Toppling Rocks

September 18, 2018 · 5 minute read

Things change quickly in a world dominated by technology. Not six months ago I made a case for geo-tagging Instagram shots because I believe that in order to conserve the land, one must have a deep personal connection to it. So when someone posts a photo of a pristine alpine lake, or a blossoming meadow, why not share that location with others so that they too may experience its majesty and be so moved to advocate for it? Shortly after I made my case, the Leave No Trace Center released their new set of rules including digital best practices.

An elaborate rock cairn on a mountain in Switzerland.

My best estimation of the problem is that we’re mostly a generation of folks without a good example — someone to take us out and show us the ropes. We’re discovering the joy of adventure travel without having learned our manners first, and it’s starting to show in a big way. Overuse of these spaces is glaringly obvious, and finding truly wild places is more difficult than ever. Participation has increased at all levels, which is a good thing, but permitting and visitation limits have yet to fully catch up. The number of annual thru hike attempts on the Pacific Crest Trail has tripled over the last decade, the outdoor industry is a multi-billion dollar enterprise, and to speak bluntly: we need to start promoting stewardship along with participation.

I’m a bit of an old, curmudgeonly soul and could gripe all day about folks playing open air music, not
carrying their dog’s poop, taking a lunch break on the trail, not giving up hill travelers the right of way,
not letting faster hikers pass, or running straight downhill across the switch backs, but today I dusted off
the pedestal to talk about something else: cairns.

I hiked through Crabtree Falls to get out into The Priest Wilderness not too long ago. Climbing the paved trail to the boot path, I passed hundreds and hundreds of cairns, the biggest patch of them near the top of the falls where visitors took a break for lunch — and undoubtedly stacked all those rocks.

A cairn is a stack of rocks used to act as a visibly unnatural way point for backcountry travelers. You don’t need to know the history of cairns to deduce that rocks don’t naturally stand themselves on top of one another. They are a great, low-tech way of telling other travelers: “Someone has been here,” which is the very essence of what a trail is. For me personally, legitimate cairns say, “Hey, stop! Look around. Did the trail change direction? Can you see another cairn from where you’re standing? Yes, there. Go that way.” They’re vital above tree line where there’s no vegetation to rough in a boot path and can be used to indicate a summit or point of interest.

A cairn in Great Britain.

If you couldn’t tell, I’m eventually going to say, “Don’t build cairns.” To justify that, I have to cover Leave No Trace principals briefly. LNT is widely accepted as the best practices for responsible, minimal-impact, backcountry travel. In a way, the seven LNT principals are suggestions, similarly to “keep right, pass left.” (Wouldn’t that be nice?) In another way, they’re a lot more than suggestions. LNT teaches conservation and preservation techniques that ensure future generations will get to enjoy the same recreational opportunities we have today. The two that are most relevant in regard to cairns are “Leave what you find” and “Be considerate of other visitors.

Leave what you find. In short — no souvenirs. Don’t move vegetation unnecessarily because it’s a habitat for the life present there. Don’t stack rocks because it looks cool, and if you’re doing it for the zen and meditative state it puts you in, make sure you do the responsible thing and redistribute those rocks to their natural place.

Be considerate of other visitors. Going back to what a cairn literally represents: “Someone has been here.” I can’t speak for everyone, but I don’t think that’s why people go outside. I think that most of us go to escape civilization — even if just briefly — or to commune with nature and return to a simpler state of being. In folk lore and literature studies there’s this idea of identity in place and time. That we tell stories from a point in time and that everything we do creates a moment that can be referenced in the future. People “create” a moment in nearly everything they do. A cairn is a physical representation of a moment, of a ceremony, that says “Someone has been here,” and when you do it for reasons other than the intended purpose of showing a path, that statement turns into, “I was here.”

A rock cairn marking a trail in the southwest U.S.

I know this is harsh, but that’s about the most selfish thing you can do. We’ve got to learn to ignore the very human instinct to shout me-centric statements of existence into the void — the world does not revolve around you or me.

The abuse of cairns I’ve seen in my travels is epidemic — I knock them over publicly as often as I can, trying to take the time to explain to others what I’ve written here. Our footprint is big enough as it is and it’s no longer okay to simply not be part of the problem — we’ve got to start actively educating every chance we get. I reached out to LNT for some advice with this and they were kind enough to provide their guidelines and rationale on cairns. To be clear, USFS, NPS and other land management agency cairns are not to be messed with. Blatantly “decorative” cairns on the other hand… I’m going to redistribute the shit out of those rocks because they’re eye sores and encourage bad practices.