If you've ever hit the Colorado trails, you may have encountered small stacks of rocks balancing on top of each other. Those little piles of rocks are called cairns and they are deliberately placed in these formations.

The practice of rock balancing dates back to prehistoric times. As years went on, different groups of people began using rock towers for ceremonial shrines, religious rituals, or to mark burial sites.

Colorado Cairns
Kelsey Nistel/TSM

Why is Rock Stacking Bad?

There are several arguments as to why rock stacking should be avoided in Colorado.

For one, it's disruptive to the natural ecosystem and can inadvertently disturb the habitat of bugs, reptiles, and small mammals living in a particular area. Many invertebrates use riverbed rocks for shelter and breeding, so removing them can interrupt their life cycles and leave aquatic creatures vulnerable to the elements or predators.

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In some cases, rock balancing could also cause the area to become more susceptible to erosion.

Finally, rock stacking goes against the idea of leaving no trace. When humans visit parks and other natural places, it's best to leave the smallest mark possible in order to preserve the region for years to come.

The Pros of Rock Stacking

One reason why cairns are important is their purpose to help hikers navigate trails. In certain instances where trails are not clearly marked, cairns are built to guide hikers in the right direction. This can be incredibly helpful when hiking in the backcountry where trails become less obvious. According to the National Park Service, each park has a different way it maintains trails and cairns but, they all have the same rule: If you come across a cairn, do not disturb it. There have been multiple times where I've personally been grateful to encounter a cairn on a hike because it assured me that I was still on the right path.

Another fact about rock balancing is that it's actually considered a form of "land art" and serves as a way to connect the creator closer to nature. Artists like Michael Grab have created stunning stacked structures, balancing them in ways that don't even seem possible. Several different techniques can be used to maintain balance, and people who do it agree that it requires not only patience but problem-solving, critical thinking, adaptation, slow-breathing, and steady hands.

Both sides of the stone balancing debate have valid points. Whether they're used as a navigational tool or simply constructed as a means of self-expression, it's always best to leave the towers as is and never add to existing piles.

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