Cairns: History, Use and Misuse


Ancient Inuksuit are cairns used by the Inuit, Inupiat, Kalaallit, Yupik, and
other peoples of the Arctic region of North America.
[Photo by Ansgar Walk CC BY-SA 2.5]


The profile of cairns rose recently when Arches National Park posting the following on their Facebook page:

“Cairns may look like whimsical rock sculptures, but they are actually important way-finding tools built by rangers to facilitate navigation of park trails. Visitor-built cairns can lead people off-trail, damage biological soil crust, and cause visual clutter. Help promote visitor safety and park health by leaving the cairn building to rangers.”

Then Megan Crandall of the BLM in Utah said:

“There seems to have been an uptick as we have seen an increase in visitation to public lands. When someone comes along and builds (a cairn) for fun or to mark a side trail or for whatever other reason, it can confuse other hikers. And that can be a real problem in the desert. The land here can be very unforgiving and at the end of the day if you’ve been hiking a long way, cairns can start to look alike, trails can start to look alike. And that can lead to a very bad outcome.”

These recent concerns about cairns have legitimacy,  but here is the larger story.

The History of Cairns


Cairns have probably been appearing since humans first arrived on the scene.  Like today, they were used as landmarks, but also for many other reasons.  Reasons like burial monuments, ceremonial markers, astronomical indicators, markers for food caches and other purposes.

Official Cairn

An official cairn on the East Rim Trail
in Zion National Park
[National Park Service Photo]

A Native American friend of mine once explained that cairns built by members of the Klamath Tribe in south-central Oregon were often remembrances marking an important place associated with ones life.  They memorialize a connection to a particular place and a particular memory and retain that connection and meaning for eternity.  They are also associated with a particular type of mindfulness or prayer.  For example a Klamath might have constructed a cairn at the place he first killed a deer. The place, the memory of the event and a thoughtful spiritual experience or prayer to keep the individual successful in future hunts all tie together.   These cairns are considered sacred to tribal members and they never touch a cairn created by someone else.   To this day, members of both the Klamath and Modoc Tribes build cairns for similar spiritual purposes.

These and other tribes also constructed stone cairns and similar structures associated with vision quests.  In these situations the individual was seeking a vision through an altered state of consciousness.  Rather than herbs or drugs,  these individuals would work and sweat themselves to exhaustion over several days then collapse in sleep and receive their vision in a dream.  The associated cairn would mark the event, but might also be constructed, moved, and reconstructed many times as part of creating physical exhaustion.  Incidentally, archaeologists can determine the relative age of a cairn based upon the type and amount of lichen growing on it compared to the lichen on nearby rocks that have not been moved.  For a scientific look at these kinds of cairns see The Influence of Sacred Rock Cairns and Prayer Seats on Modern Klamath and Modoc Religion and World View.

Ancient cairns like these occur worldwide although their purposes may differ.



In more modern times, cairns for marking trails have been carefully constructed of stone and most often used in treeless areas. In forests, trees are typically blazed with an axe to mark a trail. The rock cairns are built so that each rock overlaps others with three points of contact.  They are constructed to slope inward for further stability and the base and height should be about equal.  These kinds of cairns are constructed so that you can always see the next cairn along the trail.   Official cairns should be properly constructed like this.  Since this takes significant time and effort, unofficial cairns are usually much more sloppily constructed.

Bates Cairn

A Bates Cairn
National Park Service Photo

In the early 1900s, Waldron Bates constructed many special cairns, called the Bates cairn in what is now Acadia National Park.  These cairns consisted of two large base stones supporting a mantel between them. A fourth rock, known as the pointer rock, rested on top, and along with the base stones, pointed in the direction of the trail. Sometimes two layers of base rocks were used to gain height for added visibility.

These days most cairns are constructed by recreationists for various reasons.  Some suggest that new age spiritualism is one culprit that leads to cairn building.  These people are in some ways expressing their spiritualism like the Native Americans, but without the lifelong intense beliefs that accompanied the earlier cairn builders.  These cairns often appear along well-worn trails suggesting that these spiritualists didn’t have the commitment to get away from the trail and into a wilderness where they would likely have found closer communion with the spirits they seek.  These cairns may also have been created by people with an artistic notion.

The Current Issue

Unofficial Cairn

An Unofficial Cairn

Imagine the plight of a lost wanderer that can see several cairns in different directions. That’s the problem that recreation managers have with users creating their own cairns.  By preventing a traveler from finding the trail they need, a cairn builder may be sentencing them to death.

Another concern is damage to biological soil crusts.  In some arid locations biological soil crusts are very critical to protecting the soils from erosion.  These crusts are very fragile and walking over them can destroy them.  They may recover eventually, but in the meantime the soils are subject to increased erosion.  Official cairns are intended to keep people on the trail and prevent excess damage to the crust.  Unofficial cairns may lead travelers off the the trail and cause damage to the crust.


Biological soil crusts are a complex mosaic of cyanobacteria, green algae, lichens, mosses, microfungi, and other bacteria. Cyanobacterial and microfungal filaments weave through the top few millimeters of soil, gluing loose particles together and forming a matrix that stabilizes and protects soil surfaces from erosive forces. These crusts occur in all hot, cool, and cold arid and semi-arid regions. They may constitute up to 70% of the living cover in some plant communities. However, biological soil crusts have only recently been recognized as having a major influence on terrestrial ecosystems. [From Biological Soil Crusts: Ecology and Management]

A third concern is simply the aesthetic damage caused to natural areas by the creation of human constructions that detract from the wild nature most visitors expect to see.

The Bottom Line

Most of us exploring the wilderness have neither the time or the energy to be building rock piles.  For those of you that do, consider the impact you can have on others.

I have seen some rock cairns along wooded trails that seem to be pointing traveling companions to the path taken by those ahead of them.  In most cases these aren’t confusing, but they do lead one to wonder why they are there.  If you are following these kinds of cairns, be sure to have the last person in your party dismantle them.

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