Leave No Trace – Stop Building Cairns / Inukshuks

Has the wilderness for many people just become a unique place to take a quick selfie before rushing back to the latte shop to post the image to Facebook? Is that “wilderness experience” even better when you’ve left your mark by building cairns?

Or is having respect for incredible places that Mother Nature has created, or even letting other people enjoy unspoiled views in such places, now just an old-fashioned concept?

Building cairns near the BC/Alaska border

In what’s becoming known as “The Age of Entitlement”, perhaps we need to look back a few years, even to the late 1970s when “Leave No Trace” and similar outdoors-related ethics became well known and were commonly practised. Even in 4-wheel-drive vehicle advertising, “Tread Lightly” policies were widely followed in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Today, 4×4 ads once more show the earth being torn up, painted graffiti is common around the world – we even found it in parks in New Zealand – and in natural and even wilderness areas, buildings cairns is often the “I’ll do whatever I want” equivalent.

In Canada, these rock piles are often called “inukshuks” as many try to replicate the Inuit (and other Arctic peoples’) cairns shaped like people and commonly known by that name. An inukshuk in the form of a human being, though, is actually called an inunnguaq. The Inuit were not the only people that related their cairns to people. In German, a cairn is known as a “steinmann” (“stone man”), and in the Italian Alps, they are known as “ometto” or “small man”.

Regulations on Public Lands

Building cairns has become such a popular activity that Parks Canada, the National Park Service, and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) all have regulations or policies that discourage or prohibit it. Many other park systems around the world are also adopting similar policies – in Wales, building cairns has become a particularly big problem in Snowdonia National Park. While there are differences, the regulations for Canada’s Auyuittuq National Park are typical except for the request to not disturb any you find.

Do not build cairns, other markers, or leave messages in the dirt. Such markers detract from other visitors’ sense of discovery and wilderness experience. They can also be misleading and potentially dangerous. For example, a cairn marking a good river crossing one day may mark a deadly crossing place when the river changes its course or flow, which rivers here do regularly. Do not disturb or destroy any cairns that you do find. Some are of great historical significance.

At the Jasper SkyTram in Jasper National Park, Alberta, signs at the start of the trail to Whistler’s Mountain beyond the upper tramway station ask hikers to not build cairns. Despite that, there are many near the summit. The route near the summit is lined with rocks in a garden-path sort of way, and to add injury to insult, most of the cairns have been built using those rocks.

Building cairns contravenes regulations at the Jasper SkyTram
Signs at the Athabasca Glacier in the Columbia Icefield Area, also Jasper National Park, make the acceptability of cairns even more clear. DON’T build cairns, and DO kick over any you see. Unlike the situation in Auyuittuq National Park, there are no historic cairns here.

Signs at the Athabasca Glacier prohibit building cairns
Social media has started to become one of the educational tools used by parks. The comments on such posts often show the sort of attitudes that make trying to educate people a frustrating process. Click on the Zion National Park image below to open that Facebook page in a new window – the post currently has over 2,400 comments with some very strong opinions both pro and con!

The long-abandoned Myra Canyon section of the Kettle Valley Railway, located in Myra-Bellevue Provincial Park and Protected Area near Kelowna, BC, has one of the largest collections of cairns I’ve seen yet. BC Parks doesn’t seem to have a policy on visitors building cairns yet.

Building cairns on the Myra Canyon section of the Kettle Valley Railway in BC
The building of cairns is a world-wide issue. My sister shot the photo below at Burren National Park in Ireland. Note the little cairn built on top of the sign asking people not to build cairns. Okay, that’s actually funny.

No building cairns in Burren National Park, Ireland

The Two Sides in Alaska/Yukon Tourism

Along the South Klondike Highway north of Skagway, cruise ship passengers are clearly the most prolific builders of cairns. Tour bus drivers can and do play a large part in either encouraging or discouraging the activity. On the “discouraging” side, Sherry Corrington offers The ‘Inukshuks Suck’ Tour: “Your driver escorts you up the Klondike Highway to a 7 mile stretch past the White Pass summit to knock down as many stacked rocks and Inukshuks you can possibly destroy in a minimum of 4 hours.”

Another Skagway tour operator, Dyea Dave, encourages his passengers to build them, even on his Web site: “You will have a chance to build your own “Inukshuk” to leave a part of yourself in the mountains.” On Beyond Skagway Tours’ Web site, one of their clients is shown building one. It’s been clear a few times when I’m camping at Summit Creek that a large number of cairns appear after a particular bus goes by – the implication is that the driver has an attitude like Dave’s. I haven’t yet taken notice of which bus(es) that happens with.

Summit Creek

Located on the South Klondike Highway 29 km (18 mi) north of Skagway, a large pullout at Summit Creek is one of the major stops for most bus and van tours for cruise ship passengers. With a large supply of both blasted and natural pieces of granite of all sizes, that also makes it the most popular place I’ve seen in the North for building cairns. As I drive and camp along the highway a lot, keeping Summit Creek cairn-free has become an activity that I spend a fair bit of time at now that I’m retired.

The first photo, which I also used to introduce this post, was shot in 2012 when building cairns at Summit Creek peaked, with little or no backlash from those of us who object.

Building cairns along the South Klondike Highway at Summit Creek, BC

I first became very vocal about my objections to cairns as part of raising hell about painted graffiti that appeared at Summit Creek in late June of 2015. A brief article at CBC North used to have dozens of comments, but a new policy on comments resulted in them all being deleted. The story also prompted a wonderful cartoon by Wyatt in the Yukon News, and generated a great deal of controversy, with a large number of emails and Facebook messages sent my way, many of them nasty. A couple of weeks after I met with a couple of people who work with Yukon Justice in restorative justice, however, the graffiti disappeared. I don’t know for sure who did the cleanup, but it took a great deal of work.

I’ve spent a lot of time RV-camping in the White Pass this summer, and the next two photos show the before and after of building cairns and cleaning up the mess a few weeks ago. Cathy was watching from the RV a couple of hundred yards away and said that all she could see of the activity was rocks flying through the air. I’ve found that just toppling the cairns is only a minor disruption of the building of them, but if the rocks are tossed into a nearby hollow that becomes a pond in the Spring, the effort of getting them up to a high point stops a lot of the re-building.

Building cairns along the South Klondike Highway at Summit Creek, BC

Cleaning up cairns built along the South Klondike Highway at Summit Creek, BC

Below are links to other articles about building cairns – first the cons (don’t build cairns), and then the pros (have fun building cairns). The comments on some of those articles are as interesting as the articles themselves.

The Cons (Don’t Build Cairns)

In “Making Mountains Out Of Trail Markers?“, Robyn Martin, a lecturer focusing on ecological oral histories at Northern Arizona University, says “Yes, I have knocked a few down, sure,” adding that she considers the cairns to be “pointless reminders of human ego.”

In Robyn Martin’s essay Stop the rock-stacking, she says that “Building cairns where none are needed for route finding is antithetical to Leave-No-Trace ethics.”

Conservationists Want You to Stop Building Rock Piles by Marissa Fessenden, for Smithsonian.com

Overzealous police force make it illegal to stack rocks in Boulder County. WTF?

What’s with all those stacks of stones in the woods? by Ron Dungan, The Arizona Republic

Leave No Trace: A Backpackers Oath – this excellent 12-minute video by Dave Collins teaches crucial “Leave No Trace” skills that will help you to reduce your impact on the wild and leave pristine wilderness areas.

Leave No Trace Hiking: Removing Cairns Graffiti from Punch Bowl Falls

The Pros (Have Fun Building Cairns)

While I have a strong impulse to argue with many of the points in these articles, I’ll resist πŸ™‚

The spiritual practice of stacking stones by Jane Hugo Davis, at BaptistNews.com. “The spiritual practice of stacking stones claims ordinary moments of life for God and invites those who pass by to notice the holy ground on which they already stand. What markers of God’s presence are you leaving behind on the trail for those who come after you?”

Relaxation: Rock Stacking and the Art of Balance by Peter Rogers, at SimplySonoma.co (link dead). “Why balance rocks? Reason 1: Because they are there. Reason 2: Because for a short time you leave something in the landscape artfully altered, showing you were there. Reason 3: The joy of the process.”

River art or 3-D graffiti? by Wes Johnson, for the Springfield News-Leader, looks at both sides of the argument.

My Poll on Building Cairns

Do you think that building cairns should be allowed?

Not in parks
Not on any public land
Other (please add a comment below)

Survey Maker


Leave No Trace – Stop Building Cairns / Inukshuks — 13 Comments

  1. I chose “Other” as cairns are still a great way to mark your way when you venture into an new area. It”s much more reliable than gps tracks. No batteries required. Obviously, if there is a trail then the answer would be a definite “No”.

    • Thanks, Richard. I’ve seen that sort of comment a few times but usually they also note that they remove the cairns when they go out. That also makes it much less likely that a new trail will be created – my hiking group 2 weeks ago removed a couple that likely originated that way (there was no chance that the people had just not made it back out yet).

  2. I think in my Alaska journeys I have only seen a few locations where they were disruptive..but a good size mash up seems to breed more and more…just stop please!

    In the NE woods here what I see are blazes of spray paint and colored flaggers tape…people please learn to use a compass or buy a GPS…the illusion of being outdoors is so easily disrupted by any number of ‘cheaters’ that people seem to revel in.

    Your own backyard? FINE,build them there. Until the neighbors object.

    • Thankfully, seeing paint or tape route-flags is pretty unusual here, and they usually mark forks in ATV-type roads. I find route-finding to be part of the fun of off-trail hiking – my version of Pokemon GO, finding invisible things? πŸ™‚

  3. You know I used to belong to the people that built these, but that was when I was a kid and thought nothing off it. It was just a fun thing to do.
    And while I don’t do it anymore, I believe it can still be a great thing for kids and parents to do and feel a little more connected to the place. Especially kids who for the most part couldn’t care for the views and are plain bored following Dad and his camera around (LOL)

    I feel a good compromise is to build one, take a couple of pics for memories, and then take it down while explaining the importance of leaving a place as close to original as possible.

    As for marking places for myself for future use, give me a Topo map and a direction finder (GPS/Compass). I like keeping my places secret from the rest of the world πŸ˜‰

    • “I feel a good compromise is to build one, take a couple of pics for memories, and then take it down while explaining the importance of leaving a place as close to original as possible.”

      Thanks for the best comment so far, Alex. πŸ™‚

  4. As a driver, guests like to participate in building them. As a hiker, I enjoy building them my self, but not as a way to defy rules or detract from nature. I don’t think they are any harm because they are easily knocked down and I would rather there be piles of rocks than markings with paint.
    I think if there is a request to not build them put on a sign, then people should refrain from building them. Otherwise I don’t think that we should get worked up over things we can’t necessarily control.

    • During my 23 years as drive/guide, I always felt that it was part of my job in educating people about the North to tell them about the Leave No Trace concept that most of us believe in. I’ve seen comments on other threads where people ascribe their own meaning to Leave No Trace to allow for cairn building, but Leave No Trace means exactly that – you take nothing, you move nothing, you leave nothing. I’ve also noticed in other threads that people Outside are much less likely to believe in Leave No Trace – maybe I could get a grant to research which Skagway/Whitehorse drivers are most likely to encourage cairn building – the locals or the seasonals.

      I noticed that a Skagway seasonal has tagged the White Pass summit with white paint recently, noting his 3 years there.

  5. I know the summit creek area and used to bring tours here. The one concentrated area being built up in cairns never bothered me. (You drive past it in 30 seconds) I stopped bringing guests here however when I realized that the destruction of cairns was destroying the fragile landscape. (Large rocks flung into delicate plants) I also heard a lot of insinuations last year that building cairns is culturally insensitive, which never occurred to me. We asked all of our drivers to stop visiting this place (to build cairns) to protect the plants and stop pissing off locals. It does look different this year. I would just request that while deconstructing rock towers watch where you toss the rocks. It seriously looked like a hurricane path last summer, tiny trees all battered.

    • Interesting, Kate – I’ve only seen a couple of damaged trees.

      Alaska Mountain Guides has certainly made a hell of a mess on the north side of the creek, with plenty of rocks moved to line the parking area, a trail built, and a lot of cairns (I understand the private/locked outhouse – and checked that they have a permit from BC to do that).

      While I’m one of the ones who think that building inukshuks is culturally insensitive, it doesn’t seem to bother the Inuit – even when one was used as the emblem of the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver. I find it funny, though, that one of the groups protesting about those games toppled the official inukshuk.

      • Well it IS comforting that if you want to find actual wilderness, not road side pullout, you only need walk 5 minutes from the road to find pretty pristine landscape with verrrrry few rock piles.

        We are so lucky to live where we do.

        I personally hate the constant bickering between “local” and “seasonal”. I think a lot of the problems come from lack of education and experience but we’re all here enjoying the same land, loving the same area, even if only temporarily.

        Thanks for the article though. I didn’t realize that rock piles were such a problem. It’s like the stickers at emerald lake. One person starts it and people copy. Swearing off stacking rocks for a while. πŸ˜‰

  6. With 120 votes in the first 4 days of having the poll online, 13% of respondents think that building cairns is okay. That’s come up a bit since the post started ranking well in Google (it was hovering at 9-11%), but is still lower than I expected (which is good).