Conservationists Want You to Stop Building Rock Piles

Cairns have a long history and purpose, one that newer stacks sometimes subvert.

The Gorham Mountain Trail at Acadia National park winds up through a forested mountain slope before bursting out onto one of the granite-boulder covered summits for which the park is famous. But once you get up there, following the loop back down would be tricky if it weren’t for rock stacks built by Waldron Bates — they feature a long flat rock supported by two legs and a smaller rock pointing in the direction of the trail.

For centuries, humans have been building such markers. But many trail aficionados have one thing to say to people building stone piles in the wilderness now: Stop. There is an annoying plague of rock stacks balanced carefully atop one another in wilderness areas throughout the United States.

These piles aren’t true cairns, the official term for deliberately stacked rocks. From middle Gaelic, the word means “mound of stones built as a memorial or landmark.” There are plenty of those in Celtic territories, that’s for sure, as well as in other cultures; indigenous peoples in the United States often used cairns to cover and bury their dead. Those of us who like to hike through wilderness areas are glad to see the occasional cairn, as long as it’s indicating the right way to go at critical junctions in the backcountry.

Pointless cairns have been a problem at Acadia, Aislinn Sarnacki writes for Bangor Daily News. Visitors have knocked down the Bates cairns and even built their own. That’s a problem Darren Belskis, supervisory park ranger, told Sarnacki. “They’re very important,” he says. “If you make your own cairn, it leads people in the wrong direction, and it could get people in trouble. So come out and enjoy the cairns, find them all, but please don’t disturb them.”

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