The case against cairns

Earlier this week, I wrote a short item for Adirondack Almanack on cairns. Many people are fascinated by these heaps of stone often found on bare ridges and summits. Tom Woodman, our publisher, wrote about cairns in a column in the Explorer last year. Adirondack Life ran a photo feature on cairns last year. And Mary Thill wrote about cairns in an earlier Adirondack Almanack piece.

Cairn on East Dix.
Cairn on East Dix.

Not everyone, though, likes cairns. I discovered this after posting my piece. As one reader commented, “The last thing I want to see on public land is someone else’s form of personal expression, whether it is a cross, spray painted graffiti, or a cairn built by a some hippy or Andy Goldsworthy wannabe.”

Some readers even argued that cairns constructed by the public are illegal.

It turns out they’re right.

Unless you work for the state Department of Environmental Conservation, you are not allowed to build a cairn in the Forest Preserve without a permit, according to agency spokesman David Winchell. DEC regulations state: “No person shall erect, construct, install, maintain, store, discard or abandon any structure or any other property on State lands or subsequently use such structure or property on State lands, except if the structure or property is authorized by the department.”

Does this mean you should look over your shoulder the next time you add a stone to the giant cairn on Skylight? That’s probably not necessary.

“I can’t recall any instance of someone being charged with constructing a cairn, not to say that it hasn’t occurred,” Winchell said.

In theory, though, you could be ticketed and fined up to $250.

I guess that beats busting rocks in a prison.

About Phil Brown

Phil Brown edited the Adirondack Explorer from 1999 until his retirement in 2018. He continues to explore the park and to write for the publication and website.

Reader Interactions


  1. Paul says


    Thanks for checking on this. Even the DEC needs to get permits themselves to do much of their maintenance work.

    There are some MOU’s and the like between the DEC and the APA but generally they have to get permits also.

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