Cairn Controversy

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A fan of cairns? Or anti-cairn? Recent news about cairns has brought out the critics. Bluedot tries to find a balance.

If you’ve ever hiked in the mountains or strolled along a stony beach, you’ve probably seen them: piles of rocks shaped like mini pyramids, towers, or even something vaguely resembling a human. The stones might even be artfully balanced on top of each other, seeming to defy gravity, and ready to topple at the touch of a hand or a breath of wind. Depending on whom you talk to, these structures, called cairns, are either creative sculptural delights, essential navigational devices, or an affront to the natural environments where they’re built.  


Historically, sailors built cairns on remote coastlines. — Photo by Tara Kenny

Generally, I’m a fan of cairns. As an avid rock climber and occasional hiker, I can’t count the number of times I’ve been sweating under a heavy pack along a backcountry trail, arrived at an annoying multi-pronged fork in the road, wondered which way to go — then spotted a tiny cairn of two or three stacked rocks atop a boulder off to the right or left, indicating the correct path to the climb or campsite I’m trying to get to. In such moments, they are godsends. In a worst-case scenario, they might even save your life. 

Historically, that’s what cairns were meant for. Sailors used to build them on remote coastlines to show ships where they might find a safe harbor or to warn them of dangers like shoals and submerged boulders. In barren and treeless Arctic regions of the U.S. and Canada, the indigenous Inuit people build more elaborate cairn structures called inukshuks, which helped them find their way in winter when the snow renders the sweeping landscape all but featureless. Today — in Canada at least — inukshuks are ubiquitous across the country, familiar roadside sights that exist for no other reason than someone decided to mark their brief passage by building an inukshuk. Simpler cairns are found on virtually any trail on Earth where there are no trees that can be used to paint or chop blazes on – or, it seems, in any place where stackable rocks are abundant and humans can visit. 

Millions of people visit America’s 423 other national parks every year, so if even a tiny fraction of them chose to have some fun by building a cairn, the environmental damage might be catastrophic and, in some cases, compromise safety. 

But some say the enthusiasm for cairn-building has gone too far. Just ask the rangers in Yosemite National Park, where persons unknown have erected monster rock towers five or six feet high on already well-marked trails. The rangers object to such cairns because the rocks from which they’re constructed normally provide shelter for insects and small mammals, and moving the rocks from their natural locations destroys the critters’ homes. People building new cairns for fun might confuse travelers and cause them to lose their bearings. Millions of people visit America’s 423 other national parks every year, so if even a tiny fraction of them chose to have some fun by building a cairn, the environmental damage might be catastrophic and, in some cases, compromise safety. That’s why Yosemite rangers ask people not to build cairns and to push over any they come across. (The park might want to hire this dog.) The Australian National Park system takes a tougher approach: anyone caught building an unauthorized cairn on national park turf can be fined 600 Australian dollars (about $410).

Cairns at Yosemite
Cairns at Yosemite National Park. — Photo courtesy of pxfuel.com

In contrast, at Arches and Canyonlands national parks in Utah, rangers ask visitors to not touch or alter existing cairns, which the rangers build to help park folks find their way across the bare-rock, often treeless landscape. But they discourage visitors from building their own cairns. 

“People come from around the world to see the natural beauty of the parks’ rock formations,” says Karen Garthwait, a public relations specialist at Arches and Canyonlands. “Spontaneous sculpture gardens do not add to that natural beauty. Creating them can even cause damage: walking off-trail to gather rocks may damage fragile biocrusts and disturb animal habitat.”

Despite such warnings, people are unlikely to stop building cairns, even in locations where the Leave No Trace wilderness travel ethic is encouraged. If you’re one of those people, resist the urge, especially if you’re in a national or state park. In other places, go ahead and stack those rocks, snap that artsy pic for your Instagram page — and then dismantle your creation. If anyone asks, tell them you’re a performance artist.    

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Alec Ross
Alec Ross
Veteran freelance writer and author Alec Ross lives in Kingston, Ontario.
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