Out hiking? Here’s why you should leave those stones unstacked and those stacks untouched

Cairns are rock stacks that can serve as critical trail markers, and some carry cultural significance, as well. Others are purely decorative, built by visitors who enjoy designing these towers in nature, often for the sake of sharing images of delicately balanced stones on social media. Besides the fact that it violates the Leave No Trace program’s ethos that should be honored by visitors to our national parks and other public lands, here’s why you should resist the urge to create a rock pile, during a pandemic or otherwise.

Trail designers put a lot of thought into where and how they place way-marking cairns to safely keep people on the path. But rock stacks erected by trail users may have the opposite effect. If a hiker ventures off-trail and builds cairns to mark their own route, that could lead others astray from the actual route, and perhaps into danger.

Heading off-trail, and leaving unofficial cairns that lead others to follow you, doesn’t just endanger humans; it can put local plants, insects, animals and more at risk as well. In the case of removing rocks from rivers and other water bodies, you may be disrupting aquatic habitats.

Arbitrarily building these types of rock piles with no regard for official or cultural purposes or environmental issues is “almost like graffiti.” It announces, “I was here,” just without the spray paint.

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