Ranger Encourages Destroying Rock Cairns

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Close up of rock cairns on a hiking trail

There’s a good chance you’ve seen a rock cairn in the wild. If not, there’s a good chance you’ve seen pictures of them.

However, these rock markers have become such a hot topic that a National Park Service (NPS) ranger’s video about them went viral.

Whether you enjoy them or not, let’s dive in and see what all the fuss is about. We’re warning you; they’re not as innocent as you might think.

Let’s get started!

Yosemite Ranger Destroys Rock Cairn

Yosemite National Park recently shared a video on their official Facebook page. The footage showed an NPS official knocking over a rock cairn. The post shared how these rock structures violate Leave No Trace ethics and can have negative impacts.

On the other hand, the post continued to share how these rock structures can be helpful when used correctly. It’s caused some confusion about knowing how to respond when you see these rock piles in nature.

Ultimately, the job of NPS officials is to “preserve unimpaired the natural and cultural resources” of national park sites. In the video, it’s evident that the massive rock structure is far from natural, which means it had to go. But what should you do if you see one?

Encourages You to Do the Same

According to Yosemite National Park, they’re encouraging visitors to knock over these rock cairns when they see them. They see these as nuisances. However, we recommend that you proceed with caution when knocking them over.

As the post states, rock cairns provide some benefits. We’ll go into more details about these later, but some are there for a reason. If there’s any doubt about whether it’s intentionally created, we suggest you leave it alone. It’s better to err on the side of caution than to destroy one built with a purpose.

What Are Rock Cairns?

Rock cairns are stacks or piles of rocks created for various purposes. Some of the most common uses are for navigational aids, memorials, and religious symbols. However, some creative people take the opportunity to build them as expressions of art. 

These artists stack these rocks as tall as possible and photograph them on social media. They’ll typically do this in locations with epic backdrops like streams, mountains, and lakes.

As the post from Yosemite National Park revealed, many officials are less than thrilled to see them.

Close up of rock cairns on a hiking trail

Why Do Hikers Build Rock Cairns?

Despite Yosemite officials encouraging you to destroy rock cairns, they can come in handy. Let’s look at several essential reasons hikers build rock cairns.

Trail Markers

If you’ve ever hiked in remote areas, you know that trail marking can get confusing. In addition, trail markers can be hard to see during severe weather or other circumstances. As a result, hikers create these piles of rocks to mark the trail for themselves and others.

Destroying these markers could be extremely dangerous. It could confuse hikers and leave them struggling to navigate the route. Getting lost on a remote trail can turn deadly, especially if a hiker fails to prepare for unexpected events.

Rock cairns on a hiking trail

Memorials and Monuments

Rock cairns also serve as memorials and monuments along trails. Hiking and connecting with nature can be a memorable adventure. It’s common to see these structures at the end of a long and challenging hike. They can serve as a symbolic meaning and a sign of respect for the land.

Hikers that add to the rock pile or monument aren’t doing so out of disrespect. It’s quite the opposite. It’s their way of honoring and remembering what they accomplished and learned along the route.

Religious or Spiritual Symbols

While some may find these structures offensive, it’s essential to consider the religious significance they can have for others. Religion plays a role for some people who stack rocks. Creating a rock cairn may be a spiritual experience and a way for them to connect with the land or nature.

It would be insensitive to destroy something that has spiritual importance to another person, whether you agree with it or not. Again, it can be challenging to know why someone created a cairn. When in doubt, it’s best to err on the side of caution.

Boundary Markers

Sometimes property owners create rock cairns, especially if they have land that neighbors public lands. Depending on the amount of land, installing a fence could be incredibly expensive or impossible. Instead, they’ll use a pile of rocks to mark the start and end of a property line.

Crossing onto private property can be very dangerous in some locations. Some owners can be protective of their land. Destroying one of these boundary markers could cause you or others to wander onto private property and into a dangerous or deadly situation.

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While we live in a world where we can send a message around the world in seconds, it’s not always readily available.

Communicating with others while in nature can be challenging. Some hikers will use rock cairns to point others toward water sources or other points of interest.

In addition, they can also serve as warning signs of potential dangers. If there’s something dangerous ahead, a hiker may create a rock cairn to warn others not to proceed. Again, destroying these rock cairns could create a problematic situation for you or another individual.

Close up of rock cairns on a hiking trail

Artistic Expression

As we’ve said, the rock cairns that anger park officials are those created out of artistic expression. If you want to make a rock cairn on your property, that’s entirely up to you. However, many people will have a problem when you do it on public lands.

Creating a rock cairn for artistic expression or fun exploits the natural environment. You’re manipulating or changing the land unnecessarily. You put yourself and your desires before the longevity of the land, resources, and others’ ability to enjoy it. 

Why Are Rock Cairns Bad?

Rock cairns are problematic because of the environmental impacts they can have. Unfortunately, this isn’t a new problem.

The website Friends of the Smokies published a piece in 2015 encouraging visitors of Great Smoky Mountains National Park to stop moving rocks.

Many of the rock cairns they experience in the Smokies are in creeks and bodies of water. While one or two may not do much, some larger cairns change how water flows. This can seriously impact the fish and other wildlife that make their homes in these waters.

It can also disrupt insects, plants, and microorganisms living around and under the rocks that you move.

Officials often call these structures “visual pollution.” While they use natural materials, they’re anything but natural. Some areas have many cairns, which can distract from the actual natural beauty of the area. Many people come to nature to see nature, not artificial objects.

Additionally, it can also confuse if people use them for navigation. In areas with lots of cairns scattered about from people who built them for fun, it can make it difficult for people to follow the right path or know which are purposeful or not.

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Should You Destroy Rock Cairns?

While the National Park Service suggests destroying any rock cairns you encounter, we take a slightly different stance. Use common sense when choosing to dismantle a rock cairn. 

If you’re hiking on a remote or rugged trail, the cairn will likely help you and other hikers. However, if you come across an area with dozens of them in nature, have your way with them. But remember, you should avoid building or adding to existing cairns.

Have you encountered unintentional rock cairns while hiking or exploring?

1 comment
  1. These rangers need to have their heads examined. Most back country hiking in the mountains around tree line depend on these cairns to keep you from getting lost when there’s no clear trail. There’s no “posted signs” in most cases to keep you on the trail. Normally, going up you can pick your way to where you’re going, but coming back down is a totally different story. Without these cairns, you can easily get lost. Unless the trail is heavily traveled and you see other hikers, you will not have any way to get back on the right path. Then, it’s time for mountain rescue and that’s not what anybody wants. Not everybody carries a GPS when hiking.
    Some of us still use good old fashion maps. Advice, leave the cairns alone.

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