Have you ever come across strange stacks of rocks while hiking in national parks? Maybe you wondered what they are and if they mean anything. Wonder no more—these rock piles are called cairns and often mark hiking routes in parks.
Every park has different rules about cairns, so it’s always a good idea to check out a park’s website for information on hiking trails before you go. Rock cairns are human-made stacks, mounds, or piles of rocks.
They take different forms and have been built by cultures around the world for many different purposes. Cairns may serve as monuments, burial sites, navigational aids (by land or sea), or ceremonial grounds, among other uses.
They may stand alone, in clusters, or in a network of related cairns; for example, as trail markers in a park. In Highland folklore, it is recounted that before Highland clans fought in a battle, each man would place a stone in a pile.
Those who survived the battle returned and removed a stone from the pile. The stones that remained were built into a cairn to honor the dead. In Norse Greenland, cairns were used as a hunting implement, a game-driving “lane”, used to direct reindeer toward a game jump.
In the mythology of ancient Greece, cairns were associated with Hermes, the god of overland travel. According to one legend, Hermes was put on trial by Hera for slaying her favorite servant, the monster Argus. All of the other gods acted as a jury, and as a way of declaring their verdict, they were given pebbles and told to throw them at whichever person they deemed to be in the right, Hermes or Hera. Hermes argued so skillfully that he ended up buried under a heap of pebbles, and this was the first cairn.
In Portugal, a cairn is called a moledro. In a legend, the moledros are enchanted soldiers, and if one stone is taken from the pile and put under a pillow, in the morning a soldier will appear for a brief moment, then will change back to a stone and magically return to the pile.
In the Bible, Genesis 31, the cairn of Gilead was set up as a border demarcation between Jacob and his father-in-law Laban at their last meeting. Starting in the Bronze Age, burial cists were sometimes interred in cairns, which would be situated in conspicuous positions, often on the skyline above the village of the deceased. Though most often found in the British Isles, evidence of Bronze Age cists has been found in Mongolia.
The stones may have been thought to deter grave robbers and scavengers. Another explanation is that they were to stop the dead from rising. There remains a Jewish tradition of placing small stones on a person’s grave as a token of respect, known as visitation stones, though this is generally to relate the longevity of the stone to the eternal nature of the soul and is not usually done in a cairn fashion.
- Don’t Disassemble Cairns: Never take down a cairn that you find along the trail. It doesn’t matter whether or not you think the cairn is real or fake. Cairns are an important navigational tool on the trail and park staff can dismantle unofficial cairns.
- Do Not Build Unauthorized Cairns: Building unauthorized cairns can lead hikers down the wrong path. You don’t want to be the reason why a hiker gets lost and needs to be rescued.
- Do Not Add Rocks To Existing Cairns: Cairns are carefully designed by park staff and adding rocks to the pile can cause them to collapse. They may also tell you the direction to travel and moving/adding rocks can change the orientation of the cairn.
In Hawaii, cairns, called by the Hawaiian word ahu, are still being built today. Though in other cultures the cairns were typically used as trail markers and sometimes funerary sites, the ancient Hawaiians also used them as altars or security towers.
The Hawaiian people are still building these cairns today, using them as the focal points for ceremonies honoring their ancestors and spirituality. Indigenous peoples of the Americas have built structures similar to cairns.
In some cases, these are general trail markers, and in other cases, they mark game-driving “lanes”, such as those leading to buffalo jumps. Coastal cairns called sea marks are also common in the northern latitudes, especially in the island-strewn waters of Scandinavia and eastern Canada. They are placed along shores and on islands and islets. Usually painted white for improved offshore visibility, they serve as navigation aids. In the Canadian Maritimes, cairns have been used as beacons like small lighthouses to guide boats.