Let’s talk about cairns and rock stacking

Some cairns and rock stacks are helpful. Some are not. And it’s becoming a growing problem in backcountry environments. Pictured here is a helpful cairn leading to a route up Broken Hand Pass in Colorado, with Crestone Needle seen in the background..

I’m a little late to the party on the subject of rock stacking, but I figured it was worth weighing in on now. So let me start with a story.

About a year ago, I was hiking with a friend in the Wichita Mountains of southwest Oklahoma. I was showing him some of my favorite places, but also acknowledged that I hadn’t been to these spots in about eight years. Our goal that day was to go up to the south summit of Sunset Peak, traverse to the north summit, then hike down and check out one more place before packing it in and hitting the road for home.

Sunset Peak’s south summit it this weird combination of hiking, scrambling and bushwhacking that’s hard to describe. There’s no defined route to the top. You just pick your way through scrub brush, boulders and rock slabs until you make one final push to the top. We were about three-quarters of the way there, and I started looking around for the best way to go up when I spotted a cairn.

Most of you already know what a cairn is. If you don’t, it’s a stack of rocks built to be noticed. Some build them as route-finding aides or important markers. Others of late have built them for aesthetic value, stacking stones in pretty places and taking photographs. There are Instagram pages dedicated to rock stacking.

Anyway, I’m thinking that this particular cairn was supposed to be a route-finding aide. So I climbed up to it, took a look around, and found nowhere to go. I backtracked, bushwhacked and found another way up. This was an annoyance, for sure, but no real harm was done.

But the ambiguity of why people build these things can lead to bigger problems. Go on 14ers.com and you’ll read stories about complicated and difficult routes littered with useless or deceiving rock stacks. People following them sometimes run the risk of getting lost or, possibly in danger.

As far as the cairns built for art’s sake, there are other issues. Some have decried excessive rock stacking as a form of littering otherwise picturesque natural scenes. In some places, rock stacking might lead to a degree of environmental damage. Rock-stacking enthusiasts dismiss this, saying they are doing no harm that anyone can measure, at least in their eyes, and they are enjoying the outdoors in their own way.

I’m a live-and-let-live guy. But there are aspects of this debate worth addressing.

First, let’s talk about building cairns for route-finding. Generally, this is a positive. Anything we can do to unobtrusively keep people from getting lost is a good thing. On Colorado’s Mount of the Holy Cross, a huge cairn was built on its north ridge to keep people from descending the wrong way into the wilderness area that surrounds the mountain. People have gotten lost there, never to be seen again, or found dead months later. The cairn keeps people on track as they descend the mountain.

But if you’re going to build one, make sure it actually helps. Be certain there aren’t already cairns built for this purpose, as yours might just confuse people. And best yet, it’s not a bad idea to leave cairn and blaze marking to the people whose job it is to maintain the lands where you hike and climb. I think the person who built the cairn on Sunset Peak was trying to be helpful, but it ended up being a hindrance. Someone following it might have been convinced that climbing a nearby airy and exposed rock rib was the easiest way up, but in truth was the riskiest.

Now what about the rock stacking for the sake of photos? This comes down to a question of values. If you value altering a landscape to suit your photographic goals, rock stacking is a temptation. If you do it, I’d ask that you limit it to a single cairn, take your pic and then dismantle the stack, putting the stones back where you found them. I can’t think of any justification for patches of beaches, river banks or cliffsides where dozens of these things are built and left standing. When others behind you are looking for beautiful settings to see and photograph, a chessboard of rock stacks kills the vibe.

Am I making too much of this? Maybe. But know that the National Park Service is discouraging this. And don’t be the guy/gal who builds an unhelpful cairn that gets people off route, and possibly at risk.

Bob Doucette

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