Trails for everyone, forever

Home News Blog Cairn Stories - Have One?

Cairn Stories - Have One?

Posted by David B. Williams at Jul 19, 2011 02:20 PM |

David B. Williams is writing a new book for The Mountaineers Books about cairns and is looking for vignettes to include. Do you have a notable experience with cairns?

David B. Williams is a freelance natural history writer based in Seattle. He is the author of Stories in Stone and The Seattle Street-Smart Naturalist, and is an occasional contributor to Washington Trails. When he told us that he was writing a book about cairns, we invited him to guest blog on The Signpost.

Nearly everyone who has hiked in the backcountry has seen a cairn, or a duck, as those in the Sierras refer to them. Maybe it was at some critical point on a trail, where it provided a needed dose of reassurance that you were on the right track. Or maybe it was on a peak, where you added your name to summit log. No matter where or when, the cairn served its purpose, as a means of communication and a means of connection.

As a writer, geology-geek, and hiker, I had certainly noticed my share of cairns over the years, but it wasn’t until recently that I started to consider them more intently. The reason is that I am working on a book about cairns for The Mountaineers Books. My book will weave together their cultural and natural history, looking at all aspects from the micro-habitat of cairns to Neolithic age Scottish funerary cairns to cairns erected on nineteenth century Arctic expeditions. Worldwide in scope, the book will look at cairns from the Himalayas to the desert southwest. For more info, please go to my web site.

Do you have a unique experience that involved cairns? I hope to include short (200 to 400 word) vignettes about people and their notable experiences with a cairn. In that light, I am soliciting descriptions of that experience to possibly include in the book as a sidebar. I cannot guarantee I will use them all, plus unfortunately, I cannot pay for the story. But if you are interested in sharing a story of an encounter with a cairn, you can contact me at


Mucho cairns

Mucho cairns at Squire Creek Pass. It's tradition to elaborate on them when you arrive. Some are quite artsy!

Posted by:

"Kim Brown" on Jul 20, 2011 08:44 AM

Cairn Stories - Have One?

If your wilderness ethic is "Leave No Trace", that means Build No Cairns.
Most cairns are worse than graffiti vandalism or litter. It's easy to pick up a beer can, but impossible to put a rock back where Nature left it. And it shows. Think about it: like a fire pit, a cairn is one of the most permanent impacts you can leave.

I find summit cairns particularly annoying. What's the point of defacing a pristine summit by moving rocks around and destroying the patterns of Nature? To prevent some hapless climber from accidentally violating the First Rule of Mountaineering (Climb No Higher than the Summit)? Once you move a rock in a pristine place, the unaturalness of it is readily apparent to the practiced eye.

Always think before you destroy a cairn. Is it a worthwhile navigational marker? The route might look obvious to you, but think: poor visibility? Dark? Snow? Does it help channel traffic and prevent proliferating social trails? It's a judgement call, but if you think a cairn is unnecessary, or redundant, or confusing, remove it. It's litter.
I recently photographed a lovely, artsy, 3' high cairn on an esker at Upper Lyman Lake with Lyman Glacier as a backdrop. The base rock was 60 lbs. at least. Somebody spent a few man-hours building that thing. It took me 15 minutes of hard work to eradicate it, and the scattered rocks still didn't look natural. It was a toy, not a route marker. I couldn't "Leave No Trace", but I did my best.

Posted by:

Cascade Liberation Organization on Sep 10, 2011 11:34 PM