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Most hikers have probably encountered rock cairns.
Cairn is Gaelic for a heap of stones more commonly pronounced similar to “karen.”
They are typically used as route markers through areas that are difficult to navigate and have been used for thousands of years from the Norwegian Fjords, to the Tibetan Plateau, to the Andes to mark travel routes.
Today, the practice of stone stacking has become a social media fad.
These piles of rocks are harmless, right? Nope.
Removing rocks from the ground, riverbeds, and lake shores increases erosion, doesn’t adhere to the “leave no trace“ principles, is illegal on many public lands, and removes habitat for sensitive wildlife.
Many saxicolous species (species which live on, underneath, or around rocks) have “rock removal” listed as a major threat to their survival. In the Appalachian Mountains, the Eastern Hellbender (large salamander) and endangered Smoky Madtom (small catfish) are two of many species whose survival is threatened by a habitat loss. Moving rocks disturbs sediment, dislodges eggs, accelerates the natural erosion process, and removes livable habitat for these animals.
One person stacking 10 rocks doesn’t have a huge impact. The problem is that others tend to follow the trend. Before long, one cairn has turned into five, which quickly turns into 50.
Now, we have 500 rocks that have been displaced within a small area, and that does have an impact.
Post pictures of our Cairns to social media?
Now, the whole world thinks it’s a good idea and millions of rocks are being moved every single day, often in extremely sensitive riparian (river and stream bank) areas.
If we see Cairns that aren’t trail markers? It is best if we gently dismantle them or let a park ranger or official know to discourage further stacking. Although tempting, violently kicking Cairns risks further harm to the critters’ habitat.
Leave no trace is about leaving nature in the same condition it was found. Leaving a pile of rocks to mark our visits does the opposite of that.
So please, when visiting our public lands, let’s leave the egotistic behavior at home, tame our inner rock moving caveman or cavewoman, and leave the rocks where they belong.