Reading Rock Cairns: The Hidden Meanings Behind This Ancient Art

Cairn Main

High on a moun­tain trail, where the dirt path fades into hard­pack, you come across a neat­ly arranged pile of rocks. One atop anoth­er, the rocks bal­ance in a tow­er built to with­stand the might­i­est of winds. This is a cairn, pro­nounced like yarn. It’s a Gael­ic word that comes to us from the Scot­tish High­lands. Sure­ly, you’ve seen one before. Cairns come in all shapes and sizes. Some are a loose pile of rocks, oth­ers look like a mega­lith­ic tomb com­mem­o­rat­ing an ancient God. But if you look close­ly, they’re all try­ing to tell you some­thing. With some prac­tice and a lit­tle intu­ition, next time you try you won’t need help read­ing rock cairns.

Moun­tain Cairns

The first step to find­ing your route in the alpine is to keep your eyes up. Let your feet find the ground while your eyes scan the near hori­zon. Once you find a cairn you are hot on the trail of the next. Look close­ly at the top of the cairn and see if it has a “beak”, or a notice­able rock that juts out. This could be an arrow point­ing toward the next one. If it’s lack­ing the beak, trust your instincts and look for the like­li­est path of an upward ascent. 

Moun­taineers before you have dis­cov­ered the dan­gers or annoy­ances of routes which might appear to be short­cuts, so trust that the cairn builder knew what they were doing until, or if, you find evi­dence that’s not the case. A cairn is typ­i­cal­ly built only as high as it needs to be seen from the next one. Once you find one, all you have to do is con­nect the cairns up to the summit.

summit cairn

Sum­mit Cairns

Read­ing rock cairns on a peak is self-explana­to­ry, this type of cairn is exact­ly what you’re guess­ing. It’s the cairn that some­one builds atop the peak so you’ll know you reached the top. How­ev­er, the best sum­mit cairns are more than that. They are hol­low in the cen­ter and serve as a wind­break that you can enter. Look for the sum­mit reg­is­ter there. It’s like­ly in an ammo box or a PVC tube. 

Sign in and alert oth­er moun­taineers if there is any­thing funky or con­fus­ing with the route. Be sure to also include some wit­ty or sto­ic quip to let the world know what cal­iber of climber they are deal­ing with. Also, watch for entre­pre­neur­ial chip­munks. They tend to live in sum­mit cairns and appear the moment you open your snacks. 

Riv­er Cairns

Lazy rivers are often adorned with cairns along the banks. A riv­er cairn, more than any oth­er type, is often built by some­one with idle time and a han­ker­ing to try their engi­neer­ing luck. Bal­anc­ing riv­er rocks is a real art because they have often been worn smooth and round by the water’s cur­rent. If you see a cairn on a mid-stream boul­der and hear a load roar down the riv­er, perk up. Often times a riv­er cairn is built to indi­cate the best route through rapids. Slow down and look it over. 

If there are rocks on one side of the cairn, that is the direc­tion they are guid­ing you. The tow­er grabs your atten­tion, and the sec­ondary rocks are the arrow. These can be help­ful on a lazy riv­er float to avoid minor hangups or shal­low chan­nels. If you’re approach­ing a Class V called Jaws of Death, please, don’t trust the rocks. Get out and scout.

Desert cairn

Desert Cairns

Hik­ing a dry wash can feel like you’re strolling down a walk­er’s high­way. All the foot­prints and ani­mal tracks in the sand sug­gest you’re on the route, and it’s easy to men­tal­ly drift from the task of nav­i­gat­ing. Don’t do it! What are you going to do if you get to a junc­tion of numer­ous canyons? What if the trail exits the main wash and fol­lows a minor one? You’re going to look for a desert cairn, that’s what. These tend to be small and hasti­ly built. They do the trick of help­ing you choose the right path when you have options.

In clos­ing thoughts… Yes, build­ing and read­ing rock cairns is fun, but it’s best done in mod­er­a­tion. Exces­sive cairn build­ing is akin to lit­ter, or at its worst, van­dal­ism. Each cairn you build should serve a pur­pose. If you want to zen out and tin­ker, go for it, but go full zen and decon­struct your cairn — just as the Bud­dhist monks wash away their sand man­dalas after com­ple­tion. Remem­ber, any exist­ing cairn is fair game for a remod­el. Add a stone. Join the con­ver­sa­tion. This is how the ancient lan­guage of cairns has sur­vived since fur­ther back than any­one can remember.