone leaves a comment on our site, we have to manually approve it. It’s to prevent spam and bots from leaving comments on the site. I appreciate you pointing out the mistake in the article. While this article was originally written years ago, it’s clear we made an error. It’s a top priority for us to share only factual information on our website, so I assure you it wasn’t purposeful.Thanks for understanding and taking the time to share your feedback. -Kristen

  33. It’s happened to me yesterday (08/29/2020) in one of the National Park in Canada. My friend was building a small cairns , I asked her to build it along the trail just in case. But she pointed out that she saw other two cairns were out of trails too, her exact word was “The others have done that too.” I was so speechless but who am I to say since I wasn’t sure myself if she has a right to build it or not. What I thought at that time it’s just cairns helping hikers on unmarked trails but that one is so maintained. Well, I have your article to support my thought now. Thanks so much.

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