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Adirondack Explorer

Friday, July 19, 2019

When is it OK to stack rocks on the trail?

hiking cairns

A sign promotes cairn etiquette at the Cascade trailhead.

When I hiked Jay Mountain for the first time many years ago, I was struck by the size and craftsmanship of the cairns I saw along the ridge. Some of them were nearly as tall as me. At the time, I thought they were cool.

Now I am not so sure.

Since that hike up Jay, I have learned that not everyone appreciates cairns. Critics say that cairn building has got out of hand. Once used to mark the way, cairns nowadays often are seen as monuments to the ego and a blight on the wild landscape.

The Ausable River Association contends that cairns built for personal reasons violate Leave No Trace principles. “Recently, visitors to the Adirondacks have taken to stacking rocks along our Adirondack trails or waterways as creative art form or for meditation. Often, they build the rock stack, snap a few photos for Instagram, and leave. To some, these signs left upon the landscape are the same as graffiti carved into a tree,” according to a post on the association’s website.

Rocks removed from a stream, for example, can disturb the habitat of fish, salamanders, and other aquatic creatures.

When I hiked from the Garden to Big Slide last year, I passed a giant pile of rocks enveloping the base of a tree. It served no purpose, and I doubt it did the tree any good. What was the point?

The controversy is not limited to the Adirondacks. I was reminded of this on two recent hikes in New England.

The first was in Acadia National Park outside Bar Harbor on the coast of Maine. My girlfriend Carol and I spent a gorgeous day hiking to six small summits (that sounds like a lot, but the total elevation gain was only 1,500 feet). Since the summits were bald, the trail was often marked by cairns. This struck me as appropriate: I’d rather see cairns than paint blazes on the bedrock.

But the folks running Acadia do not allow just anyone to build cairns. Several times we saw park signs warning hikers that adding or removing rocks from cairns can cause soil erosion, damage plants, and degrade the landscape.

All of the cairns we saw on our hike followed the same basic design: two columns (of one or two rocks each) held up a lintel, or horizontal stone, with a small rock atop the lintel. Picture the trilithons (the pi-shaped stone structures) at Stonehenge, but much smaller and squatter. These are known as Bates cairns, named after their originator, Waldron Bates, who chaired the Path Committee of the Bar Harbor Village Improvement Association from 1900 to 1909.

Acadia National Park is carrying on the tradition of the Bates cairn—which is another reason officials don’t want hikers messing with the stones.

Bates Cairn hiker

A Bates cairn in Acadia National Park, where the National Park Service asks hikers to leave the rocks as they find them. Photo by Phil Brown

A week later, Carol and I (with other family members) hiked Mount Monadnock in southern New Hampshire, where we saw huge stacks of rock similar to those I have seen on Jay Mountain and elsewhere in the Adirondacks. These were a far cry from the humble Bates cairns we saw in Acadia. Nevertheless, cairn building is not encouraged on Monadnock either. On our way to the summit we passed a sign saying “Follow cairns. Don’t build them.”

In the Adirondack Forest Preserve, it’s illegal to build a cairn without a permit unless you work for the state Department of Environmental Conservation. I’ve never heard of anyone being prosecuted for building a cairn, though, and I bet most hikers are unaware of the regulation.

The Waterman Fund paid for a sign at the Cascade Mountain trailhead discouraging hikers from cairn building. Perhaps it’s time for DEC to follow the examples of Acadia and Monadnock and post similar signs at other strategic trailheads, especially those in the High Peaks region.

The other day I climbed Roaring Brook Falls near St. Huberts with a summertime employee of the Adirondack Mountain Club. When we reached the top, we saw a small cairn. It served no purpose. My young companion (age 19) was annoyed and scattered the stones.

What do you think of cairns? Are they a delight or a blight? Should hikers destroy unnecessary cairns?

Incidentally, Tom Woodman wrote a nice piece about cairns for the Explorer several years ago.

 

Phil Brown

Contributor Phil Brown was editor of the Adirondack Explorer from 1999-2018. When he isn't at his desk, he's usually out hiking, paddling, skiing, or doing something else important.

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8 Responses

  1. Jim V says:

    Recently, after summiting mercy and haystack, a heavy fog came in.
    If not for the small rock cairns that led the way back to our camp at Panther Gorge, we could have been in trouble.

  2. Tom says:

    I witnessed a DEC summit steward dismantling the cairn for Grey Mountain. She knew she was caught and just left while I put the cairn back in place.

  3. Tom says:

    There was an article in peeks magazine about too many rocks on the summit of skylight. Rock piles on top of mountains are distinctly different from Cairns that are usually the only markings for the unmarked trails. The 46 high peaks have about 20 unmarked trails, and the sparse amount of cairns used to guide hikers on these trails are essential. Nobody should dismantle any of the route cairns. I have seen tiny cairns on hikes like Marshall, where the trail crosses the brook so many times, these tiny markings are a huge help. For whatever reason, the APA, the DEC, or whomever, has decided that these trails remain unmarked. Therefore the cairns are absolutely essential until the time comes to put in signs and trail markers for all of the high peaks. And signage? Many of the signs in the Adirondacks are so worn out you can’t read them. The State has seriously neglected the funding for maintenance. We’re also just starting to discover how bad the shape of our trails are. But in the meantime, we can live with that. Just leave the cairns alone, build a small one if you think it will help along the trail, leave the summits alone and give us some place to park!

  4. Andrew says:

    I don’t hike unmarked trails. On the trails I do hike, cairns or stacks are a blight, a mark on the land to proclaim a momentary presence and give oneself a feeling of literally having left a mark. When I see one I scatter the rocks. “Leave no trace.” Do that.

    • Tom says:

      This is why we need Signs and markers for the unmarked trails. People don’t understand that the cairns are there for a purpose-to mark an otherwise unmarked trail. If you “scatter the rocks” you might end up inadvertently causing someone to be lost in the woods.

  5. Duke says:

    Where it appears they are necessary, and not excessive, leave them alone. Where rocks are stacked as “art” or somebody’s idea of a cool or spiritual graffiti scatter them. Leave public spaces as natural especially in the wilderness.

  6. John Sasso says:

    Phil, I agree with you about the limited and controlled building of cairns, for a purpose (primarily route-finding). As a trailhead steward at Cascade, the challenge is trying to convey to people WHY they should not be moving rocks and building their own cairns and the like. You could explain to them the issue of soil erosion, but then they’d come back and say, “But what if the rocks are not in the soil?” Similar issue for rocks taken from a stream and the cairn-building people do along the stream. Trying to reason with people can be quite a challenge.

    While the cairns are primarily used for route-finding on the herd paths to peaks like Marshall, the paths have become so well-trodden that in the summer, they are clearer than the marked trails. Also, although these herdpaths are minimally-maintained by volunteers in order to keep hikers on a single path, there are still false herdpaths off these which are commonplace. It is about time these herdpaths be marked. Proponents of herdpaths can argue about maintaining the wilderness experience and challenge of getting to the summit on these, but those days are long-gone. If you want the wilderness experience and challenge, go bushwhacking. Otherwise, if you don’t want a proliferation of false herdpaths and ensure hikers are on one route, mark the trails. You can’t have your cake and eat it, too.

  7. Toofargone says:

    Oh my, the Green Mafia and Resistance all rolled into one! What a shame people are such Nazis when it comes to simple stuff like rock cairns. They harm no one or the environment, and anything to the contrary is mere pretext to justify a One World view. I have no doubt a DEC summit steward on Grey was working in lockstep with the Leave No Trace radicals to obliterate cairns. Dumb as a stone. Probably the same folks who remove summit disks and anything else they find offensive. The People’s land belongs to All of the People, and we do not need elitists to help us enjoy it.

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