I often hike, so spotting a pile of stacked rocks is not new to me, as I know many are there to mark trails.
What is new to me is the striking increase in stacked rock piles and the confusion about the meaning of stacked stones in general.
To help you understand what stacked rocks mean, both large piles and small stones that balance, I put together this guide.
Come along to learn the historical facts and significance of stacked rocks and the difference between stacked stones and trail cairns. I also explain who should and shouldn’t create stacked rock piles or cairns, and highlight the different methods to balance rocks artfully.
Once you know all the details about cairns and rock stacks, you can educate others and try your hand at making different stacked rock variations!
What are Stacked Rocks or Cairns?
Stacked rocks are commonly called cairns. Cairns is a feature most used along trails worldwide to indicate to travelers that they are on the right path.
Most cairns made for trail markers tend to use many stones that start with a broad round or square base that rises upwards several feet into a triangle-shape structure.
The rock formation is sturdy and less likely to fall over due to high winds or heavy rainfalls. This specific shape is also much more apparent to hikers as a trail marker instead of an “artful” stack of rocks left by a previous visitor.
Cairns is a human-made, yet “natural” sign that doesn’t impede the beauty of the area and is an easy-to-spot navigational tool that prevents losing a trail, especially in rough terrain.
In Acadia National Park, in 1896, Waldron Bates built a specific hiking cairn style made from one rectangular stone that balanced on two legs. A single rock set on top of the cairn would point the way to the trail.
Around the 1950s, the park installed regular signage to direct visitors but decided in the 1990s to rebuild the original trail cairns. Today guests can find these unusual trail cairns interspersed throughout the park.
Issues arise when visitors to an area build rock piles that look very similar to intentional trail cairns, leading to confusion for others that travel the same place.
Another problem that adds to misunderstood meaning of stacked rocks is some builds denote other features, such as a spiritual location, a cache of something, or even a burial depending on the region.
A proper cairn is not the same as stone stacking or balancing, so understanding the two’s differences is helpful when navigating the great outdoors.
Trail Cairn Vs. Stone Stacking: What’s the Difference?
Many novice hikers are clueless that those deliberate piles of stones are, in reality, trail markers because stacked stone structures have become a trendy tourist activity around the globe.
The difference between the two is reasonably noticeable just by the appearance of each, but there is more to the story.
The first way to spot a trail cairn is that the stack of rocks will form a more substantial structure. Trail cairns will also be built and evenly spaced along pathways to indicate you are going in the right direction or have reached a trail intersection.
You will typically find trail cairns in areas where trees are sparse, as many hiking trails use tree slashes or paint to indicate you are following the right path.
A small stack of four or five stones along a path is known as a “duck.” The short pile is usually put there by hikers to help aid in the correct direction in spots where the trail is less noticeable.
Park rangers spend time maintaining trail cairns and take on the duty to remove rock piles made by visitors that could negatively interfere with the path’s correct navigation.
Trail cairns are very common in rocky or desert regions where an abundance of stones form naturally. The ease of gathering these loose stones into a trail marker eliminates the need for costly and unsightly poles and signage.
The stone piles will also hold up for years with no deterioration as long as visitors are respectful and leave the cairns untouched.
Stone stacking is a more modern form of expression that places stones in a shape or has them balance without the aid of glue, wires, or wood.
Stacks of stones can be a way to point out specific spots, as in a burial site, but more often than not, they have no real meaning other than a way to say, “I was here.”
In fact, many regions around the globe are finding the practice of stone stacking to be detrimental to their land and discourage tourists from partaking in this unusual form of human graffiti.
Most stone stacking artforms consist of fewer stones than a trail cairn. Many are a single pile of rocks that balance upwards as high as the builder can manage without it toppling over. Other stacks can form arches or different shapes.
This art form’s popularity is evident as some communities now host festivals that feature rock stacking or balancing competitions.
The History of Trail Cairns
Before compasses or GPS, trail cairns were an essential way to mark paths and important places.
Throughout history, cairns could be found in populated and remote locations worldwide to help people travel from place to place without getting lost.
Often, cairns could indicate that the spot has water or a cache of food or tools, so those using the path use the stash to survive. Other times, cairns held messages about the area for future passersby to read.
Depending on the terrain, some cairns were very tall to be easy to spot from a distance or so the top would poke out above deep snow. Other trail cairns were shorter and closer together and meant to lead travelers through areas that had consistent weather of heavy rain or fog.
Some trail cairns were built wide enough to hide behind to hunt prey found along the path while others could mark an unlucky traveler’s burial place.
Meaning of Cairns in Other Cultures
Not every culture built cairns to only mark paths to other locations. Here are ways cairns were put to use for other purposes:
- In Greenland, the Norsemen used cairns as lane markers to help corral herds of reindeer during hunting parties
- In Asia, cairns were a way to prevent the dead from rising from the grave or to deter grave robbers
- In South Korea, adding a rock to the top of a cairn brings good fortune
- In Mongolia, cairns marked stores of food or supplies
- In Iceland and Scandinavia, coastal cairns were a beacon from sea to determine location or safe landing
- In Portugal, a stone taken from a cairn and put under a pillow was thought to produce a soldier the next morning
- In Peru, cairns were built as shrines to the Inca goddess Pachamama
- In the Americas, Native tribes used cairns to herd buffalo
- In Scotland, cairns marked Neolithic burial grounds
Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Do Rock Stacking
Many people think a stacked stone creation is just an expression of art and like to leave their “rock stack” behind to become part of the larger group.
But, outside of your yard, rock stacking can present problems most people fail to consider.
First, you need to know that building cairns in national parks and forests is illegal, along with many other areas of public land. There are hazards to wildlife and humans when people construct cairns outside of the intentional ones built for trail markers.
Moving rocks disturbs or completely ruins the habitat of insects, lizards, worms, and small animals. Removal of stones can cause an increase in erosion, especially along riverbeds. A tower of rocks can fail and tumble down upon visitors causing injury. False cairns can mislead hikers, causing them to move off-trail and get lost.
The formation of rock stacks also ruins the landscape’s natural aesthetic, and even one pile in a touristy area can quickly lead to hundreds of people following suit. The result is not only an eyesore but creates damage to the environment that cannot be easily fixed just by “putting them back.”
Building stone stacks also goes against the grain of known hiking and nature-loving principles that include leaving no trace of your crossing. Just because you are creating something out of natural material found onsite does not make it ethically justified.
The Art of Rock Stacking or Rock Balancing
This article is not to dismiss the wonderfully meditative benefits of rock stacking or balancing.
The artful practice is a learning and relaxation tool for both children and adults, as long as you are building your stacked stones in the proper location and are using stones from an environmentally-friendly source.
Here is a quick explanation of different stone stacking styles and techniques for you to try at home:
The most basic of rock stacking starts with the inline balance. Take one rock and try to find the balance point using the smallest contact point as possible. Add more rocks on top of this first rock, trying to keep the stack from falling over, and keeping the contact points small.
A counterbalance rock stack starts by placing two stones and using the upper stone to offset the other’s weight or center of gravity so both rocks balance. The stack will typically look uneven, and experts tend to use elongated stones in these structures. Keep adding as many rocks as possible, sometimes placing two stones at once to achieve overall balance.
Classic Rock Arch
The build of a classic arch starts with larger, more squared-off stones with an angular shape. When stacked, these stones will begin to form an arch. The goal is to have the arch’s center stone higher than the base’s two outer rocks. Beginners can use the aid of “structural stones” to keep the arch’s shape until the keystone is set, then carefully remove those stones when complete to reveal the freestanding arch.
Balanced Rock Arch
This rock arch relies solely on your hands and quick action to complete a sturdy arch. The challenge is to form a base that can hold the outward force of the arch of stones. Another option is to find two larger rocks or natural land formations a foot or so apart that fits the bill. Experts suggest using stones that are flatter with lots of texture to help grab onto the rocks next to them as you build up to the center keystone that holds the entire structure together..
To create a stunning rock stack, go for height, but also texture. Placing small stones between larger ones as you build will help balance the stack but also leaves air gaps that allow sunlight to shine through. Some people opt for more oval or round stones, while others prefer flatter rocks. Since more surface area of the rocks touches each other, the whole structure is more stable and easier to keep erect.
Rock piling is highly related to a cairn, but often the goal is to keep the structure sleek and go as high as you can. Flat rocks are the preferred shape for this technique. Often, builders use a variety of single or multiple columns within the overall structure to increase the intricacy of the design.
Building a rock globe is an advanced technique that involves building up a thin rock pillar and adding more rocks to increase the overall size and width to a center point tapering the stones smaller again to form a circular shape. Rock globes look amazing but can take years to master.
Who can Build Cairns?
While anyone can build a cairn, doing so on public land should be left to rangers or other authorities for safety reasons.
These markers are made to keep hikers and visitors on track and should not be disturbed. Never “add” to trail cairns either, as doing so can alter the look and confuse hikers.
Building a cairn can be a wonderfully creative expression of art in your own garden or on your own property. A cairn can become an attractive focal point, a meditation spot, or even be a memorial to a beloved pet or person that has passed.
Just remember that a cairn at home can be decorative or have a special meaning, but those on public lands are made to indicate safe passage along trails and should never be disturbed in any way.
Is there a Spiritual Significance about Rock Stacking?
Ancient cultures did place a significance of stacked rocks to indicate places of spiritual meaning, such as a shrine or altar to various deities or to honor their dead.
Modern people continue this tradition by stacking rocks in areas with vital magnetic or lay line energies known as a vortex. Many people believe a visit to these vortex locations can bring on feelings of harmony or power.
The spiritual meaning of stacking rocks is specific to each builder, whether as a location for prayer, introspection, or honor. Using the power of gravity and balance to create a structure can symbolize the achievement or desire for inner peace or tranquility.
Some schools even encourage stone stacking time in classrooms to calm students and increase focus.
Is Rock Balancing the Same as Cairn?
Rock balancing is a neat trick and a soothing way to calm your mind. The practice may seem harmless, and is, when done in areas where their meaning will not be misconstrued, like in your backyard garden.
A cairn is a directional tool or signpost that helps people navigate in open terrain. Cairns are many stones resting upon each other to form height, and most aren’t balancing from a single point such as found with rock balancing structures.
Technically, cairns are slightly different from rock balancing due to the method of creation. Most cairns appear dense, while balance rocks appear airy.
Unfortunately, most people don’t realize they are destroying the natural landscape and delicate ecosystems when they perform rock stacking or build cairns. This practice is worse when done in a state or national park or during travel to other countries.
The more recent phenomenon of visitors to certain regions making their own “rock pile” just for a picture to post to social media is a mockery to the history and meaning behind cairns or ancient spiritual stone balance piles as well as the environment.
For general purposes, a cairn is a stack of rocks or substantial size made to indicate direction. A pile of stones that balance delicately atop each other is a form of spiritual or artistic expression.
Both cairns and stacked rocks are becoming more and more common landscape features. Now that you understand what do stacked rocks mean while walking, you can use these beacons for personal reflection or as a handy guide to keep on the right path!