To stack or not to stack


Stacked stones in the Arizona desert

You see them almost everywhere. Along a mountain trail. Beside a creek. Or on a rocky beach. Out in the desert.

And if you haven’t seen them in person, you no doubt have noticed photos on social media. Or you can check out hundreds of photos of them on Pinterest.

I’m talking about stacked stones. Stones, and in some cases rocks, are stacked one on top of the other in a balanced sort of column or pyramid.

Why? That’s what I wondered every time I saw them.

Why stack rocks? Because they are there? Because you want to see if you can balance them? Because you think it makes a great photo to post on your Instagram? Or because they truly have some purpose and meaning for you?

I’ve noticed them here in our area of the world, but I’ve read that they are becoming so prolific in the desert and some of our national parks that many conservationists and parks service people are urging folks to stop the stacking.  People stack rocks because they’ve seen other people doing so and now it’s becoming a craze, is disturbing nature, and can cause hikers to confuse trail markers.

Those stacked stones are called cairns – a Scottish Gaelic word that refers to a deliberate pile of stones formed by humans. Stacking stones originally had a purpose. as cairns served as landmarks and even burial monuments. 

It’s believed that they were used for religious purposes as well, acting as altars of a kind. In recent years, I often wondered if they were connected to a New Age beliefs and practices.  

In the past, cairns were also erected to mark trails or routes particularly in areas where one could get lost easily. Papa and I noticed large versions of stacked rocks marking the Appalachian Trail as we rode a train up a mountain on our recent New England trip.  


A cairn along the Appalachian Trail in New Hampshire

But back in February,  I also noticed stacked stones in the desert of Arizona as shown in my photo at the beginning of this post. I even asked my brother-in-law to stop our vehicle on a sight-seeing trip along Route 66 just so I could photograph that small cairn.

I read an article some time ago, and now I can’t remember where I found it, about stacking stones as a Christian spiritual practice. The gist of the article was that it was like building an altar to God to give thanks and in celebration of something God had done for you. Okay, I can see that.

The author encouraged readers to place only three stones (I suppose to symbolize the Trinity) and assign a specific meaning for each stone. Then use that visual reminder to pray and give thanks to God.

I can understand stacked stones used in that fashion could serve as a way to remember to give God glory and thanks, but I think it would work best if you placed your personal cairn on your personal property.

I recently saw a photo online of a once beautiful scenic nature view now marred by hundreds of stacked rocks. One article I read compared it to spreading graffiti in the wilderness.  I agree with that plus I do wonder if it’s disturbing some little critters’ homes when folks move rocks and stones in their natural surroundings. 

I imagine that true nature lovers really don’t care to see your version of a cairn in God’s handiwork.  The wondrous views in nature that the Rock of Ages provides for us stands alone. 

“On God my salvation and my glory rest; the rock of my strength, my refuge is in God.” ~ Psalm 62:7

I find I don’t need a pile of stacked stones to remind myself to give thanks for the beauty of this earth. And those stacked stones draw my attention away from the glorious sights the Creator has given to us.

“Art is man’s nature; nature is God’s art.”Phillip James Bailey 


10 responses

  1. I wish people would stop doing that. I have seen them used to mark a indistinct trail and that can be a good thing, but just to stack some rocks can be misleading and dangerous. A few years ago I saw some cairns that were marking junctions on a USFS trail through an area very badly burned in a forest fire, and they were very helpful to attract attention to a trail junction that I might have missed otherwise. On one of the stones someone had written trail numbers with arrows using a soft stone like a piece of chalk. I’d prefer that folks would not do any more than that.


  2. Unfortunately, this is another one of those ‘monkey see, money do’ things (like hanging locks on bridges or shoes from trees); the meaning is lost on most, but they do it anyway because ‘everyone else does it’. In Canada, the issue is with Inukshuks (stacked stones in the shape of a human, traditionally used by the Inuit as a directional markers); they are appearing everywhere and those who are building them don’t understand the meaning or purpose. I suppose its a kind of rural graffiti. So sad that people mar the landscape (and threaten natural areas) by doing this sort of thing and don’t think twice about doing so.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Exactly! I haven’t heard of the Inukshuks in Canada. Thanks for enlightening me on that. I guess I just don’t get the ‘monkey see, monkey do’ mentality of people. But then again, I’m not one to jump on the latest fad wagon anyhow.


  3. You can put my vote in the “just stop it, already!” column. Particularly on trails, they can be confusing and unhelpful at best, and dangerous at worst. In parks, nature preserves, and such, they’re just annoying. Not only are they visually obnoxious, they disrupt the landscape by moving rocks that could very well have been home to tiny creatures.

    I know — maybe I should tell you what I really think. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, that is exactly my point in posting this! When there are hundreds of these just for the sake of a craze, I have to object. It disturbs little critters’ homes and also confuses hikers on trails. Time to stop the fad. And it’s okay to tell me what you really think. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. We were in Nevada’s Valley of Fire several years ago and saw some stacked stones there. I always think of the Old Testament and the stones that were placed as an act of thanksgiving and remembrance. For me, it doesn’t matter the intention of the one who stacked them because I know what it symbolizes to me. Thanks for reminding me.


  5. I just saw some in an odd place the other day and thought the same thing—I knew the history but it does seem like they are popping up everywhere. I made a small one years ago on a trip to a west coast rocky beach where the stones were smooth and perfect for stacking but it is not something that I have done since then. The setting at the time seemed right but now in retrospect I hope someone took it down when I left. Thanks for lots to think about today–God is present whether we stack stones or not, right?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I didn’t think too much about this issue either until I saw photos of hundreds of them truly marring a scenic sight. I, for one, don’t need stacked stones to remind me of God’s presence – all I have to do is look around me at His magnificent creation and in the eyes of my family. 🙂


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