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Should You Topple Rock Cairns in Tennessee State Parks?

A few national parks have made the news recently for their differing views on visitors and rock cairns. On July 11, Yosemite National Park in California posted a video on Facebook showing a Wilderness Restoration Ranger pushing over one of these large stacks of rocks; the caption told visitors to knock down cairns they see in the park. (1) On July 20, Arches National Park in Utah posted the opposite on Facebook; the park asked visitors to leave all cairns alone and report any that “seem to be out of place or large groupings of cairns.” (2) I decided to delve into this issue and find out Tennessee State Parks’ position in this debate.


What are rock cairns?


But first, what exactly are rock cairns? David B. Williams, a former Arches National Park ranger and author of Cairns: Messengers in Stone, notes that, “there is a deep, complex, and culturally intriguing connection between people and cairns from around the world and across thousands of years.” (3) Ancient civilizations built cairns to help guide others traveling overland, and some built them to help sailors navigate around land. (4) Williams notes that Rocky Mountain National Park has cairns that are thousands of years old and were used as “game guides.” (5) Cairns have also been used to mark property lines and burial sites and remember those who have passed away. (6)


A shield-shaped red plastic trail marker nailed to a tree next to some mountain laurel blooms in Pickett CCC Memorial State Park in Tennessee
A trail marker on a tree in Pickett CCC Memorial State Park

Today, some parks use them to mark hiking trails in areas without trees on which to display trail signs or blazes. (7) Cairn supporters argue that, in addition to preventing hikers from becoming lost, these are useful environmental tools as they help hikers stay on the trail instead of trampling the landscape. (8)


The National Park Service describes the appropriate way to build a conical cairn: each rock should slope towards the center and touch the others in at least three spots. (9) A builder should use rocks that are not embedded in soil and should ensure that the cairn is only as high as it is wide. (10)


A different style of cairn is part of the history of Maine’s Acadia National Park. (11) These are called Bates cairns because Waldron Bates, an Acadia trail builder, created them around the late 19th century. (12) A Bates cairn has two columns of rocks side-by-side and one flatter rock resting on both columns. (13) A small rock sits on top of the flatter rock and indicates the path. (14)


Don’t build your own cairns.


Each park agrees that visitors should not build their own cairns. (15) For those who have traveled to parks to admire the beautiful landscape, large groups of these stacks mar that experience. (16) Cairns built by visitors can endanger hikers by leading them the wrong way or obscuring official cairns. (17) Also, if visitors are digging up rocks to build their own cairns, this can contribute to erosion and destroy habitat for the plants and creatures that live around and under these rocks. (18) I know from my research on hellbenders that they will only nest under certain rocks in rivers, and when people stack rocks, they can destroy habitat for hellbenders that are already struggling to survive. (19)


A brown hellbender salamander under half of a PVC pipe in a tank at the Nashville Zoo in Tennessee
A hellbender at the Nashville Zoo under half of a pipe that mimics a rock in the wild. Hellbenders need specific rocks for their nests.

Of course, some of these complaints about visitor-constructed cairns apply to those built by rangers and trail workers too. Even if staff only use rocks that aren’t embedded in soil, this could still destroy habitat and contribute to erosion. And even an official cairn is obviously a man made structure that will be noticed by anyone wanting to enjoy pristine nature. But I’m assuming that the justification for an official cairn is the same as that of an official trail: it’s a sacrifice on the smallest scale possible to preserve the larger landscape and still allow us to enjoy it.


Many questions remain.


As a ranger at Arches National Park, Williams says he regularly dismantled cairns that weren’t needed or were endangering visitors but wonders how an average visitor would know which cairns should be knocked over. (20) And perhaps that’s the real issue with Yosemite’s post; it was too vague. It acknowledged that some are helpful “[w]hen used appropriately” but asked visitors to “[p]lease dismantle and refrain from building rock cairns when you visit Yosemite.” (21) It didn’t specify how visitors could tell which cairns were being used appropriately and which were not. Even Arches National Park’s post seemed to rely on visitors knowing something about cairns and their uses since it asked visitors to report ones that “seem to be out of place or large groupings of cairns,” but they were unequivocal in asking visitors to leave cairns alone. (22)


Will there be any unintended consequences from having visitors knock down cairns? Will anyone be injured? Will there be more of an ecological impact and work for rangers if they need to replace useful cairns? Are hikers more likely to become lost? Will people think that if they can just be knocked down, there is no harm in building them in the first place?


Tennessee State Parks asks visitors not to destroy cairns.


So where does the Tennessee State Parks stand in all of this? They ask that visitors do not build their own cairns, do not take them down, and instead allow rangers to do so. (23)


I learned that rock cairns aren’t a big problem for the parks, and I also learned that the parks don’t use rock cairns to mark trails. (24) I’m assuming this is because Tennessee has plenty of trees, and the parks attach small markers to these trees or paint blazes on them to designate trails. But even when I’ve hiked through a cedar glade where there aren’t as many trees, I saw wooden stakes with arrows that pointed me in the right direction.


A small white arrow on a brown background is attached to a wooden stake next to a gravel path under a dark sky at Couchville Cedar Glade SNA in Tennessee
An arrow on a stake marks the trail in Couchville Cedar Glade State Natural Area

So if you do happen to come across a rock cairn while visiting a Tennessee State Park, you don’t have to wonder whether it should be there or what you should do. The parks are clear: leave it alone. If I ever come across one, I’ll report it to a ranger or park office since I now know that the parks don’t use them to mark trails, but I hope I never need to.

 

  1. https://geologywriter.com/about/ ; https://geologywriter.com/books/ ; email correspondence with Williams on August 5, 2023

  2. Email correspondence with Williams on August 5, 2023

  3. Email correspondence with Williams on August 5, 2023

  4. Email correspondence with Kim Schofinski on August 3, 2023

  5. Email correspondence with Kim Schofinski on August 3, 2023

August 6, 2023


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