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The Secret Behind the Stacked Rocks

Have you ever been hiking in the woods, relaxing by the lake, or walking on a marked trail and seen strange stacks of rocks? It seems to be getting more common to see artful, meticulously placed stacks of rocks in strange places, which may lead you to wonder how they got there, and what they might mean! We’ve found the secret behind the stacked rocks, and the surprising controversy it brings up!


These rock stacks, also known as cairns, were historically used to signify burial spots, to locate buried items, and for ceremonial purposes. Don’t worry, if you stumble upon an area of a large number of cairns, you probably haven’t discovered an ancient mass grave. Modern day cairns serve many purposes! These stacks are mainly used to mark trails and routes, especially in the backcountry where a section of trail may not be immediately recognizable. Some parks actually use cairns as official trail markers! These stacks can help warn you of present perils, tell you which direction to go, and keep you on the right path.

However, throughout recent years, rock stacking has become an interesting pastime for hikers and outdoor enthusiasts, and it’s becoming quite common to come across cairns in unusual and seemingly random locations, sometimes in unsettling numbers. This has sparked debate among nature lovers on whether this is a fun and harmless practice, or a distracting and harmful act that should be banned! Let’s take a look into rock balancing before we open that can of worms!



While some view rock stacking as a futile and unnecessary thing to do, rock balancing is considered an art form by others! There are many reasons that someone may stack rocks, whether it’s for performance art, spiritual reasons, or simply as a significant personal statement.

There are different disciplines of more involved rock balancing, which test different skills and can showcase an artist’s individual style! These disciplines include:

  • Counterbalance—lower rocks in the stack depend on the upper rocks to maintain balance

  • Balanced stacking—rocks are stacked flat on each other for height and balance

  • Pure balance—rocks are balanced in line with their center of gravity

  • Freestyle—combines the other disciplines for interesting formations

Rock balancing has even gathered a following with notable rock balancing artists known for their craft, and there is even a Rock Stacking World Championship held annually in Llano, Texas, where participants can compete in a variety of different challenges in categories including balance, height, arches, and artistic forms.

As undeniably impressive as rock balancing is, not everyone views the practice as a positive thing.



There are a lot of opinions out there as to whether rock balancing should be done, making it a widely debated topic amongst nature enthusiasts! While some view rock stacking as an art form, many believe that it is misleading, selfish, and damaging to the environment! Here are some arguments against rock stacking:

1. It can confuse other hikers.
This one is pretty understandable. If cairns are usually used for marking trails, it can be pretty confusing, and even downright dangerous, if hikers have to try to figure out if the 10 cairns scattered throughout the area are intentional or just a piece of art. Some make a good argument that there is a time and a place for rock stacking, so exercise some common sense and keep the safety of others in mind!

2. It detracts from someone else’s nature experience.
Another complaint from anti rock stackers is that it takes away from their nature experience when they encounter traces of other humans, almost like natural graffiti. The thought process is that if someone is out in nature to get away from it all, it’s irksome to come across intentional reminders that someone else has visited the same spot before.

3. It can destroy ecosystems.
This is another debated argument when it comes to rock stacking. Removing rocks from their spot in the environment can disrupt ecosystems. Insects and other small animals can burrow under rocks, and unearthing the stones can disrupt natural order. Many environmental advocates firmly believe this to be true, while others disagree, saying if done correctly, it shouldn’t impact the environment negatively and can align with the leave-no-trace ideals.

4. It’s pointless.
When it comes to rock stacking, some believe that it is a trivial activity that has no place in nature. Others will say that it’s a selfish act, by interjecting their mark on the environment when it wasn’t asked for or wanted. Some even take it a step further by kicking over cairns and displays in an effort to restore natural order, or avoid confusion on the trails (fair enough).



When it comes to wanting to try rock stacking, we say if you want to, collect some rocks and try it out! We just ask that you do so responsibly, in a way that won’t disrupt the environment or cause confuse for other explorers! As stated before, there’s a time and a place for rock balancing, and there are plenty of people out there who will smile and appreciate the patience and skill it took to stack some rocks! Everyone has their own way to experience nature, and if you want to stack rocks, have fun doing it!

*It should be noted that it may be in violation of national park rules to collect and disturb natural items. This may be true of other types of parks and nature areas as well, so make sure you know the rules before rock stacking!

So what do you think? Are you a rock stacker or a cairn kicker? Leave us a comment and let us know where you stand on stacked rocks, or if you’re excited to try it! Balancing rocks can make a fun and unique decoration for your campsite too!

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