As part of your New Year’s resolution, imagine yourself struggling to the summit of the neighborhood trig point. The summit of the footpath is surrounded by a ton of stacked rocks or cairns, but the vista is worth the effort. The Scottish Gaelic term that means “heap of stones” is where the word “cairn” originates. What are they, and why are they there, despite being mentioned on all those Instagram accounts showing hot girls walking?

How do granite cairns work?

These rock cairns are typically constructed to guide hikers along especially perplexing routes; they are scattered throughout well-known trails like the Camino de Santiago. But recently, cairns have started to appear everywhere on hiking trails, frequently in groups and typically by specific landmarks or rest areas.

Large rock cairn made of pebbles, on the shore next to a blue sky and ocean background.

Rock cairn. Image credit: Dolores M. Harvey/Shutterstock


Cairns can help people traveling in similar directions feel more connected to one another and can even guide those with a poor sense of orientation. The US National Park Service contends that the ornamental ones can confuse visitors unfamiliar with the area and frequently lead them in the wrong direction. Building cairns violates a fundamental guideline of being outside in nature: leaving no evidence.

You might unintentionally have disturbed the home of a tiny creature living beneath a rock if you shift it from one location to another. Moving stones can also exacerbate soil erosion or ruin the fragile microhabitats that support plant and animal life. Additionally, shifting a boulder to increase the height of a cairn could make the entire structure collapse, defeating the purpose.

On the other hand, proponents of cairns contend that they are useful because they direct walkers and stop them from wandering off course and damaging protected areas.

However, the US National Parks department asserts that hikers are baffled by the unauthorized cairns because their number has grown significantly. People who intend to trek frequently should always have a GPS or map.

From where do granite cairns originate?

It is believed that Waldron Bates, the principal creator of an island path map released in 1896, is responsible for creating cairns. He created a manual to set guidelines for how things should be done because he was passionate about keeping hiking trails in good condition. In addition, he created the Bates cairn construction method, which is very different from the contemporary simple stacks.

An example of a Bates cairn. Image Credit: Monika Salvan/Shutterstock

Building a rock cairn might seem harmless fun. Still, in 2021, over 297 million people visited American national parks for recreation, which means there is a lot of potential for damage, even if each tourist only moves one stone.

What should you do if a boulder cairn is visible?

What should you do if you come across a granite cairn? The National Parks Service advises against tampering with, building on, or enhancing extant structures. Also, please resist the urge to push them over. If that still doesn’t persuade you, perhaps the law will: moving the boulders may be considered vandalism, which is against the law.

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