A Mind for Cairns

Steve and I hiked Slickrock Trail in The Needles section of Canyonlands National Park in Utah. It is a 2.5-mile loop atop a mesa of smooth, rolling, sandstone. 

Slickrock Trail, Needles Section, Canyonlands National Park

Slickrock is bare rock. With no soil, it’s impossible to beat a path. Cairns are required to show the way. 

Cairn: a manmade pile of stones used as a memorial, or to mark a trail. The word comes from the Scottish Gaelic.

On Slickrock Trail, there would be no way to find our way around without these little markers. 

Cairns work when we know to look for them, and to trust them. There’s a happy relief when the next cairn reveals itself. The path becomes a lot more fun when we let cairns do their job.

There were tiny cairns…
Fancy cairns…
Cairns with yellow flowers…
And red…
Cairns topped with a green rock….
And cairns with a view.
Cairns work when we know to look for them, and when we trust them.
There’s a happy relief when the next cairn reveals itself.
The path becomes a lot of fun, when we let cairns do their job.

During our hike, Steve told me about the cairns he came across when he hiked solo across the Continental Divide in Colorado several summers ago.  He said they were built by the Ute Indians. Each cairn was at least five feet tall—tall enough to see from a half-mile away in the meadows above the tree-line.

Cairns feature prominently in Robert MacFarlane’s The Old Ways. He writes of lonesome paths throughout the world: the chalk downs of England; the peat fields of the Outer Hebrides;  the ancient valleys of Palestine. MacFarlane can wrap an epoch’s worth of geography, flora, fauna, history, politics, art, and spirituality into his descriptions of a single cairn.

In my walks in Iowa this summer, I noticed long thin poles affixed to fire hydrants. They are there so that firefighters can find the hydrants in winter when the ground is covered with snow.  That’s a cairn of sorts, I suppose.

Wikipedia has marvelous images of cairns from around the world. It was here I happened upon what I think might be my new favorite flag: the flag of Nunavut, the territory in far northeastern Canada. 

In Canada, they call cairns inukshuks. The image on the Nunavut flag is really an inukshuk. This is a really lovely CBC article about inukshuks with some fabulous images of inukshuks in real life and in art.

Related posts:

Words as Cairns

Iowa Nice


  1. Nice that Steve is familiar with the cairns from his previous hike. I’d be nervous I’d get off the trail and get lost.


  2. The photos are stunning, Steve. And Jenny, your guidance through the photos is playful and fun (as usual!). I love the idea of following the rocks. And this reminds me of my kids’ favorite teacher in elementary school, a math teacher named Mr. Cairns. He was a beacon of sorts, too; he made math lots of fun for my kids.


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