Every so often, on a hike, I tend to get a little lost. That ever happen to you? You’re trekking along in the woods, then all of a sudden every little scratch you see on a tree turns into a trail marker? Well, let me tell you, this has happened to me on more than one occasion.
For all of those fellow lost-wanderers out there, I have been let in on a hiking secret that can guide you when you find yourself walking in circles. That secret is the cairn.
Cairns are stacked stones, generally crafted with bigger rocks on the bottom, with the smallest at the top, forming a type of pyramid. These manmade rock piles pop up everywhere around the globe. Why are these cairns found throughout trails all over the globe? Well, as I recently discovered, they are placed there to point us hikers in the right direction.
I had seen the cairn all over before, in various locations. Whether it be along the river’s edge, on a trail, or in the middle of a field, I recognized these obscure formations. It wasn’t until this past year, traveling cross-country with my boyfriend, Brad, when I wondered of the true nature of these stone sculptures.
We were meandering through Yosemite National Park’s dried-up Mirror Lake, when I turned to my right, and saw the cairns displayed upon stone steps.
There were dozens of them stacked in one small area. It resembled an offering, speckled with white/grey stones, right in the sun’s path. The trees were hugging the illuminated patch of cairns, and those stones leading up to them. I wondered what it meant, and why they were displayed in such a wonderful manner.
It wasn’t until we made it down to Sedona, Arizona, that I got the answer I was searching for.
While in Sedona, we stayed with Brad’s family friend. A wonderfully enlightened woman, with the most sincere smile; she opened my eyes that trip. She described to us the meaning behind the cairns, and their power to help people find their way on the trail. Fellow hikers from around the world will stack them, mainly in questionable spots. The placement of the stacks then allows you to decipher which is the correct way to go. Once I realized the purpose of these cairns, I found myself noticing them more often, leading me in the right direction.
Cairns have helped not just me, but many hikers throughout history navigate their way. Before iPhone navigation, the cairn was used as a trail marker, guiding lost hikers back home. The word, cairn, derives from the Gaelic word càirn, sharing the same meaning. I find it refreshing that this ancient tradition of cairn, continues to be used today on a global level. It is comforting, when wandering through the woods, that there is an entire community of hikers looking out for one another. The stories you share, the people you meet, and the experiences you have on a hike give you new perspectives that are communicated within the infinite web of hikers.