Authorized cairns like this one, which marks the entrance to a Utah campsite, is okay. Everything else is bad.
An authorized cairn like this one, which marks the entrance to a Utah campsite, is okay. Every other kind of cairn is bad. Doug Pensinger / GETTY IMAGES

Yesterday The New Yorker published a well-reported and, imo, extremely important article about the scourge of rogue cairn construction (i.e. stacking stones on top of one another for no fucking reason) in national parks.

If you've ever gone traipsing through the Cascades on a day-hike, you've likely encountered one of these quirky abominations—a little stack of stones squatting on a boulder, or on the ground just off the trail. Every time I see one I feel the need to destroy it. Why? For a lot of reasons.

• They confuse me. I need authorized cairns to tell me where the trail is and putting up random cairns risks leading me down the wrong path.

• I don't go into nature to see the work of man. I go into nature to see the work of god. (Plus, cardio.) Every time I see those little stacks of rocks I resent my fellow hiker for giving into the selfish and undemocratic impulse to "make your mark" in a place meant to be shared by all. And I don't want to hear any bullshit about how the trails are artificial. Obviously the trails are created by human beings. But human beings build them so we can all enjoy what's left of pristine nature in a relatively safe way, not so people can have yet another canvas on which to express themselves. Don't get me wrong—I love the expression of selves. But sometimes I get mortally tired of the whole racket and must run into the woods to refresh.

• Cairns are embarrassing, and people should be embarrassed to be caught building them. Natural processes build giant mountains and glaciers and rushing rivers—and these people build a cute little rock tower in response? These are the kind of people who carve hearts into trees and carry Bluetooth speakers on the trail. For shame.

These three points of contention derive from the pain of personal experience, but in the New Yorker Sophie Haigney did the work and called some people to ask whether cairn-building is actually a menace to nature or just a personal gripe. As it turns out, stacking stones is a bit of a problem. A minor problem! But a problem nonetheless.

"Park rangers, environmentalists, and hikers have all become alarmed, to varying degrees," writes Haigney. "The movement of so many stones can cause erosion, damage animal ecosystems, disrupt river flow, and confuse hikers, who depend on sanctioned cairns for navigation in places without clear trails."

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As with all things, social media is making the problem worse. Haigney finds that Instagram users have been posting photos of their constructions to their feeds, which encourages others to stack more rocks in state parks, which turns "an activity that would be mostly harmless in isolation into something with planetary impact."

Representatives for the Washington Trails Association and the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission haven't returned my requests for comment about how big of a problem this is in Washington, but I'll update this post with more when I hear back.

In the meantime, if you want this stone-stacking madness to end, you can send polite cease and desist messages—funnily enough—to people who post photos of their cairn creations online. In the meantime, you can find some delight and consolation by searching #cairnremoval on Instagram. I don't often contravene the teachings of Audre Lorde, but, in this case, the master's tools may be the only way to dismantle the master's house.

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