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Missing Cairns on Mount Moosilauke

Mount Moosilauke

Mount Moosilauke is the first big mountain that Appalachian Trail northbounders encounter when they climb through the White Mountains. The 10th highest four thousand footer in the White Mountain 48, it has a very different profile and personality than most of the other high peaks in the region, Known for being exceptionally windy, it can be a treacherous mountain to hike in winter when every part of exposed skin must be covered to prevent frostbite. But Moosilauke can also be a gentle giant when the air is still and the weather is clear.

Cairns on Moosilauke
Cairns on Moosilauke

Moosilauke was clearly in a good mood when I climbed it last Friday even though it’s still winter in the Whites above 3000 feet of elevation. I’d hiked up the Glencliff Trail on the AT which is kind of a benchmark hike for me and one I do periodically because I like to hike past Moosilauke’s cairns, huge piles of stone, that guide hikers to the summit above treeline. That’s a view I never get tired of, no matter how many times I climb this mountain.

It’s been over a month since I’ve been hiking in the Whites and it was good to kick off the first day of a long weekend with the Moose.

Cairn knocked over and scattered
Cairn knocked over and scattered

Unfortunately, there’s been recent talk of vandalism on Moosilauke with the disappearance of the summit sign which was not on the peak on Friday. Not only that, but two of the cairns north of the summit were knocked over and scattered. I can’t believe that this is the work of the Forest Service to make the peak more ‘wild’: those cairns serve a very important safety function and I hope the Dartmouth Outdoor Club (which maintains Moosilauke’s trails) rebuilds them.

A second toppled cairn
A second toppled cairn

Being a Friday, the only people I saw on Moosilauke were hikers working on their April grid-lists. Trail conditions weren’t too bad on the Glencliff Trail and there’s barely any monorail to speak of. I switched to microspikes at about 2800 feet and encountered hard ice at 3000 feet and 3200 feet which required careful footing to get past. The ice turned to heavy wet snow as I passed the spur to the South Peak of Moosilauke and got softer and softer on the carriageway trail to the summit which is open to the sun’s rays. I put on my shell and gloves for that last open climb to the summit but it wasn’t really that cool or windy so I loafed around and hiked north to take a photo of Mt Wolf and Wolfcub. That’s when I saw the toppled cairns.

Southbound AT and the South Peak of Moosilauke
Southbound AT and the South Peak of Moosilauke

After a while farting around the summit ruins, I turned around and hiked back down to my car in the Glencliff trailhead lot. The hard ice going downhill had softened and I got better traction with my microspikes on the descent. The stream crossings low down were all running normally and not high, but winter still has a few weeks left in the high peaks, something I was to experience on Saturday on another peak farther along the New Hampshire Appalachian Trail.

Glencliff Trail (Appalachian Trail)
Glencliff Trail (Appalachian Trail)

Total Distance: 7.8 miles
Hike Time: 6 hours
Elevation Gain: 3300 ft.

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  1. Cairns are a dilemma for LNT, but they are at the heart of the question. How do we encourage access with minimal impact?

    Above treeline, I believe that cairns encourage meadow-walking (varied paths) and reduce impact. I’ve seen Sierra rock polished from foot traffic, which seems crazy. How can rubber boots make a path on rock?

    Here is a photo of some cairns in the Pecos in 1975. We would have been rather confused without them.

    • Nice pics, Walter. The polishing is done by the sand and gravel adhering to the rubber sole of the boot. it embeds in the soft rubber, causing little or no wear, and scrapes the surface of the rock. That’s how optical glass lenses are ground and polished.

  2. Walter, I think this is a case of outright vandalism and not a forest service action. I keep a close watch on their work plans in the Whites and they’d know to consult with the very powerful hiker commuity before toppling cairns. We are afterall one of their greatest allies. Further, if this had been an LNT action they would have distributed the rocks not left them toppled in a heap. That makes no sense at all.

    I hope there is another explanation for the toppled cairns, but if it is vandalism, this is an affront to all White Mountain hikers. Carins and trail boundary path markers have been extremely successful in keeping hikers on above-treeline paths and preventing them from trampling alpine plants and grasses. There’s even at alpine steward posted on the summit of Mount Moosilauke during hiking season to help educate the hikers there about staying on the path. (see Alpine Stewardesses of the White Mountains)

    I can’t believe I am the first hiker to encounter these toppled cairns, but then again, most hikers don’t summit the peak and keep on going past it (north) except thru-hikers.

    • I think I saw another post on FB about the toppled cairns and missing signs. I think they’ve been gone a couple of weeks already. Terrible.

      • Post I saw on FB was from April 23, so maybe they disappeared right before that.

        • Just spoke to the Forest Service Pemigewasset Region’s trails manager and she was appalled. I’ve sent her my photos. She didn’t know anything about it and thinks it’s a serious safety issue.

        • Yikes. Can’t believe no one told them before now. Good for you for alerting them. Hope it gets fixed soon.

        • Think about it. Most people hike the peak up the Gorge Brook or Glencliff Trails in winter and tag the summit before turning back down so they’d never pass the more northerly summit cairns. You can’t really hang out up there when the wind is blowing except on a hot summer day. :-) I love that peak.

        • “Can’t believe no one told them before now.”

          I can believe it. There’s way too much “Why don’t THEY ….” ethic in our modern America.

          Like that book (I forget the title) says … “there are no they, only we” We can (and should) be the eyes and ears of agencies/trail assns/clubs involved with maintaining/protectingdefending our outdoor recreation places.

          OH, and not just eyes and ears … lend your strong backs also. I cannot overstate the satisfaction I’ve received from being a longtime maintainer of a section of my favorite trail.

        • I was surprised by that too Jim. This issue resolved itself when I posted it on a Facebook group I belong to (4000+ people who hike the 4000 footers) and me and another guy had contacted the authorities: the Forest Servicewhich makes the signs and the Dartmouth Outdoor Club which will rebuild the cairns.But who would have told them that this had happened? You have to speak up and out!

        • There is the Pogo remark, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” It was actually used in a 1971 Earth Day strip.

  3. Being more used to the cairns in the desert of Big Bend National Park, I was surprised at the size and frequency of the ones on Mount Washington when I visited there last summer. It looked to me like they were building a fence and just hadn’t yet gotten around to installing the rails. It then hit me that an area with lots of snow and many days of low visibility needs cairns of that nature. In Big Bend, a foot of snow is plenty and it experiences very little fog.

    I can’t stand vandalism in any form. It’s such a disrespect for the efforts, property, and feelings of others.

  4. I understand that when you have alpine or desert environs combined with too much traffic, cairns can be the least reasonable evil, but those huge things could also, easily, be seen as litter.

    • People seem to think that the alleged vandals had been busted on the mountain for using an illegal vehicle in a prohibited area and subsequently destroyed the cairns as an act of revenge. If true, that hardly counts as an aesthetic justification.

  5. And the correction post article to say sorry for accusing the forest service is???
    Thanks for letting them know but as another hiker had wonderfully quoted: there is no them,only us! We must all try not to just assume, or accuse without real evidence.

    • I didn’t accuse the Forest Service at all. In fact, I have been a volunteer trail maintainer for them for several years and reached out to them this morning. They’re already investigating the incident and working with the Dartmouth Outdoor Club to repair the signs and cairns.

      Perhaps I could have written it better, but I did write “I can’t believe that this is the work of the Forest Service to make the peak more ‘wild’”. Please don’t shoot the messenger . The only reason I can see that the wheels are moving to fix this is because I picked up the phone and called the Forest Service this morning and another person who saw my post on facebook called the DOC to notify them as well.

      I am a huge huge fan of the US Forest Service in the Whites. They have a tough tough job managing a park that sees more annual visitors than Yosemite and Yellowstone combined (12 million per year) on a shoestring budget.

    • Sure didn’t seem like an accusation to me. Seemed more like Philip was saying that it’s highly unlikely that the USFS did this. Which seems like the opposite of an accusation.

  6. Do they need additional manpower to help fix them?

  7. It’s a stack of rocks. Surely someone will rebuild it?

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