On the art of stacking rocks


Recently one of my fellow bloggers, MickETalbot, shared an image on his blog of one rock perched precariously atop another and this comment:

Apart from my family I don’t personally know of anybody else who plays at rock balancing. None of them, or myself, have managed 3 high, still trying though.

I live near and hike a lot in areas with tons of rocks lying around thanks to a major history of gold dredging.  This area of the American River was one of the largest dredge fields in California, running 10 miles long and up to 7 miles wide.  And it produced $125 million in gold in its day1.  So there’s plenty of rocks to stack, and I’ve seen quite a few examples of rock balancing.

What I didn’t realize until a few months ago was that, rather than feeling amused or entertained by seeing these carefully arranged piles of rocks, some people are seriously annoyed — or even angered — whenever they spot one!  It’s a pretty hot topic online, too; just Google “rock stacking” and you’ll see what I mean.

Out in the wilderness, piles of rocks known as cairns are frequently used as trail markers; most people appear to be perfectly okay with that.  What they find truly bothersome is the proliferation of “pointless” rock piles — stacking done just for fun, or for some presumed spiritual reason.  Stacking opponents insist that seeing the unauthorized cairns disturbs their wilderness experience — by reminding them that other people have already visited the area — spoils the environment and robs animals of potential homes.

But in my neck of the woods, the main purpose of rock stacking is pretty clearly just the challenge of seeing how many rocks you can balance and how high can you go.  It was on a group hike last April on Mississippi Bar that I first learned how annoying these small cairns are to some people.  I was amazed to hear that they are damaging to the environment and aesthetically annoying.  I was told — and have since also read online — these piles of rocks are no better than spray-painted graffiti.

I’ll admit I’m fairly dubious about these negative arguments, especially when a single stack of three or four rocks is sitting in the middle of an ankle-breaking field of dredged boulders.  I just can’t see what harm it’s doing… unless, I suppose, it happened to tip over and land on a passing lizard.



The truth is, I can’t help admiring those rare cairns that clearly took some serious effort and/or imagination to build. Kicking them over seems petty and spiteful; to me, they are harmless and temporary exercises, and I already know that other people are hiking the same trails.  I’m actually much more annoyed by the mountain bikers who frequently try to run me down as I hike along the dirt horse/pedestrian trails.

Still — well, maybe I shouldn’t admit to this, but I’ve recently made up a little game to amuse myself while I’m out on my hikes; if I happen to see some nondescript pile of rocks amidst the debris field — I’ll pick up a handful of golf-ball-sized stones, plant myself four or five feet away… and practice my aim.

Just for fun, of course.


1. The Lower American River: Prehistory to Parkway (The American River Natural History Association, 2005)


  1. Aha! What you write about is rock stacking, there is a big difference between that and rock balancing. https://micksinernestblog.files.wordpress.com/2016/10/dsc01600.jpg?w=504&h=854&crop=1 If you compare my balanced rocks, (as in the ones in the linked picture) to the stacked rocks in your images you’ll see where I am coming from. In balancing there are only 2 points that touch, the surface areas being 1%, or less of each where they meet. Where as stacking is near similar to building a dry stone wall, as in placing rocks on top of each other so they cant naturally slide apart. (There is a bit more to drystone walling than just placing rocks on top of each other, but I’ll have to charge for that information) Seriously though, I agree, random rock stacking looks a mess, and can be dangerous too. Worth a mention; stacking is what some of my grandkids have done trying to copy what they see me trying to do, and adding the comment, “Its easy granddad”, my reply, hmm, aren’t you the clever ones, as I struggle on trying to achieve 3 high. The link, shows an image where you just might need something a bit bigger than golf ball size stones to knock it down. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/48/A089%2C_Chiricahua_National_Monument%2C_Arizona%2C_USA%2C_2004.jpg

    Best wishes, thanks for sharing,


    • Wow — it never even entered my mind that rock stacking and rock balancing might be two distinct actions! Mick, thank you for taking the time to set me straight; it seems to me balancing as you describe it must be a fine art and would take quite a lot of practice and patience to perfect — much more than stacking rocks on top of each other. You’ve inspired me to give rock balancing a try… I’m starting very small, as you can see!


      • Tip: The first rock must be, (excuse the pun), rock solid, mustn’t wobble. I challenge you to take the rock on the right and get it to balance lengthwise*, on top of the rock to left of it, as it is seen standing in the photo. You can do it!

        *Meaning its longest aspect in the vertical position.

      • I’ll give it another go, keeping your tips in mind, the next time I hike that path… provided it isn’t raining again as it was today!

  2. It just strikes me that those who get angry at having their wilderness experience corrupted by a pile of rocks are the same ones who require counseling if they are exposed to an opinion that differs from their own. My opinion, of course. I know it takes all kinds of people to make the world go around. Interesting. I’d never heard of this till now.

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