Cairns – What Are Those Piles Of Rocks?


A cairn by a nice lake.

Cairns are the official name for those cool piles of balanced rocks.  Do you know why there are cairns along trails in the Rocky Mountains?

When I go hiking it I love to get away from it all and be out in nature, away from any impact of man. Sometimes if the trail goes to to the tops of mountains or across rocky ground it can be hard to find the trail.  In those areas I rely on those piles of rocks to keep me from getting lost.  Now though it seems that those piles of rocks can be found more frequently and are not always just used to mark the trail.

cairnsWhat Are Cairns?

Rocks have been used by man for a very long time to build walls, houses, or to mark things. Native Americans in the Southwest and people from other countries such as Madagascar used rocks to bury or mark where their dead are buried.

However, for those of us who enjoy getting outdoors for a hike the most common use of a cairn is to mark the trail.  Those piles of rocks have saved me many times from getting lost when the fog rolled in and I couldn’t see very far.

If you are hiking and have a hard time finding the trail be on the lookout for cairns.  If done properly they should point the correct way and keep you safe.


Too many cairns are not very helpful for finding the trail.

Can I Build Or Destroy Cairns?

There seems to be a growth of people who just like the piles of balanced rocks as a form of art.  This means that unofficial cairns can now often be found spread out all over an area.  All of these extra cairns can actually be problematic because they can mislead a hiker and cause them to get lost in the mountains.

Please do not build extra cairns just for fun because that may lead to problems for other hikers.  Additionally, that little stack of rocks that you made may not be appreciated by another hiker who came to mountains to be away from people or any signs of people.

So, I would urge you to be careful if you destroy cairns because that is like tearing down the road signs.  If you kick over a real cairn that marks the trail people may get lost.  However, if you kick over a cairn that someone made to look cool than that may be fine.  But, before you kick over those rocks you need to be certain you are not ruining a cairn that marks the trail.