Stacking Rocks in Wild Places


Recently I came across this article about the fairly new practice of stacking rocks in wild places.

Historically, cairns (rocks piled or stacked by humans) have served important purposes, particularly in parts of the world lacking dramatic natural features to use as landmarks. A cairn might mark a trail, commemorate a mass gravesite from a battle, or be hidden behind while herding buffalo off a cliff.

But increasingly, short stacks of rocks are showing up in national parks and other natural areas. They appear to be generic “I was here” statements (or “I was here, and I was spiritually moved” or perhaps merely “I was here, and I was bored”), created with the natural materials at hand.

Rock stack encountered on a beach, Mackinac Island, Michigan.

I’m of two minds about this practice.

On the one hand, it may be a kind of graffiti, but it seems more nature-friendly than spray paint. It’s more temporary, not as resource-intensive, produces no empty can litter, requires no manufacturing, and leaves no chemical residue.

On the other hand, the “story value” of the rocks is lost when they are removed from their places. Then there are the (perhaps minor, but it all depends on the scale of the stacking) environmental effects of moving the rocks and exposing the underlying soil to erosion. And finally, a stack of rocks changes the feel of a place. It no longer reads as a wild place, but instead proclaims another person was here. Like any human creation, a cairn impresses itself on our senses more strongly than other elements in a scene.

Of course, this is a small drop in the ocean of garden-and-nature-related issues that might concern a lover of wild places nowadays. It’s hardly worth ranting about… except that it highlights a certain carelessness about the value of our encounters with nature.

Instead of experiencing the minutiae or the glory of a landscape and responding internally, a person has chosen to respond in a public way, and in so doing has changed the landscape the rest of us experience. That should matter.

Here’s a similar scene without the rock stack; do you respond differently to it?


  1. “Then there are the (perhaps minor, but it all depends on the scale of the stacking) environmental effects of moving the rocks and exposing the underlying soil to erosion.”

    Yep. Some Californian plant communities (chaparral and to a certain extent desert, oak, and scrubland) depend on boulders and large rocks to cool root systems and, when plants crop up on the eastern or northern side of a substantial boulder, to trap a small amount of residual moisture near an otherwise dry (and invariably infertile) topsoil, which assists in the survival of young plants not yet established during their first drought. Not to mention how local fauna are affected when protective crevices, useful for nesting and shelter, are destroyed or compromised. And, as you say, fiddling with rocks forming and retaining banks can produce devastating consequences to stream and riverbeds during the wet season.

    As for whether the average reader “respond[s] differently” to the apparently “untouched” landscape featured in the second photograph, that’s a slightly different matter than environmentalism and it’s one of aesthetics rather than ethics. The first photograph indicates a sentient visitor. And there’s nothing wrong with that. This preoccupation with “virgin” and unexplored wilds is part of a colonialist mindset, where rarity and perceived primitivity are exceptionally valuable trinkets, but for no logical reason. Nature lauded for being nature, as if everything natural is automatically good, moral, healthy, pure, and “better” than anything we can synthesize (all loaded and relative terms), is a fallacy for a reason: we “advanced” westerners are part of nature, too — even if we’re among the few spectacularly privileged people who get to decide what species to “preserve” (we’re all too happy to waste finite resources and to commit genocide of our own species, but we’re full of woe and indignation when the so-called third world industrializes), to “go back” to nature whenever we want a short holiday from our affluent and comfortable lives — and humans’ history and evolution is a product of our antecedents and subspecies adapting and growing. There is nothing static or permanent about nature and it is impossible to prevent us from interacting in and with it, unless we all do the decent thing and willingly go extinct. Of course, after we’re gone, there will be other dominant species whose very existence will go on changing things and leaving behind small and large and mostly semi-permanent relics of their culture and their dreams.

    Pretending that a rock stack in a national forest is a blight, but the parking lots and signage and restrooms and trailheads that make visiting it more comfortable and pleasurable are not, is very amusing goalpost-moving, indeed.

    • I am not comfortable with the idea that preferring parks and other accessible areas be left as undisturbed as reasonably possible is “a colonialist mindset”. The sheer numbers of folks who like visiting less “developed” areas can make dramatic changes in an area. I remember handbooks on camping that included tips on blazing trails by cutting patches of bark off trees and the like that simply aren’t sustainable when large numbers of people are involved. No, I don’t find these impromptu spirit cairns annoying, although I might if they become fashionable.

      I would think that aesthetically favoring a meadow or desert to a field covered with four wheeler tracks needs no justification but has logical and scientific support if one needs it. There is value in areas untouched by humans (even if they no longer really exist).

      Of course humans are part of nature, and as an IT professional I hardly hate human technology per se, but we are swarming over our planet with unsustainable behaviors. Acknowledging this does not require a binary view that “nature is good, humans bad”. but some of the things we do *are* bad, if ugly, unhealthy, costly, or unsustainable could be considered bad.

      The people who lament third world countries industrializing are usually worried that they are making the same mistakes we in the West have made. While the self-contradicting stereotype you describe exists, these two attitudes are usually held by two different groups of people.

      Sometimes I just want to get away from the maddening crowd.

    • Saurs, thank you for such a wonderful comment – I really enjoyed your nuanced, thoughtful, and informative take on the issue. You said what I would have, outdid so in a much more eloquent way!

    • Yes, gardens often have a clear voice that guides us through the landscape along predetermined paths and may even tell us where to look (focal points and views). In a naturalistic setting (and a naturalistic garden may aspire to this), there is more freedom in making our own way through a place, exploring according to what piques our interest. These types of settings offer different types of experiences.

  2. The multiplying rocks stacks shown in the picture in the original article by Robyn Martin reminded me of nothing more than an attack of garden gnomes!

    The stacking of rock cairns in my area has not reached the proportions described in the Sedona area. Here, they still seem to leave the viewer with deep questions and a spiritual aura.

    I have a stone cairn stacked with seemingly stable stack-defying angles stacked ten years ago. It seems mystical each time I pass it in my garden.

    • Congratulations on getting your cairn to remain that long, Rachelle. And I laughed at your comparing the multitudes of rock stacks to garden gnomes — they do give me the same impression!

  3. When I visit a wild or natural place, I inherently know that people have been there before me. I’m under no illusions that this is pure and untouched virgin wilderness, and that I’m the first person to behold it. Seeing a human made cairn of rocks to me is a form of vandalism. While definitely not as awful as spray paint tagging (which is becoming its own problem even in natural parks), in my mind it is still a form of human alteration of place that serves no other purpose than to stroke the makers own ego/narcissism.

  4. When considering questions like this “Is rock stacking vandalism?”, I always come back to the outdoor mantra that I was raised with (and which is probably wildly outdated) – “Take only photographs, leave only footprints.”

    • John, I love that mantra for spending time in a natural area.

      There is a difference between knowing that other people have passed through and seeing that they have chosen to leave their own mark. I’m not saying that mark is bad or good, only that it changes the next person’s experience of the place.

      If it’s a trail marker, it might be reassuring and thus make the experience more positive. If it reads as graffiti, it may make the experience more negative. But as shown by the comments on this post, people vary significantly in their responses.

  5. Love ’em and the human creativity and tagging it represents. A reminder we are not the only person who arrived at the place, should we be so arrogant to expect to “own” the experience. I like the human community who seeks out special places. These simple cairns connect us. I make the assumption they *are* simple and do not disturb the place in any lasting way, and that in a few years, weather, time, and those who don’t like them, return the stones to rest again. Sandcastles disappear too.

    There are still plenty of places not overrun with this sort of innocent fun. If you really want to rant, go find a cigarette butt or soda can that gets left behind in some supposedly pristine spot…

    • Put me down on the “love ’em” side of the ledger also. I might be convinced that the overuse of any specific form of personal statement can attain cliche’ status and even become annoying, but give me a break on this one. One could argue convincingly that these little cairns create as many favorable micro-climates as they destroy. Even the Jains, whose respect for all life forms can approach rendering their faithful nearly immobile for fear of injuring even microbes, recognize the role intent has to play in their actions. No harm intended, no foul, or at least a much less egregious one.

  6. Although I think that there might be some disruptive habitat unintended consequences, this post reminded me of the work of Andy Goldsworthy and his ephemeral [not always] art. They are a joy to see in process, and it would be wonderful to wander onto one when walking. Here in Tallahassee, I watched a young man take large pine cones from around a stand of pines and using them to make concentric circles around the trunks of trees. The stand of pines is now gone, replaced by another small shopping “village.” Will miss the trees and work of the young man. Karin

    • I like very much the idea of pine cones arranged in concentric circles around pine trees. It is more imaginative than rocks stacked on a beach. But both accomplish the same thing — to put a human mark on the land. People have done this for millennia, and poets have written about the effect for a similarly long time. Whenever I see this kind of human marking, I think of Wallace Stevens’ poem, Anecdote of the Jar. Paraphrasing Stevens, he notes how the presence of a jar on a hilltop changes the scene, so that the wilderness sprawls around, no longer wild. My response to the act is an aesthetic one. If the addition makes me see something in the landscape or surroundings that I otherwise might have missed, I respond positively. I think, for instance, of W.Gary Smith’s installation a few years ago at Garden in the Woods, headquarters of the New England Wildflower Society. He put branches end to end to form a snaking line that drew attention to the shape of the land itself. It was wonderfully simple and extremely effective.

  7. Here in the Sierra Nevada, cairns serve the legitimate may I say purpose of marking a trail so someone can find their way back. Hardly anywhere any more have trails not obviously been used by humans so my thought is, be real. We are here, we are there, we are almost everywhere (except try hiking in the middle of Nevada for real solitude).

    As for the aesthetics, I feel a sense of mystery and wonder around cairns, they begin to tell a story I will probably not know the end of, and are beautiful in their own right.

  8. The photo reminded me of trips to Mackinac island and the rocky shoreline of Lake Superior when my sons were younger. My first reaction to seeing that stack of rocks was a memory of industrious little boys finding something entertaining to do while the grown-ups soaked up the scenery. No meaning other than to see how many could be stacked before they toppled over. On that note, they would have been just as quick to topple over someone else’s abandoned stack of rocks without a thought that it was put there for any reason other than for fun.

  9. Either way, I like that it brings to light the “real” or historical purpose of stacking rocks – and we’re talking about it. So, in a sense, the true intent lives on in these discussions – but not necessarily in the stacks of rocks themselves.

    That being said, I am not a fan of the current rock-stacking trend. For me, it goes into the same sociological bucket with the McMansion and exterior rock work my husband calls “peanut brittle”. It’s all about the facade – in more ways than one. And that just leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

  10. I suppose if one is so inclined to be offended by these when one comes upon them, one could always undo them. Im sure people are not doing this maliciously. Perhaps people should be required to remove their hiking boots before setting off into the wild for a nice hike?? With all the people hiking in the wilderness wearing boots, are you going to assume nothing is being disturbed.

    • dpeluso, I certainly wouldn’t imagine anyone is doing this maliciously. It is much more likely an emotional response to the surroundings (indulging in a bit of play, as a spiritual exercise, leaving a trail of breadcrumbs to ensure a safe return, etc).

      There is a human impulse to interact with nature, to lend our own voice to a natural setting, which is probably part of why many of us make gardens. And of course we are interested in what other humans have to say, which is why many of us want to experience other people’s gardens and other forms of art.

      However, I believe there is also value in listening to the rest of nature (minus humans) in the few remaining places we can hear that conversation, value in perceiving scenes that were created by other species without our obvious input. If only to fuel the sorts of emotional responses that make a person want to stack rocks.

  11. My feelings go back the long practiced use of cairns to mark trails, graves etc.
    They are suitable for those and similar purposes, and the key word is “purpose”. To change a natural setting just because you can, has no purpose.

  12. Thanks for this post, Evelyn – so interesting and it opens up such a great conversation!
    I have a hard time separating humans from nature. At this point in history, we have to acknowledge that when we are in “pristine” surroundings, those areas are set aside and framed for us. We are in a framed, somewhat “romantic” setting – a construct. Most of our environment is being ravaged for its resources, so uncontrolled nature looks far worse than the areas set aside for us that remind us of what the world might have looked like before capitalism ran amok. These are treasures! So for me, a cairn is equal to the large stack of boulders that fell because the earth moved – innocent and beautiful. The hand of a person or a child, making a stack to commemorate a moment, mark a trail, or pass the time is a lovely part of nature, and really doesn’t impact my experience negatively. I worry that our culture of reaction, where books like “To Kill A Mockingbird” now require trigger warnings, may be stepping in to police or “nanny” these innocent gestures. I hope not. Unless rock stacking becomes an internet meme and we can’t go anywhere without seeing Cairn Art! That would be annoying! XO

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