Rock stacking - is it OK?

Sure, up to a point. Regrettably, the same mind-set that sees rules about piling rocks as a petty annoyance tends to see rules generally, including rules about staying on trails and staying out of the backcountry, as a petty annoyance - unless, of course, they are rules regulating things they don’t like. If people treat the nature they are keen to experience with awareness and respect your parsing of the landscape works fine. The problem is that a very large subset of that group also sees acting with awareness and respect as a petty annoyance.

One of the issues with the behaviour is that it breeds imitators. There are places where the density of faux Inuksuks has become a bad joke, in addition to being a blight on the landscape.


i’m not saying that you should just let anything happen anywhere, but i think from a policing perspective, it’s more effective / simpler to have the “police” worry about (broad) human impacts off trail rather than to regulate and police every possible infraction along a trail, which is already a disturbed space.

and i’m not opposed to teaching some folks about the impacts of rock collection, but teaching people to love nature happens a little at a time. you can tell someone that moving a rock may destroy the habitat for a particular lizard, and some people might immediately get it, but a lot of people will take time (and many positive experiences in nature) to get to a point where they will care, and some people may never get there.

if you’re ever going to have a chance of converting folks into people who care – at scale – you have to have outlets to introduce people to nature in ways that they are comfortable with. for some people, that might mean having a space where (among other things) they can make cairns and take selfies “in nature”. as long as that sort of space is well-defined and appropriately located (maybe even with educational signage nearby), then, to me, that’s not a terrible thing.

at the end of the day, i don’t think we’re disagreeing much. i’m just saying that we need to be able to see where gray might be appropriate, not just black or white.


I get your point, but imo there’re better way to make people engage in nature, I see how boards with information always attract people, maybe games that could be played at it, at one specific place, or even having a spot for that rock stacking that was prepared for it by removing living things.

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This really should not be compared to the “well be vegetarian, reduce your carbon footprint, recycle” sort of mindset.

The point here is that moving rocks is a negative disturbance to localized organisms that rely on the shelter and long-term microhabitats under them. This is why if you are flipping rocks or logs for invertebrates, fungi or reptiles, it’s morally expected that you return them back as opposed to leaving them toppled over. Soil moisture, algae, fungi and microscopic communities thrive under rocks that remain in place for long periods of time (months, years). They act a lot like old-growth forest in a sense where they require remaining in place over many seasons before they can start providing thriving benefits to organisms. And shifting these rocks destroys and dries out those niches that took months or years to build, and renders them unusable for the organisms in question. You can’t just pick up that rock and put it back anywhere and pat yourself on the back, because that localized habitat spot formed specifically under said rock is threatened by being exposed.

I don’t think that sort of impact is understood by many of the contributors here. The numerical “percent” of damage on the total scale is not the real point. Rock stacking is negatively influencing available habitat and it should be treated as habitat fragmentation, habitat loss, and harmful for those communities. I’ve seen places where you can’t find the locally endemic species anymore because all the right-sized rocks have been stacked and those former spots have now dried up as a result. And that’s not okay, especially in California which is already really struggling with drought conditions.

Cairns have been a part of human history for goodness knows how long. But stacking random rocks at a viewpoint or somewhere scenic for the sake of it should not be treated like it’s ok, just because it was done responsibly in the past.


So the cairns can be used as trail markers to keep hikers on trail in places where it might be possible to lose the trail? (Am I reading the argument here correctly? I am unfamiliar with the practice.) I would understand the use of the stones in that case. Lost hikers can die horrible deaths. However, I’ve seen plenty of stones stacked in White Clay Creek State Park where they are definitely not serving that purpose. I would suggest we don’t need those rock piles. I can appreciate the artistry involved in some of the stone stacking (some are mini-works of art), but I agree they damage the environment. Are they the most damaging activity in park? No, definitely not. But, why add more damage unnecessarily?


I don’t really think the “Yet you participate in society!” argument works here, personally. Reducing your impact on the environment and leaving as little trace as possible, in whatever way possible no matter how small is what counts imo.


Maybe it’s a matter of what “other people” do vs. what oneself does.

It could be turned around, couldn’t it? If personally recycling or taking shorter showers doesn’t make much difference, does personally refraining from stacking rocks make much difference? Or if you are going to do political action, which makes a bigger difference to the stream habitat – trying to stop the rock-stacking hikers, or trying to stop the hydropower dam being built? But the kids stacking rocks are less powerful than the interests building the dam, hence going after them is easier.

Whereas if you are clearing land for a new subdivision – well, you have a permit for that, which makes it okay. Especially since you mitigated the wetlands by building new ones somewhere else.

My point being that having rules and regulations is a double-edged sword. They can be used for protecting nature; they can also be used for greenwashing.

That brings us right back to the early part of this discussion; one could equally well ask your question about trammeling the trails, which can lead to erosion. Are trips to the park to walk the trails “necessary”? Is the smoke (air pollution) from the picnic area’s barbecue grills “necessary” when people have cooking appliances at home? Why add more damage unnecessarily?

But this question is usually asked of what “other people” do, not what oneself does.


We can do this question loop all day. It isn’t changing anyone’s opinion, and it’s not productive. So, I’m going to wish you well and politely leave the conversation.


If you’re hiking and find a cairn that can be easily assembled and dismantled with one hand you can be sure it serves no purpose whatsoever.

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The ones I call Zen rocks certainly do not fit that description. I thought those were the ones we were discussing originally?

I’m not sure what the definition of “Zen rocks” is in this context. That term to me suggests the works of performance artists of the land art movement, or traditional Japanese rock gardens for example. Neither really fit into this discussion. The professional rock balancing artists I’m aware of adhere to “leave no trace” principles and are very careful to minimize the impact their activity has on nature. This starts with an awareness of and careful selection of their sites and materials, to dismantling their stacks once they have taken pictures and/or videos of them. They don’t “leave their mark” on the landscape for other people to find and take down, which is the behavior that I think prompted this discussion.


I think people are making mountains out of molehills (or cairns out of pebbles, ha!) here.

There are some largely undisturbed habitats with animal populations that rely on rock cover (such as salamanders in fairly unaltered mountains). In those places, people should be encouraged not to disturb the stones.

There are also many habitats that don’t really have such a delicate balance in place or are already heavily disturbed, where stone stacking isn’t a big deal. I would not say that doing so in such situations is pointless or even overly destructive. Some people might be doing it for social media clicks, sure, but what about people finding their peace in nature, doing little zen things? I don’t think we should scold those people.

A “perfect” environment for most species is one in which humans are never allowed to intrude–but if humans are never allowed to interact with nature, they forget why nature is special, and why it should be preserved. Look at all the people in urban centers who are blown away by the beauty of nature when they get to visit these places. Explaining to them why they shouldn’t disturb at risk environments is one thing, but if you scold them for stacking stones at an already heavily disturbed park or beach when it’s something contemplative they’ve found to do in a more natural setting, you’re going to likely ruin a chance at gaining new people interested in protecting nature.

It’s like the old bird feeder argument of what’s being gained vs lost in terms of interfering with bird behavior and possibly spreading diseases vs getting new people interested in loving and protecting birds. Balance and loving guidance is key. Just as the general view with bird feeding is that the best way forward is educating people about when to feed and how to clean feeders to make sure birds aren’t overly affected while still letting people enjoy feeding them, the conversation on rock stacking should be educating people on why some areas it shouldn’t be done, while not making a big deal over places where it really doesn’t matter much.

Everything on earth impacts the existence of something else negatively in the short term. Caterpillars swarm trees. Deer chomp down the undergrowth. In regulating nature we don’t try to stop these things, but rather make sure they’re done in balance. We don’t eradicate caterpillars or deer, but we try to ensure they stay in the right number for their environment to balance out between the good and bad they do. I think we should offer our own species a similar kindness. Even if stacking stones at a disturbed urban park is still a “disturbance,” we shouldn’t try to negate human existence out of the picture, but rather make sure we do just as much good as harm, if not more. If the person who learns to enjoy nature by finding peace in stacking stones at the park goes on to plant many trees and campaign against ocean dumping or so on, I’d say that’s exactly done. Lecture them into giving up all hope by telling them every last little thing they enjoy doing is harmful to nature, though… and you lose more than you gain.


Blockquote “Cairns” … and they do serve a purpose.

I’ve built a cairn with my family; for my grandmother. Scattered most of her ashes around it. First time I remember seeing Grandpa drunk and sad.

You can judge the validity of my opinion on rock stacking all you want but this was an ignorant statement. A well meaning gesture can cause harm but even ignoring that I’d wager good money most rock stacks are people being trendy and not thinking.


but, I don’t know what might be dependent on the habitat I destroyed. Cape Town has a summer dry mediterranean climate. So that rock near a heavily used trail is in fact vital habitat for the small creatures that were surviving just there. Spiders and scorpions and …

But we were just enjoying nature!

What are you talking about? …I don’t even have any hidden posts? I just started using iNat… and was hoping to make some new friends here. Please don’t hurt me…

I’m going to close this topic, I’m not sure it will lead to any more productive discussion.