Backpacker - - Contents - By Robert A. DeNike, Jr.

When it comes to trail mark­ers, this hiker says cairns are clut­ter.


Not our gen­tle, feath­ered brethren, but the rock piles left all over the back­coun­try by well-mean­ing Sa­mar­i­tans who want to show other hik­ers the way.

Dear cairn-builders, I ap­pre­ci­ate your thought­ful­ness, but I don’t want some­one show­ing me where to go. Part of the fun of routefind­ing is find­ing the route; I’m out there to test my own nav­i­ga­tion skills. And, frankly, it seems I’m of­ten bet­ter at it than you: If I’m mo­men­tar­ily off my in­tended track and search­ing for it, one of your lit­tle mark­ers, I’ve learned, may not lead me to salvation at all, but fur­ther into trou­ble, hav­ing been placed by a wan­der­ing soul who was even more dis­ori­ented than I.

Cairns are an eye­sore, a man­made ad­di­tion to an oth­er­wise pris­tine place, a lit­tle mon­u­ment that says, “Kil­roy was here.” (And for that rea­son they are il­le­gal on pub­lic land. Fed­eral wilder­ness reg­u­la­tions state that “con­struct­ing, plac­ing, or main­tain­ing any kind of . . . struc­ture . . . or other im­prove­ment on Na­tional For­est Sys­tem lands” is pro­hib­ited.) All hik­ers make a vow at the ranger sta­tion when they re­ceive their back­coun­try per­mit to leave no trace—why do lit­tle stone mon­u­ments sud­denly not count?

I am not en­tirely mer­ci­less. If the route is down­right dan­ger­ous, I can be swayed to the util­ity of a duck. As ev­i­dence, I cite my re­cent hike in the south­ern Sierra. I had de­scended the El­iz­a­beth Pass Trail in Se­quoia Na­tional Park and ar­rived at a spot where the path plunged into the rag­ing Kaweah River. I could see the trail emerge on the far bank, but be­tween it and me were roil­ing, white­wa­ter rapids. Cross­ing here was cer­tain death. I looked around and no­ticed a small pile of stones on the near shore. An­other one was stacked 10 yards up­stream, then an­other, and an­other. Be­fore long, I found a safe cross­ing, just five ducks away.

Ac­cept­ing this kind of cairn-build­ing ex­cep­tion makes me down­right tol­er­ant com­pared to hard­lin­ers. In 1976, when Steve Roper wrote his de­fin­i­tive The Climber’s Guide to the High Sierra, he ex­horted read­ers to not only re­frain from build­ing cairns, but to knock down ev­ery one they en­coun­tered.

Let’s not turn our fa­vorite places into pro­tracted games of duck-duck­goose. Leave rocks where they lie—and hik­ers to their own de­vices.

Cairns lead (or mis­lead) in the South­west.

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