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Runtrails' 2005 AT Journal
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"A pile of rocks ceases to be a rock
when somebody contemplates it with the idea of a cathedral in mind."
- Antoine de Saint-Exupery

One of ten rock cairns near Indian Grave Gap in GA.

. . . or a really cool cairn!

The Appalachian Trail is famous for its numerous rock cairns, which appear to 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.

New Hampshire and Maine undoubtedly have the most cairns along the AT because they have the most miles of trail above tree line. In many places there are rock cairns AND blazes on rocks to mark the Trail. I found it easier to follow the blazes than the cairns in most cases. Cairns are often used alone above tree line in delicate alpine zones where the rocks are too small or it wouldn't be environmentally PC to paint blazes on them.

Following are some examples of "functional" rock cairns, including some with a beautiful view.

The Trail through these white marble rocks in Massachusetts on Day 105 was tricky to follow because white blazes don't show up on white rocks and white marble rock cairns are well-camouflaged. Not a good place to be when it's foggy!

Cairns mark the way north off the summit of Mt. Washington in the Presidential Range in New Hampshire on Day 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 129):

I showed several of New Hampshire's colorful rocks in Photos 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 Virginia on Day 32, or with blazes on posts, as in the second photo on Max Patch in Tennessee on Day 18:


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 Day 45 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 perch on Day 100.

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 Day 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 those!!

Day 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 to me.


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 Day 92, 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 Day 148.

Stay tuned for more photo essays . . . these are fun!

"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, Cody, and Tater

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2005 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil