The Rockin’ History Of Rock Cairns

Simple structure, big impact.

Image by @dariasophia from Pixabay

Rock cairns consist of rock balancing on top of one another, all usually varying in size along the cairn. They rely on a “perfect balance point” to stabilize itself properly; some well-balanced cairns can even withstand weather and time. What makes rock cairns so interesting, however, is not just their aesthetically appealing look, but a rich history full of unique cultural and social meanings.

Rock cairns are used to mark trails or upcoming water in places where the path might not be obvious. Cairns acts as a guide for travelers. There is a difference between rock stacking / art and cairns being explicitly built to mark the trail. The unique silhouette of rock cairns makes them relatively easy to spot in any terrain. The low-effort it takes to construct prompts many hikers and travelers to make them whenever possible. Often showcasing a crowd of them on social media but clusters of cairns are confusing to unknowing travelers, thus harm the surrounding environment.

Different Types of Cairns

Image by @Paul Mosca from Pixabay

There are many different types of cairns, all with various meanings and uses. In America, Cairns are used to marking trails and paths that are not obvious. These cairns are the most commonly made. Its simple structure is easy to create with smooth, circular stones, allowing for easy balancing. Rock cairns are embedded into the indigenous culture from Canada, Greenland, North and South America. There are Inuksuk (stone sculptures that acted as landmark or directional markers) that predate European contact.

Rock cairns were imperative during the Neolithic period. Cairns became sculptures embedded in folklore, culture and travel. Modern-day Germany, Scotland, Iceland, Scandinavia, Ireland and England have viewed cairns as symbols of respect. Many cultures adopted an ideology that rocks have a more in-depth, spiritual meaning; traditions like the Jewish religion place rocks or cairns on loved ones’ graves to signify eternal love. Sea-faring countries all used larger cairns to mark trails and oceans. Within Buddhist practicing countries, large rock cairns are famous atop peaks near temples. Rock cairns hold a deep meaning within Buddhist traditions. Cairns are seen as the epiphany of stability through centering the mind, body and soul. Also popular are ceremonial cairns, which are made to create spectacle as a means of honoring ancestors.

Other types of rock compiled structures include Clava cairns, clearance cairns, dry stone and dolmen.

Why You Shouldn’t Build Cairns

Image by @karsten116 from Unsplash

Lately, rock cairns have become a nuisance to the nature preservation team that maintains trails and pathways. Unnecessary cairns become confusing when so many of them are built in a single area. Travelers that rely on cairns when lost in paths can quickly become disoriented when a single spot is overpopulated with them. Cairns should only be built by those who know how to do it, what it means, and are there to maintain the forest trail. Cairns improperly made or unnecessary are subject to being toppled over either by nature or by a park ranger. When the cairn comes down, it often displaces surrounding nature, interfering with the “Leave No Trace” rules when it comes to sharing the outdoor space. By building cairns, you show a disregard towards the sanctity of nature; you are expected to leave whatever you’ve gone through better than when you found it. Cairns, especially when fallen, disrupt the next traveler’s experience in the area.

Most national parks forbid the formation of cairns, deeming them environmentally disrupting and a form of vandalism. Check with your park’s regional regulations if the creation of rock cairns is illegal before thinking about snapping that picture on Instagram.

Though beautiful and easy to formulate, rock cairns are something that all travelers should educate themselves on. Cairns are much more than temporary structures to make. Even if you’re building them under good intentions, you may accidentally be doing more harm than good.

Daniella Fishman


Daniella is an NYC born adventurer with a love of traveling, writing, eating, and rollerskating. Dani is passionate about supporting local communities and exploring everything from bustling city life to quiet woodland retreats. There is an adventure around every corner if you open your eyes and mind to it.

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