Making Rock Cairns Is Not a Great Idea

When we went to Acadia National Park in September, we were enamored of the rocky coastline and beautiful sweeping views from mountain peaks, over forested areas, to the harbor and ocean beyond where we stood.

The coast in Acadia has jagged granite boulders and cobblestoned beaches. Both types of rock show wear from the eons of wind, weather, and development. Still, it is mostly an untouched natural environment that is both unique and expected when visiting Maine.

When we entered the visitor center at Acadia on our first full day, a long walkway took us up a stone stairway. Along the stairs, there were a variety of wayside signs – some small and some large- informing tourists of the sights to be seen while in the park.

I am one of the visitors that tend to pay attention to these signs. One of the reasons I do this is that I like to learn about where I am. The other reason is that I was expected to design a wayside sign in the past and am interested in how effectively the designers did their job of attracting and holding the reader’s attention.

In Acadia, at the top of the stairs, there was a small sign about rock cairns with an actual example of these historically important features one might find in Acadia. It was a Bates Rock Cairn (see below).

Bates Rock Cairn display in Acadia National Park © Carol Labuzzetta, 2022

What, Where, Who, How, and Why of Rock Cairn Building

Rock cairns are human-made stacks, mounds, or piles of rocks. According to the website, LiveScience, cairns are built around the world by many cultures for a variety of reasons. Cairns might 1) serve to be directional guides like a trail marker, 2) mark ceremonial grounds, 3) serve as a monument, and 4) or mark burial sites. Usually, the location of a cairn is carefully chosen.

People make rock cairns and have done so for centuries.

As mentioned before the reasons for doing so are varied. The reasons for building a rock cairn centuries ago differ from the reasons today. However, some rock cairns, such as the Bates cairn in Acadia, pictured above, are directional guides in the park. Ancient rock cairns are meant to guide a traveler in the right direction on their journey. Sometimes, they have settled into the surrounding ground and have vegetation growing on them. Acadia National Park has been making an effort for years to inform visitors of the purpose of the cairns and discourage making new rock structures or altering those already in existence which includes adding to them.

Conservationists, including myself, frown on making rock cairns. Unfortunately, it has become a popular activity while hiking. Making a rock cairn disrupts the ecosystem under the rocks that are lifted and displaced. Removing rocks from the ground can contribute to erosion and disturb both plants and wildlife. New cairns can also confuse a hiker’s directionality. Making a rock cairn today leaves a human footprint where there was previously none.

An example of the prevalence of rock cairns can be seen in a park in Door County, Wisconsin. I have personal experience in seeing the hundreds of rock cairns built in Cave Point County Park in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, the county seat of Door County. In July 2015, we vacationed in Door County. We visited Cave Point County Park and Whitefish Dunes State Park. At both locations we saw rock cairns, sometimes, hundreds at a time.

Door County WI State Park, Hundreds of Cairns have been built here on the shore of Lake Michigan. They provide no directional guidance for hikers but are put there by visitors for aesthetic reasons or the supposed purpose of creating nature art. © Carol Labuzzetta, 2015.

It seems the rock cairns here go through cycles of tolerance and intolerance by local officials. In 2018, local officials became concerned with the building of cairns at Cave Point because people began moving off the shoreline into the forest and hiking trails to remove rocks to make a cairn on the shore. This also caused a justified concern about increasing erosion. Signs were posted along the trails that urged restraint and asked people not to make the cairns (Source: Fox11News). The next step would be to start ticketing people who chose to ignore the signs.

© Carol Labuzzetta, 2015.

As far as building cairns in Acadia National Park, it violates the rules of the park. Each park has its own rules about building rock cairns. One should check with the individual park before you go as to what their policy about the building of cairns.

What should you do if you see a rock cairn while hiking?

  1. Do not disturb it. In parks like Acadia, there are Bates cairns used to mark trails. Even if you think the cairn was built only for aesthetics or reasons of creating art, leave it alone.
  2. Do not knock it down.
  3. Do not add to it.
  4. Do not build your own cairn.

People that build rock cairns in parks violate the Leave No Trace Principle. We saw a cairn in Acadia on a cobblestone beach. It was obviously new and not meant to mark anything. We snapped a photo and left it alone. It did inspire this blog, however.

Rock Cairn in Acadia National Park, © Carol Labuzzetta, 2022.

Other rock cairns are more obvious to notice when hiking, like this one in Zion seem by my son and his Aunt last May.

Obvious Rock Cairn in Zion National Park. Photo Credit: M.L., 2021.

To recap, rock cairns are built by humans and have been for centuries. Historically, they were built to guide hikers on the direction of the trail or to commemorate or memorialize. Today, it seems the building of cairns is seen as vandalism on public property. They serve no purpose except to put the mark of a person in a particular place. If this is done it violates the “Leave No Trace” concept of being in nature.

The National park has a nice Infographic reminding us “mere humans” on how to treat cairns if you happen to see one while hiking.

Credit for sharable infographic: National Park Service, “I Didn’t Know That!: Rock Cairns.

The following sources were used in this article:

Live Science

National Park Service

Leave No Trace Includes Seven Principles

Acadia On My Mind: The Cairns of Acadia, Objects of Wonder, Subjects of Vandals

Fox 11 News: Rock Stacking Phenomenon Reaching Tipping Point in Door County

National park Service Article, I Didn’t Know That!: Rock Cairns

Image by Hans from Pixabay

What are your feelings on rock cairns? Let me know in the comments!

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14 thoughts

  1. This was fascinating. I didn’t realize these cairns in national parks had such a history. The photos themselves are wonderful. My daughter and her husband were just in the Poconos and took a few hikes. I will send them a link to this post and ask whether they saw any rock cairns on their hikes. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What an important reminder for those of us making our way through the natural world. I feel like there’s always the desire by humans to make our mark on the world, to leave a trace of our presence – and yet, that’s the very thing that causes so much damage in nature. I’ll be thinking on this one for a while.

    And…it’s really, really, GOOD to see you back at Slice of Life Tuesday. =))

    Liked by 1 person

  3. A well placed rock cairn has saved me a time or two on less traveled trails. I’m always thankful no one tampered with the cairn and then wondered about the ‘what if’, had I not seen the cairn. Thanks for your informative story about the rock cairns. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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