Cairns: An Invitation

Tyra A. Olstad, Department of Geography and Environmental Sustainability, SUNY Oneonta
DOI: 10.21690/foge/2019.62.6f

I. To Follow

Baking and half-blinded by the summer sun, you squint out at the horizon, searching for anything other than sandstone and sky, an infinity of turquoise-blue arcing over waves of gritty, griddle-hot rock. No sign of life, not even a gnarled shrub. No sign of the trail, either—just air and stone, stretching out beyond the curvature of the earth.

Your face is redder than the rock, sweat streaming from every pore. You’ve been out in this unforgiving landscape far longer than intended. Even though you’re equipped with hat, water, map, and other essentials, you’re beginning to worry that you’re lost in the labyrinthine Needles District of Canyonlands National Park. Where are you? Why are you even here? Skin and brain burn with anxiety.

Swallowing the rising panic, you again scan the landscape. Your eye snags on a small pile of rocks—inelegant, unimpressive, but something that stands out as clearly human-made; something telling you that you’re neither lost nor alone; something you can trust for help in this harsh, indifferent place. A cairn! Salvation!

Buoyed by thankfulness, you practically dance over to the stack of stones, and from there on to the next, and next. With wordless encouragement, the cairns guide you across swaths of slickrock, through a tangle of slots, and finally to the base of a soaring fin of sandstone, naturally hollowed by wind, water, and gravity. Aesthetically, the towering, elegant span of Druid Arch is an antithesis to the minute, distinctly human-made jumbles you’ve been following. Experientially, though, the natural landmark and anthropogenic markers are part of the same place. Though you’ve come seeking solitude, your pilgrimage through Canyonlands would not be possible without the companionship of these ordinary yet extraordinary cairns.

Figure 1: Cairns inviting hikers through a window into a maze of redrock, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

“[N]othing,” asserts David Williams, author of Cairns: Messengers in Stone, “is more reassuring than finding a cairn” (2012, 11). The term “cairn” (rooted in the medieval Scottish Gaelic word “carn”, meaning “heap of stones” [Online Etymology Dictionary]) refers to a deliberately-constructed pile of rocks. Used to mark locations, delineate routes, serve as spiritual offerings, and/or merely entertain or amuse, cairns are one of mankind’s most universal and universally-recognizable symbols, present to offer passers-by guidance and hope. Although names and purposes vary worldwide, rock piles share at least three attributes: visually, they stand out from the horizon or surroundings; in so doing, they differentiate otherwise unintelligible space and create distinctive places; and even in the most far-flung and/or wildest locations, they serve as reminders of near-ubiquitous human presence on the planet and stand as testaments to a seemingly innate desire to make our presence known.

First and foremost, cairns are navigational tools. Worldwide, people trying to move through treeless landscapes such as tundras, deserts, mountain ridges, or shorelines—places where even well-traveled paths may not be well-worn—rely on rock piles to mark safe passage along reliable routes. Cairns prove especially useful in areas that are prone to bad weather—places where fog, rain, and/or snow perpetually disorient travelers or leave them isolated in viewsheds that only extend out a few feet at a time. Basque sheepherders, for example, use “stone boys” (harri mutilak) to demarcate borders and serve as navigational references on foggy days, while Icelandic travelers follow evenly-spaced stone and turf “guardians” (vörður) across stormy highlands (Williams 2012 and Mizin 2013, respectively).

In addition to their roles as geographic markers or waypoints, cairns can also protect food, clothing, navigational tools, and/or messages. Historically, polar explorers cached food and personal, scientific, and navigational notes in rock piles, while desert wayfarers stored water in the shade of stone structures or used properly-positioned cairns as condensation-catchers. Equally importantly, sturdy rock piles can deter scavengers from reaching human remains, or at least stand as lasting memorials to the dead, best exemplified by elaborate, multichambered, Neolithic and Bronze Ages stone tombs found throughout the United Kingdom.

While they may exist primarily for utilitarian purposes, cairns are often imbued with sociocultural significance and/or steeped in sociocultural lore. Many are believed to provide magical protection—an ability to save people from malevolent spirits, as in the case of Icelandic vörður, and/or to offer healing to travelers, as with Arctic tunillarvik. On a deeper level, some are crucial elements of sacred geography, built to indicate the location for important ceremonies, as do Mongolian sky-spirit “magnificent bundles” (ovoo), or serve as ritual gateways to a spirit world, as with Arctic shamans’ tupqujaq (Williams 2012, 124 and Hallendy 2009, respectively). In some cases, the stones themselves become sacred: for example, the Klamath and Modoc peoples of Oregon and California have such deep reverence for their cairns that they have a taboo against touching or even photographing them (Haynal 2000). More often, holiness or supernatural qualities supplement but do not supersede cairns’ more mundane purposes. For example, piles of old prayer stones in northeastern Tibet are, according to writer and naturalist Craig Childs, “meant for use. Truck drivers…pulled out these…stones and poured them into ruts. Monks had told me this is what they are for, to usher prayers into the world” (2012, 240).

Perhaps the most widely-recognized, multi-purposed, and enigmatic of stone structures are the inuksuit (singular inuksuk) of Arctic peoples of Alaska, northern Canada, and Greenland. These “person-substitutes” (McNeill 2004) or “things that act for or perform the function of a person” (Hallendy 2009) (the kind depicted on the flag of Nunavut, not the controversial figure used as a logo for the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics, which was, technically, a human-shaped inunngiiaq [Hallendy 2000; McNeill 2004]) serve multiple purposes, all of which are imbued with deep meaning (Hallendy 2009; Graburn 2004). At their simplest, inuksuit serve as landmarks, erected by Arctic peoples to identify locations and/or biogeophysical features. “They mark trails, delineate spiritual precincts, herd caribou, and locate good hunting and fishing,” writes ethnohistorian Norman Hallendy, adding that they can indicate, among other attributes: snow depth, ice characteristics, safe or dangerous passages across rivers or ice, and polar orientation (2009, 80). Hallendy also describes inuksuit as “material forms of oral tradition” and, even more abstractly, as “a metaphor”, there to “remind [the elders] … of the time when people were attached to the land by an unbroken thread of reverence, when they…placed huge inuksuit on hilltops… and communicated by rearranging or shaping fragments of the landscape” (2000, 23 and 63, respectively.) For Arctic peoples, following an inuksuk is an act of ritual, leading them through both space and time, connecting them to generations of others who’ve found themselves in the same place.

In a broader sense, to follow any cairn is an act of friendship and faith—a way of moving through a sometimes harsh and unfamiliar world by trusting in others’ wisdom and guidance.

Figure 2: A World of Cairns

II. To Build

Shoulders aching, fingers bruised, black flies buzzing in your ears, you pause to survey the stones at your feet—which one has the right mix of flatness and tilt? Breadth and depth? Beauty and substance? You pick one up and feel that it’s wrong even before you put it on the pile—too bulgy. Take two—too big. Not the third or fourth or even the fifth; you’re beginning to consider going on a reconnaissance mission and lugging back more options. But then, a half-dozen tries in, you finally find the near-magic stone that settles perfectly into its spot, completing the second layer of your cairn.

Satisfied, you step back to appreciate your accomplishment. Although far from finished, you’ve made decent headway—the large, sturdy base should support several more layers. Once complete, the stack will clearly stand out from the otherwise smooth, steep surface. Even in the iciest, foggiest, and/or windiest conditions, it will help hikers find the safe, proper route up to and down from the summit of Wright Peak in upstate New York’s Adirondack State Park. In addition to improving safety, the cairn will help protect the peak’s rare and fragile Arctic-Alpine vegetation. (If visitors know where the trail is, they’ll be more likely to stay on the bare rock face rather than go tromping off across the tundra.) In fact, that’s your main objective—to try to protect the plants atop the heavily-visited mountain.

That’s not to say you don’t feel pride in your work. You’re fully aware that from this day forth, your cairn will be a fact on the landscape, a waypoint experienced by every hiker. Years hence, you’ll be able to point to it and say: I built that; that’s my legacy. Without having to carve your initials into a tree or peck them out of the bedrock, you’re showing: I was here!

“Like much rock work,” cairn construction is, according to trails experts with the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC), “as much an art as a science” (Lentz 2007, 26). Unlike monumental architecture or infrastructure, cairns do not require elaborate equipment or superhuman strength to build—only sweat, patience, an eye for design, and a touch of luck. To be able to withstand the vagaries of weather (and the occasional vandal, or at least individuals who curiously or unknowingly push or prod), cairns must be made up of what Hallendy calls “the perfect balance of stones selected and arranged with great care” (2000, 21).

Before beginning the stone-selection and arrangement—the actual construction—cairn-builders must carefully consider sites and sight-lines. Navigational aids must be visible from the neighboring structures so that travelers will be always able to see at least one pile ahead, in either direction. For this to be so, cairns must stand out against the horizon and/or be made of material of a different color, texture, or pattern than the surrounding scene. The placement of non-directional cairns—shrines, burial mounds, or commemorative stacks—must also reflect an understanding of a place’s personal or cultural significance. For example, cairns to which travelers give offerings and pray for safety in treacherous terrain in the Andes are most commonly situated at the crest of a mountain pass or at a trail junction (Jett 1986)—places where people are in greatest need of assistance. Alternatively, Hallendy notes that inuksuit “tend to be plentiful at places were [sic] people have waited… It’s at the waiting places where you can sometimes find…the most beautiful kind of inuksuk” (2000, 27).

Figure 3: Tapering-style cairn, Adirondack State Park, New York

Just as a cairn-builder chooses a location based on a mix of personal, cultural, and environmental factors, they design their pile depending on its purpose, available source material, and local cultural or artistic traditions. There are a few distinctive styles, ranging from Arctic people’s human-like inunngiiaq to Acadia National Park’s iconic “Bates cairns” (two-legged platforms with pointer-rocks, first designed and built by early-20th century trailmaker Waldron Bates). These are exceptions to “tapering piles”—a wide, circular base supporting subsequently smaller-diameter layers—which are, by and large, the most common cairn design worldwide (Williams 2012). Although they are comparatively easy to build, balance, and scale, construction of tapering cairns still requires a great deal of forethought, effort, skill, and patience. The AMC’s Handbook spells out their standards:“Cairns should be … almost as wide at the base as they are high… Large, flat rocks should be used…Use as large stones as possible for the base. Each layer should slope slightly to the center…, so that gravity will stabilize the cairn …Build up successive layers making sure that each joint is bridged by a stone. Each stone should also have at least three points of contact with underlying stones” (Lentz 2007, 26).Only after testing the stability of the cairn—by standing on it, to see whether pieces slide away or the entire form collapses—can a cairn builder’s attention turn to the overall appearance: “you can try putting small stones in gaps for aesthetic reasons,” the AMC manual concedes, and consider “search[ing] for a white rock to place on top…for visibility” (Lentz 2007, 26).

Intentionally-designed and -built cairns differ in form, function, and construction from heaps that rise organically and communally as travelers, pilgrims, and passers-by add pebbles to a pile. These heaps may serve as navigational landmarks, but, more importantly, are physical manifestations of local history and lore. People add stones to piles as memorials, tokens of respect for spirits or landscape features, or for plain old good luck. For example, a sizeable if haphazard pile has accumulated atop Skylight Peak in the Adirondacks, as generations of hikers have put hope in the superstition that they’ll have better weather if they carry a rock to the summit.

Figure 4: Wishes for no rain atop Skylight Peak, Adirondacks

This “practice of establishing cairn trail shrines to which passers-by add stones” is “extremely widespread”, according to geographer Stephen Jett (1986, 615). In his study of trail shrines specific to the Central Andes—apacheta, a Quechuan term meaning “carrying or having something carried” (Williams 2012, 88) or “burden depositor” (Jett 1994, 5)—Jett finds that people contribute to cairns as an act of prayer. Weary travelers make offerings to apacheta—food items such as maize or coca, cloth, and, especially, stones—to “reduce fatigue and to obtain good luck and protection on [their] journey” (Jett 1994, 1), or, in the words of 16th-century conquistador Pedro Cieza de Leon, to “leave their tiredness behind” (quoted in Jett 1994, 1). Archaeologist Carolyn Dean adds that apacheta are so revered because they’re seen as “embodiments of Andean topography”—sacred mountains made miniature (2015, 93). By adding to the apacheta, travelers form or strengthen a symbiotic relationship with the terrain: they help the apacheta, which means they’re helping the mountains; the mountains, in turn, will smile favorably on them.

In all cases, building or adding to a cairn can help individuals engender a sense of connection with the world in which they live and through which they move. Williams describes the instinct to add a rock to a trailside mound as “a way to leave a little part of ourselves in the landscape” (2012, 23). Likewise, an Inuit interviewee told folklorist Lynne McNeill that “when you put a stone where other people put stones, it's like you're contributing a part of your presence to something that stays behind when you leave” (2004). Zulu people’s relationship with rock piles called Isivivane exemplifies that sense of both membership and contribution. The term “Isivivane” translates to “throw your stone upon the pile”, signifying an act of both honoring the sacred and/or historical sites upon which isivivane appear and participating in a group effort. Passers-by are expected to “pick up a stone, spit on it and place it on the heap of stones” so as to “pay respect to the spirits and so ensure that they have a safe journey” (Pongola Game Reserve, KwaZulu Natal.)

On a larger level, constructing a cairn is a way for individuals to mark their presence and actively shape the meaning of a place. “‘I was here[!]’” builders announce through their rock-creations; “‘I have something important to say about this place[!]” (McNeill 2004). For Andean travelers, apacheta are a means of participating in an ancient ritual. For Inuit peoples, inuksuit are affirmations of their existence within both a landscape and a culture. For AMC trails crews, cairns are ways to say, Here’s the path—stay on it! For someone laboring away in the Adirondacks, layering on stone after heavy, oddly-shaped stone, each addition says, I care about Wright Peak and want to celebrate and protect it! (Implied: I am part of this place!)

III. To Dismantle

Lungs and legs burning, you pause to catch your breath and look back across the valley before continuing up to the ridgetop. The view is spectacular—a deep carpet of mosses and grasses stretches off to mingle with darker patches of pine; higher up on the flanks distant ridges, bright grey-blue rock remains exposed; behind the ridges, peak after sharp, furrowed, snow-capped peak, is swallowed up by sky. Somewhere out there, far to the southeast and shrouded in its typical clouds, stands “The High One”—Denali, crown of the North American continent and heart of its namesake National Park. You only know that it’s there because you were fortunate enough see it a week earlier, on the bluebird day when you first clambered up Primrose Ridge. You were so enamored of that experience—including not only a glimpse of Denali, but an encounter with a pair of Dall sheep and one lonely caribou—that you’ve decided to return.

Although the weather isn’t as cooperative this weekend, you don’t mind the low blanket of clouds and cool mist. You’re happy to wander freely through the trailless, treeless terrain, looking for more sheep or caribou or flowers bursting into bloom; thirsty for any and all bits of wildness, no need for a goal or destination. The higher you climb away from the park road (the only sign of humanity in the otherwise primeval landscape), the more boundless you feel. After all, the ridge is in a federally-designated wilderness—one of the few places on the planet where, as per the Wilderness Act of 1964, “the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man” and where you’re promised “outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation.”

One last push to the top. Already immersed in the sense of wildness, you’re especially shocked to see them—a dozen or so stones balanced artfully if not a bit jauntily atop an outcrop. This pile is not a friendly guide and definitely not an inuksuk. Is it even a cairn? Or a type of graffiti made of rock? Instead of welcoming or guiding you, it seems antithetical to the idea of wilderness. It does not belong here.

What David Williams calls an “epidemic of stacked stone” is afflicting protected areas around the United States (2012, 109). Although recreational stone-stacking is also increasing in other parts of the world, it’s especially popular in American national and state parks, which have recently seen a proliferation of visitor-built cairn-like sculptures and, with them, a suite of environmental, recreational, and aesthetic impacts.

At first glance, building a personal cairn or rock sculpture would seem an innocuous or even admirable pursuit—a way for individuals to interact with and deepen their relationship with wild spaces and/or public places. To some people, stone-stacking is “a way of honoring an urgent inner soul demand to be more balanced, quiet, still, and centered” (quoted in Williams 2012, 105), a way to “leave something in the landscape artfully altered” (an editor’s addendum to an essay on “Rock Stacking and the Art of Balance”, Rogers 2013), and/or “part of the human condition… this is humans expressing their bliss” (according to a High Country News reader, “M Pinenut”, response to Martin 2015).

To others, though, erection of personal cairns is an unnecessary, disrespectful, and damaging pursuit. “Stop the rock-stacking[!]” exasperated writer Robyn Martin urged in a High Country News opinion piece (2015), eliciting vehement praise and equally-vehement admonition from more than two hundred agitated readers. Martin lists several problems associated with structures that she dismisses as New Agey “prayer stone stacks” and/or manifestations of selfishness: “First, if [rock stacks are] set in a random place, they can lead an unsuspecting hiker into trouble, away from the trail... Second, we go to wilderness to remove ourselves from the human saturation of our lives, not to see mementoes from other people's lives”; moreover, “[m]oving rocks increases erosion by exposing the soil underneath” and can destroy the burrows of insects or small mammals (Martin 2015). In addition to the social and ecological concerns Martin describes, pseudo-cairns belittle indigenous cultures. When non-Inuit outsiders build inauthentic inuksuit-like structures just for fun, for example, Inuit elders fear that their material culture is being disrespectfully appropriated (McNeill 2004). Similarly, native Hawaiians feel that visitor-built recreational cairns delegitimize traditional native ahu and desecrate sacred places (Hawaiian Volcano Observatory 2005).

In public parks and preserves, land managers use a mix of education and regulation to try to prevent visitors from illegally tampering with legitimate cairns and/or erecting personal sculptures. For example, in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, where stone-stacking visitors were peeling stones off lava flows, “eras[ing] geologic history” and “destroy[ing] important archaeological evidence”, personnel began dismantling new structures, posted “no rock stacking” signs, and issued a news release pleading: “Respect the Land, Honor the Culture, Leave the Rocks in the Rightful Place” (Hawaiian Volcano Observatory 2005). Outreach materials politely explain the difference between legitimate ahu and tourist-built heaps, describe the impacts of improperly-built structures, and sternly inform visitors of a federal law prohibiting “disturbing from its natural state all mineral resources” (Hawaii Volcanoes 2005). Meanwhile, officials at Acadia National Park face a mix of vandals knocking over trail cairns as well as visitors out “pil[ing] rocks on ridgetops and cobblestone beaches, not knowing that violates park rules, or that it may offend others” (Acadia 2015). Rangers have spent years trying to find the most effective ways to educate the public and mitigate the damage, but sometimes wonder if “‘[i]t is a waste of our time when somebody is undoing the work that [we] do on a daily basis’” (quoted in Acadia 2015).

It's not just about the rocks, or even the environmental, cultural, and social impacts of stone-stacking, according to Charlie Jacobi, the former Resource Specialist at Acadia—the larger issue centers on “‘stewardship of public lands and…places we love and go to’” (quoted in Acadia 2015). He cites the principles of the “Leave No Trace” Center for Outdoor Ethics, a widely-accepted program that “teaches people…how to enjoy the outdoors responsibly” (LNT n.d.). Most notably, the principle “Leave What You Find” urges outdoor recreationists not to take or alter existing objects or features, or return temporary alterations to pre-use conditions (i.e. disassemble stone sculptures before leaving) to preserve natural and cultural integrity. Put bluntly by Martin: stone stacks are “unnecessary marker[s] of humanity... Pointless cairns are simply pointless reminders of the human ego” (2015).

“Pointlessness” is at the heart of the dispute. Is stacking stones a universal instinct practiced by peoples worldwide for millennia, a right of self-expression, and/or an emerging aesthetic? Or is piling rocks for no utilitarian or symbolic purpose an exercise in selfishness and disregard for ecological and/or cultural landscapes? Researchers agree that traditionally-built cairns serve as important navigational cues and reflect meaningful environmental perceptions, but where do personal rock sculptures fit in, both figuratively and geographically? Are there places or spaces that aren’t meant to be humanized?

Figure 5 (Natural geologic feature, Primrose Ridge, Denali National Park, Alaska)

Atop Primrose Ridge, it may have given someone pleasure to balance some rocks—a sense of engagement, perhaps, with the wide, wondrous landscape, or a way to create a secure, meaningful place out of that sweeping “chaos of natural ‘space’” (McNeill 2004). A small act of defiance; a means of humanizing a decidedly non-human place. Something to do to pass the time while waiting for wildlife, who knows.

You do know, though, that it gives you a feeling of deep satisfaction and joy to dismantle the structure and gently nestle the stones back into the divots from which they must have come. Within a few minutes, you return the scene to its wild, windswept character—creating your own mental landmark in the process—then continue on your way, guided across the emptiness of the landscape by only your own curiosity and desire.


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