The Appalachian Trail is famous for its numerous rock cairns, which
serve two distinct purposes: route-finding and entertainment.
Indeed. The very first cairns I encountered (one is shown at the left) were apparently
built for the
amusement of other hikers (Day
4 in Georgia). At first I wondered if they were a cultural
symbol since they were within half a mile of Indian Grave Gap, named for a
Native American buried on a side trail. I soon realized they were all along the
AT in places where they weren't needed for route-finding.
What fun! I discovered on just my fourth day on the Trail that I was
incapable of passing a cairn without adding a rock to it - no matter how fast I
was trying to run.
The original rock cairns along the AT (and other trails around the world) were built for safety
in areas where there are no trees that can be marked with blazes. Instead of
following those ubiquitous 2x6 inch white blazes, hikers follow an
often-unobvious path between rock cairns. I saw very few cairns used
as route markers last summer until I got to New England.
Following are some examples of "functional" rock cairns, including some with
a beautiful view.
Cairns mark the way north off the summit of Mt. Washington in the
Presidential Range in New Hampshire on
125. Once again, they blend in with the other rocks and would be
difficult to see on a foggy day (heck, they were sometimes hard to follow that
day in broad daylight!).
One of my favorite shots from Franconia Ridge in New Hampshire
is this one looking toward Mt. Lafayette. It's hard to miss the large
lichen-covered cairns marking the Trail (Day
118). The Trail was more defined here, too.
Cairns are especially important to hikers during rainy or foggy weather, but
even then they can be difficult to follow so the guidebooks advise trail users
not to cross balds or rocky summits in inclement weather. On
Day 116 when Jim
and I climbed up Mt. Moosilauke together, it was foggy on top but we
didn't have any problems following the blazes on the large cairns:
However, it is easy to get
disoriented and lost in a bad storm, as I nearly did on
Day 121 when
I was totally alone on Mt. Madison. The cairns were barely visible in the
fog and sleet:
The cairns on smoother summits, such as Baldpate Mountain in Maine,
were much easier to spot (Day
I showed several of New Hampshire's colorful rocks in
2. They are
pretty stacked in cairns, too! This one is on or near Mt. Cube (Day 115).
I seldom saw rock cairns on the Southern balds that are
grass-covered. There the AT is primarily marked with white blazes on large
rocks, as in the first photo from the Mt. Rogers area in southern
32, or with blazes on posts, as in the second photo on Max Patch
in Tennessee on
Occasionally there are "rock piles" that are just that - piles of rock that
can't really be classified as cairns. These rocks in Virginia from
were neatly stacked by farmers who cleared their land for crops or pastures many
years ago. If you didn't know that, you might wonder if the numerous piles were
graves or something!
I think at least one huge cairn in Pennsylvania made a "political" statement about the
over-abundance of rocks in the state (next photo from
Day 82). A pile of rocks
about ten feet tall and twenty feet wide at the base, it was located on a side
trail to The Pinnacle but visible from the AT:
The largest rock "cairn" (below) along the entire Trail is on the summit of Bear
Mountain in northern Connecticut. It's actually the remains of a tower built in
1885. It has been vandalized so badly that it is only one-third its original
height, but it still affords nice views of the valley below. It made a good
I saw other rock cairns in many places where they were
obviously not being used as markers. They were there mostly for FUN.
I didn't see many whimsical cairns after the ones mentioned above in Georgia
until I got to Sunfish Pond in New Jersey on
89. This is the southernmost glacial lake on the AT and one of the
most beautiful on the whole Trail. At the far end, as the Trail was leaving the
lake behind, I noticed several cairns sitting on top of all the rocks along the
shoreline - and extending out into the water. I hope no one tried to follow
109 in western Vermont was a memorable run, mostly because of
all the great cairns in that section. I came upon the first group in the
White Rocks Cliff area. There were perhaps a dozen large grayish white
boulders just off the Trail on my left. On top of each was either a small
cairn or a single, unusually shaped rock. You can see several in this photo:
I thought that was pretty cool, but I hadn't seen anything yet.
A little farther up the Trail, right at the intersection with the White Rocks
Cliff Trail, I just stopped dead in my tracks to behold the wonder of an entire
little CITY of white rock cairns on the ground around me! There were so many, I
couldn't get the entire scene in one shot.
I just started laughing. I was like a kid in a toy shop, it was so fascinating
There were dozens and dozens of mostly-vertical cairns that looked like little
pagodas or towers.
Some were built to resemble people:
Most were intact, but some lay in ruin. I reconstructed one cairn and wished I
had time to spend a couple hours rebuilding others that had fallen apart.
This was such a treat, I recommend hiking or running in from one of the trail
heads just to see all the imaginative cairns here.
It's not all that difficult to build a rock cairn from the ground UP but to
build one horizontally, in an arch, is a feat that requires more than two hands.
These just amaze me. Here are two fine examples, the first along the Trail in
New York on
the second in Vermont in the little
"city" mentioned above.
Cool, huh? Who knew rocks could be so much fun??
I continued to see whimsical cairns built for the sheer pleasure of it on the
remainder of my journey, but nowhere else in such proliferation as this
intriguing spot in Vermont.
If I had to choose my favorite rock cairn it would have to be this one on
top of Mt. Katahdin. It is a tradition for thru-hikers to carry a small
rock from Georgia to Maine and then place it on the cairn to signify the end of
their long journey north on the Appalachian Trail. (Neither Jim nor I
remember seeing a cairn at Springer Mountain for southbound hikers, but I'm
guessing there is one.)
Since I forgot to pick up a rock in Georgia for this purpose, I got one in
the second state, North Carolina, and carried it all the way to the northern
terminus. It was with great joy and pride that I placed it in a little niche on
the side of the huge cairn on
Stay tuned for more photo essays . . . these are fun!