Sunday, May 19, 2013

Tahoe Rock Cairns – Ancient Communication or Ancient Art?

Hike anywhere in Tahoe, especially in areas where you are not in a deep forest, and you will likely see a cairn, a small pile of rocks stacked up. They are designed to show you something, usually the correct path to take. Often on a hike, you will come to a juncture of sorts. It looks like the path goes two ways. Game trails can confuse, and natural formations can obscure the trail as well. Often, people will build a small cairn to mark the correct way to go.

Where did the path go? Oh, it's over here, around this tree.

In Tahoe, especially in the Desolation Wilderness, there are many trails that cross open areas of solid rock. When there is no way to discern the trail, you will usually find cairns that mark the path.
Just as cairns can be obvious or hard to find, their meaning can be obvious or hard to find. And sometimes, their meaning will elude you. You will think, is this a path? Or is there something else here that I'm supposed to notice? If you see a cairn that doesn't seem to show a path, consider that it might mark a hazard of some kind, an unseen drop-off, a slippery slope, something else that made a previous hiker think, “I should mark this so that others will notice.”
A cairn can say, "Climb up to this rise and see a great view."

Cairns have been around for as long as people. Scientists have dated many cairns back tens of thousands of years. Many mark burial sites.
Cairns can also be art. Often, people will make an elaborate cairn simply to be a beautiful object.
When a large boulder tumbled down onto Meyers Grade,
some kind hiker thought to make it into art for all of us to enjoy.

The next time you are hiking in Tahoe, keep a lookout for cairns. And if you come to a place where there should be a cairn and there isn't one, maybe you should add your mark to the world.

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