Caring About Cairns

If you’ve spent any time on trails, particularly on rocky mountain tops or in desert-like environments, you’ve likely come across a cairn. Cairns, pictured above at our Three Sisters Preserve trailhead, are officially-created rock piles that mark a trail. They are often used in areas where there is little vegetation to attach traditional trail markers or paint blazes. In the Adirondacks, cairns are found most often at higher elevations above tree line. They are extremely important for helping hikers navigate trails and to protect sensitive alpine vegetation by guiding hikers to the most durable surfaces.

However, not all piles of rock are created equal. Unofficial rock stacks, often made near rocky streams, are created by individuals for fun or artistic reasons. While this activity may seem harmless, improperly stacking rocks can actually impact the environment. Many organisms, especially small insects found in streams and lakes, call the bottoms of rocks home. Dislodging stones destroys their micro-habitat and ability to thrive. Removing rocks also leaves the underlying ground more vulnerable to erosion. Additionally, creating, unsanctioned rock piles impacts the wilderness experience of others by leaving a trace and reminder of human presence. Lastly, creating rock piles can create confusion about trail direction, resulting in hikers being led off an official trail and becoming lost.

With this in mind, we encourage you to follow Leave No Trace principles when it comes to cairns and rock piles:

  • Leave official cairns be: Tampering with official cairns can confuse future visitors to the site or lead to the collapse of the pile.
  • Don’t build unauthorized rock piles: Creating unauthorized rock piles destroys habitat, confuses hikers, and takes away from the wilderness experience.

By following these Leave No Trace principles for cairns you can help to protect our trails, the surrounding habitat, and your fellow hikers.