Rock Cairns in the White Mountains

Mt Washington, White Mountains
Mt Washington, White Mountains

When you hike above-treeline in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, you quickly learn to look for the rock cairns that mark the trail. Blazing is scare because there are no trees to paint blazes on and they wouldn’t do anyone any good in winter because they’d be covered by ice and snow. Even if you were to paint them on rocks, they’d get worn down too quickly by the weather. The benefit of cairns is that they can withstand the punishing above-treeline weather in the Whites, they’re visible in the heavy cloud cover that shrouds the high peaks, they’re effective in all 4 seasons, and there is no shortage of good rocks to build them with!

Mt Jefferson, White Mountains
Mt Jefferson, White Mountains
Mt Madison, White Mountains
Mt Madison, White Mountains
Monticello Lawn at the foot of Mount Jefferson
Monticello Lawn at the foot of Mount Jefferson, White Mountains
Mount Madison Cairns
Mount Madison Cairns, White Mountains
Thunderstorm Junction, White Mountains
Thunderstorm Junction, White Mountains
Mt Eisenhower, White Mountains
Mt Eisenhower, White Mountains
Pinkham Notch, White Mountains
Pinkham Notch, White Mountains
Northern Presidentials, White Mountains
Northern Presidentials, White Mountains
Howker Ridge Trail
Howker Ridge Trail, White Mountains
The Davis Path
Cairns on The Davis Path, White Mountains

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  1. Nice photos Phil. Judging from the lichen some of these rock cairns have been there for quite some time.

  2. Good eye there Dave. The cairn locations and trails have been up for over 100 years. The White Mountains were one of the first areas in the USA to have a trail system. Those particulalry cairns are constantly being maintained using local materials (lots of rocks up there!), so you might be seeing lichens from the surrounding rocks that have been moved to use on the cairns and then continued growing in their new position.

  3. The cairns on the Precipice Trail in Acadia Park (Maine) are interesting. They are smaller, in some cases just 1 larger rock, set on top of 2 rocks spaced apart. This space forms a kind of “sight”. This allows anyone to tell which 2 directions the trail goes, even if you don’t see any other cairns. I don’t remember noticing this before, but seems like a good idea. Three feet of snow would cover some of them up. There were not many, but enough to be helpful near the top. I wonder if this is was done by the park, or by a hiker just being helpful?

    • Fun fact: Those are called Bates Cairns. Named after Waldron Bates, who chaired a trail building committee in the Bar Harbor area.

  4. When I was up there a month ago, I was surprised at the size and number of them. Cairns are used on the trails I hike in the desert southwest, however, we don’t have the whiteout conditions and snow pack so they are more unobtrusive and spaced further apart down here. Sometimes, it makes for a guess on where the next one is.

  5. Cairns can have rich history. In the UK they can be ancient and part of the history of the hillside. Cameron McNeish the former TGOC magazine editor had a real hatred of them and called for their destruction in one pice he wrote. Shame he can’t see the SNP love of wind farms policy as something to hate as much. He saw cairns as demons to be expelled from the wilderness and advocated for a society if I recall called the “Gadara” club I think, as it was a place Jesus expelled demons.

    I am so glad he no longer edits the TGOC magazine. For me cairns can be a helpful thing. The White ones are built to guide. Some hold the view if your skill was not up to the task of navigation you should not be out there. My view they are helpful at key trail points. In some UK places they are out of control in size and location.

    By the way some very nice photos there ;)

  6. Backpacking Engineer

    A portfolio of cairns…good idea!

  7. I love the pictures. The variations in the cairn construction is astounding. Thanks for re-posting this.

  8. Walter Underwood

    When I dug through some old photos, I found a great one of some cairns in the Pecos Wilderness. We followed those from Truchas out along the Santa Barbara Divide.

  9. I love those rugged cairns, despair when I see rock graffiti.

  10. Those cairns came in handy on my last hike in the Northern Presidentials. Visibility was minimal, so blazes would have been useless. If you kept your eyes moving, you could usually still see the shadowy figure of the cairns (although there were a few times we mistook large rocks for cairns and had to backtrack a little).

  11. Nice article guys. Here in England, cairns in the backcountry have many meanings. In the Dartmoor National Park they often mark Bronze Age pre-historic burial sites. In the Snowdonia and Lake District National Parks – they are used to waymark routes that are often hidden by snow.

    Some carry a Military meaning; in that when medieval battles in England were fought, the opposing sides would agree on a time and place to do battle. As each soldier approached the battlefield, he would pick up a rock somewhere along the way, and make a mutual cairn out of them near the battle site. After the battle, the soldiers would make their way to the pile and remove a rock. Any rocks left after everyone had been through, gave Army commanders an instant tally of their killed, wounded or missing.

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