This is a thought-provoking opinion piece that made me realize I have also asked “Why the need for this here?” Whether or not you sit on one side of the argument, if you spend time in the woods you have undoubtedly encountered a stack of rocks, or a cairn.
The first cairn I can remember encountering was in the 1990’s along an unmaintained logging road which intersected the Appalachian Trail in Cumberland County, Pennsylvania. It noted an almost invisible side trail off the road, as if a hiker or hunter wanted to remember where they planned to enter the woods when returning to the location. Like this hunter’s footpath indicator, I highly doubt that any of the stacks of rocks I’ve encountered were built to have spiritual meaning, but for the purpose of the conversation, I’ll join the author and refer to these as “cairns”.
While I have seen some cairns in arguably navigable terrain, making them seem completely unnecessary, others have been clearly built to assist with navigation. Take for example the cairn built to indicate an unmarked trail’s abrupt turn. Without the cairn, an unmarked (or unclearly marked) trail may appear to maintain a direction, allowing the hiker to unknowingly pass the desired turning point. This could especially be true in the summer months, where brush in a low traffic area can get quite out of hand. (At least in Pennsylvania…)
I encountered a few of these “navigation cairns” last weekend during a hike with my Dad in Colorado’s Uncompahgre National Forest. A couple times the trail would fizzle out in a pasture where hikers and horses alike had chosen the least path of resistance to avoid muddy sections of trail, resulting in multiple paths around the mud. On the other side of the muddy section, the trail would disappear, but a small stack of rocks in the distance would assist in relocating the hiker to the trail.
While the author raises some good points, the comments are also worth reading. Specifically, “James” reminds us that cairns which are used to point out an unintended trail are indeed a problem, as they encourage traffic to an area where it may not be wanted in the first place:
What about situations where people use cairns to mark “social trails”? Just for clarification, when I use the term social trail I am referring to an unofficial trail that has been created by visitors without permission from the organization or people that are responsible for managing a piece of land. Social trails are problematic because they are nearly always created with little to no consideration given to the long term sustainability of the trail or the impact that have on the surrounding environment.
Signs which read “Stay on the trail!” are always there for a reason, whether it be to prevent unwanted erosion, preservation of animal habitat or fragile alpine plants. The commenter continues:
Professional trail builders are responsible for avoiding impacts to natural and cultural resources and there is supervision that take place to ensure that the trails they build are properly constructed. When a individual takes it upon themselves to create a new trail without adequate knowledge of the resources they may be impacting and insufficient knowledge of how to build a sustainable and durable trail there will certainly create a trail that is going to have an unnecessarily large impact on the land and the resources. As someone who restores poorly designed trails for the National Park Service, my primary request is that people not construct cairns to mark unofficial trails.
And so, while the article itself is an opinion piece, I side with the “leave no trace” approach to cairns — if they aren’t there, don’t build them.