What is a cairn?

Cairn Garden Art: How To Make A Rock Cairn For The Garden

Creating rock cairns in the garden is a great way to add something different, yet appealing, to the landscape. Using cairns in gardens can provide a site for reflection, as the contrasting colors and shapes of the stones create a calming, peaceful feeling.

What are Cairns?

In simple terms, a rock cairn is just a pile of stones or rocks. Cairns have been used for thousands of years. In ancient times, they served as an intricate form of art, as small rocks were precariously balanced on top of smaller rocks, artfully constructed with no tools or mortar to hold them together.

Cairns have also been used as monuments or to mark a burial site. England’s Stonehenge is an example of a famous cairn. Today, they make popular markers along hiking trails.

Cairns Garden Design

Decide on the best location for the cairn. You can place it in a peaceful, wooded garden or an open area where growth is sparse. Remove weeds or turf where you want to build the cairn and smooth out the soil with a rake.

Cairn garden art can be conical with each succeeding layer becoming smaller, or they can be columnar. The cairn can as small or as tall as you like; however, garden cairns usually don’t exceed the height of the builder.

How to Make a Rock Cairn

Gather a variety of large, flat rocks to form the base of the cairn, then stack the stones in a pleasing arrangement. Use care, as a sturdy base will allow you to create a taller cairn.

You can use a single, large stone as a base, or several smaller stones. Often, it works well to use large or semi-large stones, then use smaller rocks to fill in the spaces between the stones. Place the stones close together in a locking pattern.

Once the base is in place, add the second layer of stones. Place the layer so the edges of the stones are staggered with the stones of the first layer, similar to building a wall with staggered bricks. This general pattern will make your rock cairn more stable.

Continue to add rocks to the cairn. If there are wobbly spots or a stone doesn’t settle securely against the layer below it, add smaller stones to act as stabilizers, shims or wedges. If it helps, you can place a few of the stones on edge.

You can experiment with round stones and interesting shapes, but flat stones are easier to work with.

For thousands of years people have piled rocks to mark trails so they would be able to find their way and not get lost. These stacks of rocks are called cairns and are found worldwide, including Ocean Point! A cairn is defined as a human-made stack of rocks.

If you want to build a cairn, find an open area away from plant growth. Pile your stones as high as possible for the best visibility. Your cairn needs to be stable so fill in with small stones as needed.

Be sure to build your cairn only in an appropriate area that will not damage the ecosystem. At Ocean Point you will see them built on the granite ledges along the shore. They are often made stable and balanced with sand granules from the shore. All of the pictures on this post are of cairns at Ocean Point.

In addition to trail markers, cairns are built for burial monuments, ceremonial purposes, hunting, etc. They range in size from small stone markers to artificial hills. An ancient cairn style found from Alaska to Greenland is the inuksuk used by the people of the Arctic Region. This tundra area had few natural landmarks.

Coastal cairns, also known as “sea marks,” are found in Scandinavia and the Maritime Provinces of eastern Canada. These coastal cairns even appear on navigational charts. Sometimes they are lighted or painted white for better visibility from ships.

Some people are offended by cairns. David Williams, the author of Cairns, was a ranger in Arches National Park. Visitors built many cairns here, but none of these were legal and some led to environmental damage and lost hikers. A fellow ranger in Acadia National Park describes taking down cairns all over the park. Hikers no longer see the natural landscape because of the cairns.

The cairn craze has exploded into wilderness areas. Moving rocks increases erosion. Every time a rock is moved a potential home for insects and mammals is lost.

Here at Ocean Point when the cairns are built the winter storms usually wash them off and Mother Nature creates a new landscape. To build cairns or not is something to think about?

Your friends at Ocean Point Inn

The Zen of Rock Balancing

By Anna Laurent

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As it turns out, you don’t need sleight of hand or even mud to design gravity-defying cairns. You do need a bit of patience, though, and a knack for “knowing the rocks,” according to Michael Grab, a land artist who has been balancing rocks since 2008. He builds his sculptures with rocks from the natural landscape, usually alongside water.

All images © Michael Grab

Rock balancing is an internationally recognized craft; Grab has been invited to design sculptures at rock balance festivals in Italy, Costa Rica, and Boulder, Colorado, where he spends most of his time. He writes about the different types of rock in each location: the vividly colored granite and sandstone in Boulder Creek; the uniform limestone in Ottawa; the powdery, rounded rocks in Portonova, Italy; the bubble-like forms in Cattolica, Italy, where “rocks were much harder, and therefore more forgiving to balance,” writes Grab. “They also consisted mainly of an orange color in the stone, which beautifully contrasted the blue sky.”

All images © Michael Grab

After selecting the rocks, Grab studies their surfaces. As he writes:

“The most fundamental element of balancing in a physical sense is finding some kind of ‘tripod’ for the rock to stand on. Every rock is covered in a variety of tiny to large indentations that can act as a tripod for the rock to stand upright, or in most orientations you can think of with other rocks. By paying close attention to the feeling of the rocks, you will start to feel even the smallest clicks as the notches of the rocks in contact are moving over one another.”

All images © Michael Grab

The next step, he says, is to “find a zero point, or silence within myself.” Grab speaks about rock balancing with a calm fervor that verges on holistic mysticism. He finds a reflection of the world in the balanced rocks, which are “precariously sturdy, mysterious, and fragile.” To hear Grab talk about it, with its emphasis on zen focus and precise form, rock balancing could be the new meditation, or the new yoga, which begs the question: Who is holding the form? The artist or the rocks?

An interview with Michael Grab, in which he discusses how he began and several of his public performances, is here.

See more garden-inspired art.

*An excerpt from my new upcoming book, Thank Our Lucky Stones (Mary Loretta McGillis)

The Clava Cairns in the Highlands of Scotland

A cairn is a human-made pile or stack of stones. There is a centuries old Scottish tradition of carrying a stone from the bottom of the valley and placing on top of an existing cairn, or adding a stone each time you visit a burial place. The word cairn comes from the Scottish Gaelic word càrn (heap of stones). A cairn site is said to have different purposes: to mark a grave, to mark a successful reaching of a summit, to mark a path or as a sea marker to help mariners.

An ancient Scottish blessing, “Cuiridh mi clach air do charn” means “I will put a stone on your cairn”.

Clava Cairns, Scotland

The Clava Cairns in the Scottish Highlands are about 4,000 years old and were built to house the dead along the east side of the River Nairn, not far from Culloden Battlefield. The cemetery has remained a sacred place in the landscape for millennia.

A Cairn at Trent University

The first sign you see welcomes you to the Lady Eaton Drumlin Nature Area.

What is a Drumlin?

What is a drumlin? The word drumlin is derived from the gaelic word druim, ‘hill’, as they were first named in Ireland in the 1800s: Drumlins are elongated, teardrop-shaped hills of rock, sand, and gravel yet scientific reports say an explanation for their formation continues to mystify investigators.

Celtic legends associate the hills as fairy mounds and the home of the Little People or Sidhe – a gaelic word pronounced SHEE – the fairy people of Irish folklore, said to live beneath the hills and also known as the realm of the ancient gods and goddesses, the Tuatha Dé Danann (the people of the Goddess Danu).

Take the Blue Trail … up the drumlin …

Cairn at Trent University

Trent University Cairn, Canada

Going back down the drumlin, see Julian Blackburn Hall through the trees and on the road into the campus. Peaceful.

Peace in Peterborough, Canada

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.

Larger cairns can withstand time and weather, and archaeologists believe that some examples are hundreds of years old. Rock cairns are considered cultural features, or parts of a landscape built by humans. They’re similar to works built with larger stones, such as megaliths, earthen mounds or stone geoglyphs, which are stones arranged to outline an image when seen from above.

Cairns aren’t just structures — their locations may be carefully chosen, and the construction process or ceremonial use may be culturally important. Because of this, rock cairns can be “very difficult to understand without looking at a landscape scale,” said María Nieves Zedeño, an archaeologist at the University of Arizona.

Trail markers and art projects

While many cairn traditions are very old, one type of cairn-building feels distinctly modern. There’s a controversial trend of artistically stacking stones in the wilderness, expressly to post pictures to social media. Conservationists criticize these amateur stacks, saying they can be confused for trail markers, and lead hikers astray. They also note that these amateur piles can disturb wildlife when they’re built or fall apart and that they leave a human mark in places that should be left in a more natural state.

Most of these artistic stone stacks are not easily confused with older cairns, which, over hundreds of years, have had soil and vegetation build up around the rocks. Historical cairns may be so old that they’ve sunken into the ground, have been covered in lichen, or are otherwise obscured from view.

The scale is also typically different. Older cairns may be made of stones too large for a single person to easily move, or they may consist of thousands of individual rocks. For example, at a Mohican stone memorial pile at Monument Mountain, in western Massachusetts, it was customary for visitors to add a stone. The votive cairn was 18 feet long and 6 feet high when it was first described in detail by a colonist in 1762, said Lucianne Lavin, the director of research and collections at the Institute for American Indian Studies in Washington, Connecticut.

Certain forms of rock cairns are still used today, for example, as trail markers. (Image credit: )

What were rock cairns for?

The word cairn comes from Scottish Gaelic. In Scotland, burial cairns are well-known, but there are many possible uses for cairns, which vary from culture to culture.

In the West, native peoples have sometimes constructed burial cairns, Zedeño said, but there’s no clear evidence for astrology-based cairn positions. Instead, at memorial sites that are sometimes confusingly called medicine wheels, a central cairn might be surrounded by other cairns that point toward important places in a person’s life.

In Montana, Zedeño has studied a series of cairns built around 500 years ago by the ancestors of modern-day Blackfeet Indians to funnel herds of buffalo to their death at cliff sites called buffalo jumps. The cairn construction displays a great deal of organization and understanding of buffalo behavior. “A site could have anywhere from 500 to 5,000 cairns,” Zedeño said. “It’s very large-scale landscape engineering.”

In the northeastern United States, grave sites are just one possible context for cairns, Lavin said. They take other forms, including animal effigies and split stones filled with smaller rocks that are considered portals to the underworld. There are also stone ceremonial grounds that were built in spiritually significant places, with astrological stones that marked the position of celestial bodies in the sky at the start and end of dayslong festivals.

But the origin or purpose of Native American cairns or other stone features is often disputed in the region. “There are some archaeologists who think that everything is farm clearing,” Lavin said. In other words, the stones are just piles of rocks that have been pulled from an agricultural field. “There are other archaeologists, including myself, who realize that there are a diversity of features out there.” She points to records from settlers, like the accounts of Monument Mountain, as evidence that Native Americans were building stone structures in Colonial America.

The question isn’t just academic. Cairns are sometimes destroyed by construction, and recognition of these sites by the government is critical to preserving their ongoing cultural value to Native Americans, Lavin said.

Additional resources:

  • Read a statement about rock cairns from the National Park Service.
  • Learn more about Zedeño’s work on buffalo jumps at Archaeology.org
  • View cairns in a location database from Historic Environment Scotland.

Correction: This article was updated on June 17, 2019 to state that the ancient cairns in northeastern United States may have served various cultural purposes and grave sites are just one possibility.

Why Do People Stack Rocks Along Colorado Trails?

Have you ever encountered a small stack of rocks along a Colorado trail? What are they for, and who put them there? Is this simply a national pastime, or does it serve some legitimate purpose? Here’s what Colorado residents say via social media.

Those little stacks of rocks are called cairns. According to Wikipedia:

A cairn is a human-made pile (or stack) of stones. The word cairn comes from the Scottish Gaelic: càrn (plural càirn). Cairns have been and are used for a broad variety of purposes, from prehistoric times to the present.

You’ll see these all the time on trails like Gunny Loop, Eagle’s Wing, and even the path leading up Mt. Garfield. Do people simply have too much time on their hands?

Sometimes people stack rocks for the sake of stacking rocks. Cairns, however, do serve a purpose. You’ll frequently see them in places where trails converge. Another benefit comes from cairns indicating places where a trail may be hard to follow.

Have you ever hiked a trail following a fairly heavy rainfall? Rain can mask parts of a trail, making it difficult to stay on track. For that matter, have you ever taken a trail while there’s fresh snow on the ground and no footprints indicating where the trail goes? It’s at times like these cairns come in very handy. They provide a visual cue as to where the trail goes.

There are people out there who knock these things down. That can be unfortunate. They do serve a purpose. Here’s what some residents had to say about Western Colorado cairns.

The act of balancing rocks may seem totally pointless, but it can be fun, challenging, and even meditative process. Rock stacks, also known as cairns, can serve practical, recreational, and spiritual purposes. Hikers may mark trails with cairns to find their way home; adventurers may stack stones to take a break from their activity; nature lovers and zen seekers may find refuge in the process of physically balancing stones. No matter the function of rock stacks, they are all consistently made only of rocks, without the use of glue or mud. As artist Michael Grab demonstrates in the video below, gravity is the glue.

Get Started!

Al you need is a stable surface, steady hands, a variety of rocks, and lots of patience!

Scout your location. I love stacking cairns in dry creek beds, where an abundance of rocks, stones, pebbles can be found. You don’t need to trek out into wilderness to stack rocks, however. Explore your backyard, the neighborhood park, or even a gravel pit by your school or work.

Collect rocks. You could choose a diverse range of stones that embody many shapes, sizes, and textures, or you could decide to select rocks that are all smooth and round, or chunky and textured. The types of rocks available will depend heavily on your location.

Begin stacking! It’s easiest to start with a large, stable foundation. Choose a wide rock with a flat top that will give you lots of room to build onto, and also provide a steady center of gravity. Keep in mind that as you add each rock, pressure is added to the rocks beneath it, which may shift their center of gravity.

Work slowly. Instead of simply stacking rocks haphazardly, carefully and thoughtfully place each one. Gradually let the weight of a rock rest on the stack, testing the stability. If a rock is unstable, try placing it in a different orientation. Think about the game Jenga, except you are adding pieces rather than removing them.

Get creative! Experiment with rocks of unusual shapes and sizes. Try balancing larger rocks on top of smaller ones. Try turning stones on their different sides. Construct a rock stack city with your friends. Compete to see who can build the tallest stack or more ‘precarious’ stack. Collaborate to decorate your rock stack with leaves, twigs, flowers, grass, or even water droplets. Build a rock stack in all your favorite parks.

Photograph your rock stacks and post them in the comments below!

Get Inspired!

Watch Michael Grab’s bold balancing act in the middle of a rushing creek:

We’ve all seen them, either on Instagram or out on the hiking trails and in creek beds. Sure, it may look cool in your time lapse video, but did you know that every single one of these is causing damage to the environment? (Image credit: Craig Stanfill, CC BY-SA 2.0, Image Cropped).

Cairns and Nature

Earlier this year I took a trip to Zion National Park in southern Utah. A famous natural park full of incredible views, gorgeous geological features, and ugly piles of rock. Wait, what was that last one? Something about ugly piles of rocks?

I’m referring to cairns, the piles of rocks that people can’t seem to stop making at every single trail and park that I’ve been to in recent memory. Now, I know that in some parks and on some trails, cairns are important trail markers and are sometimes the only way for hikers to know that they are on the right path and not getting lost. That being said, you will never find a cairn meant to mark your path in the middle of a creek. Or in a forest that has trees available for blazes (pieces of colorful metal or spray paint on trees that mark the correct trail). Or on a scenic overlook where there are signs marking the trail (I took down no less than five cairns at Angel’s Landing).

The thing about these cairns is that they require anywhere from a few to dozens of rocks to make, and when humans take these rocks and build these cairns they are not only leaving evidence of their visit (*cough* leave no trace! *cough*), they are also destroying the homes of many different organisms. Sometimes, these rocks that are removed are necessary for the health of the ecosystem, like in streams and rivers. Aquatic insects, fish, and amphibians (like the Hellbender, seriously look this critter up) all depend on the crevices and hollows between and under rocks to make their homes, and when you take them out to build your little stack of rocks you are literally killing them. Additionally, the algae that used to be on the rock can no longer filter the water and provide oxygen to the system, only adding to the problems that are plaguing the water body.

Graffiti in Joshua Tree National Park. Pretty ugly, right? If wouldn’t use spray paint to deface a natural environment, then you shouldn’t build cairns. They may look better, but cairns have the same detrimental effect, and in some cases can actually be worse for the environment. (Image credit: National Park Service/Hannah Schwalbe, Public Domain).

The General Public and Cairns

I have to come clean and say that I used to think that cairns were the coolest thing. It was a few years ago when this whole craze really kicked off thanks to the explosive popularity of social media, and I saw a video of some “spiritual guru” type building a cairn in the middle of a gorgeous stream. It was seriously cool how he was able to stack all of these differently-sized rocks and maintain the balance, and it was mesmerizing to watch the process. I’ve never built a cairn myself, but had I had the chance back then I would have. I’ve since learned how bad these are for the environment, but not everyone has had the opportunity that I have had to learn a lot about the natural world.

Some people make them as a meditative exercise, or as an expression of their artistic side. Others find it a spiritual experience, with every rock symbolizing a different aspect of their character or some goal they want to achieve. But here’s the thing, all of these different things can be done away from nature, and even if you want to do these things in the great outdoors, there are ways to do it without defacing the environment.

Cairns such as these serve no purpose as trailmarkers, and only serve to clutter up the natural scenery and destroy habitats. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I have seen sights like this more than once on my hikes (Image Credit: 3dman_eu, Public Domain Mark 1.0).

Good usage of cairns

Cairn is a Gaelic word for, creatively, “heap of stones”. As the origin of the name suggests, cairns are not a new thing. They have been used as a navigational tool all over the world for centuries, and as I said above they are still used for this precise purpose. They allow park rangers to mark a trail without disrupting the natural scenery with signposts, and they can be the difference between life and death for hikers who are looking for the trail. I have to actually thank cairns for helping me on a hike I took out in New Mexico at the Bandelier National Monument. My friends and I were in a pretty desolate patch of desert between the pine forests, and the ground was very rocky and devoid of any kind of plant life to support the trail blazes that we had been using up to that point. Thankfully, there were cairns along the trail that let us know we were heading the right way.

Take Home Message

I hope that I have convinced you that the health and natural beauty of our planet’s fragile ecosystems are more important than a cool photo that you’ll forget about pretty soon after you leave. They are the same thing as spray painting all over a rock face, and no one likes to see that, do they?

And hey, if that doesn’t convince you, how about this: IT IS ILLEGAL. You can face legal action if park officials see you building cairns. Not everyone cares about the natural world, but no one wants fines/jail time.

Rock Cairns

Small navigational rock cairn at Canyonlands National Park. Trails at Canyonlands are usually marked with cairns and have signs at intersections. Many remote trails do not receive regular maintenance and may not be adequately marked. All backcountry hikers should carry a topographic map

NPS/ Neal Herbert

Each park has a different way it maintains trails and cairns; however, they all have the same rule: If you come across a cairn, do not disturb it. Don’t knock it down or add to it. Follow the guidelines from the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics to ensure future hikers can navigate the trail and prevent damage to the landscape:

  • Do not tamper with cairns – If an intentional cairn is tampered with or an unauthorized one is built, then future visitors may become disoriented or even lost.
  • Do not build unauthorized cairns – Moving rocks disturbs the soil and makes the area more prone to erosion. Disturbing rocks also disturbs fragile vegetation and micro ecosystems.
  • Do not add to existing cairns – Authorized cairns are carefully designed. Adding to the pile can actually cause them to collapse. Now that you know a little bit about cairns, check out these examples that you may come across on your next hike.

Now that you know a little about cairns, check out these examples that you may come across on your next hike.

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