Have you ever stumbled upon peculiar stacks of rocks while out on a hike? Whenever I’d see them, I’d think “Someone must be good at Jenga.”

If you've ever wondered about their significance, you’re not alone, because I was also super curious. These formations are called “cairns," and they actually play a crucial role in the hiking process.


In the realm of national parks like El Malpais in New Mexico, Hawaii Volcanoes, and Acadia in our Pine Tree State, the rock cairns stand as guardians of the trails, meticulously maintained by park staff to keep intrepid explorers on the right path. In our neck of the woods, Acadia, these cairns not only serve as navigational aids but also hold a fascinating historical significance.

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In 1896, Waldron Bates, the lead author of the hiking map that remains influential in today's trail mapping of Acadia, devised a distinct style of building cairns, now known as the Bates Cairn. In the 1990s, Acadia National Park embarked on a mission to resurrect this unique piece of history by constructing Bates Cairns along the east-side trails. However, if you find yourself unsure about following cairns during your hike, the National Park Services recommends not to hesitate, and seek guidance from fellow hikers or park rangers.

Credit: David Clode on Unsplash
Credit: David Clode on Unsplash

Typically, trail cairns reach a modest height of just a foot or so, ensuring visibility even in snowy landscapes. However, in regions prone to heavy snowfall, taller cairns may be constructed to guide adventurers through the frosty terrain.

While each park has its own rules and methods for maintaining trails and cairns, they all share a common directive: "Do not disturb the cairns." It's essential to resist the temptation to topple or tamper with these markers of the wilderness. 


Now that we've covered the basics of cairn etiquette, let's delve deeper into the rabbit hole world of these rock formations that I’ve found myself in. 

Did you know that the term "cairn" finds its origins in Scotland? According to folklore, Highland clansmen would erect stone piles before heading into battle. Those who survived would remove a stone upon their return, while the remaining stones stood as a solemn tribute to the fallen.


So, on your next hiking escapade, keep an eye out. They are more than mere stacks of stones; they are the silent companions that ensure your journey remains on track. 

Although, it's important to remember that not every pile of rocks you encounter on your expedition has a profound tale to tell. Sometimes, a cairn is simply what it appears to be— a pile of rocks.

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