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Part 2: Cairns aka Stacking Stones

Iceland Cairn
Iceland Cairn

This is part 2 to a previous blog post that got a lot of views. For that reason I thought I'd offer more on this interesting topic that I enjoy.

Stacking stones are actually called a Cairn, but we usually think of Cairns as being very large and made up of thousands of stones. They were also built above the tree line or by the sea by managers. Where as stacking stones tend to be smaller and built by anyone. Both date back to prehistoric times from nomadic to agricultural peoples and are found around the world in many cultures.

Some of the reasons for these cairns include, shrines to Inca goddesses, marking paths and tombs from Maine to Mongolia. Very large cairns were built along the shores by ancient Norse, Celtic and Scottish sailors that were used like lighthouses are today. These huge piles of stones could be spotted from sea.

The native people in the Americas used them for navigational and spiritual reasons as well as for finding water. Later when Europeans started moving west, cairns served as property lines. Native peoples once saw them as practical and then sacred. But now they see them as disrespectful to the earth.


Cultures from around the globe built cairns as I said above and they are also mentioned in the Old Testament. They were used as a symbol that God has lead them to safety. They can be found along the Camino de Santiago 500 mile path through Spain and into France. The stones are memorials and pilgrimage points.

In Judaism it’s customary to place a small stone on top of the headstone in a cemetery to honor the person buried there. In some indigenous cultures of the southwest is was customary to spit on a rock and then place it on the cairn to transfer energy to rejuvenate yourself. In Tibet, Buddhists used them in ceremonies to call in good fortune and balance out conflicting energies.


With all this ancient history of building large cairns and the stacking of stones for many reasons, it’s no wonder we today so often feel the urge to stack stones. It’s in our DNA. Although for some I think it’s more about just doing it for fun when you see one. This can also be compared to the urge to build a sand castle when you’re at the beach.

Then for some it’s feels more spiritual. Carefully stacking stones embodies patience and the pursuit of equilibrium. A physical testament to the creation of harmony and grace. This is what it means to me. BUT.... it’s also considered vandalism, littering and bad for the environment. Especially in our our national parks and other public places. Stacking stones has become a huge problem along hiking trails. So don’t do it when you’re hiking and/or camping! While it feels primal, when pried loose, it promotes erosion. Not good and it’s illegal in all national parks in the USA and many state parks. So be a good citizen and don’t do it.

Stacked Stones
Stacked Stones

I’ll also go so far as to say, don’t share a photo on social media of a cairn you come across while hiking. This is what the National Park Service is saying what happened between 2014 and 2015. Too many shares of cairns created a boom of people building them.

There’s a long time rule in the National Parks and other places, to “Leave No Trace”. This means to leave no trace that humans were there. This is not just about litter, it’s also includes moving anything natural, like rocks. I grew up spending summers with my family camping throughout the US. That rule was ingrained in me then and I still continue to be respectful.

Also, if you’re hiking, even in the parks, don’t knock them over. In many parks they are used for marking trails. Knocking them over could put hikers in danger. Plus, they are put there by the park rangers who know what they are doing.

If you like stacking stones like I do, make one or two in your own yard or garden. When I’m digging in the dirt to plant shrubs, flowers or seeds, I always come across stones. Wash them off and use them, but be sure to leave some for drainage. Finding a few stones in your own yard isn’t going to harm the environment, as long you practice this mindfully. If you don't, you may end up with mud and water where you don’t want it the next time it rains.

Stacked Stones
Stacked Stones in my yard

After you build one in your yard, step back and enjoy the grace and beauty of those few stacked stones. They represent the beauty and strength of our planet as well as the ancient peoples we all came from.

And remember...Leave no Trace.

Come back for my next blog post in about a month on Stone Circles, something I couldn't get enough of when I went hiking in Scotland.

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