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Youth Program

[Image Description: A MCC member stands on an overlook, looking out at the mountainous landscape. They are wearing their uniform and holding a seed dispersal tool.]

Building A Rock-Solid Cairn Takes A Lot of Grit

A youth crew member places a rock on top of a rock tower

When it comes to building rock cairns, there are many things to consider: how high should it be, where should it be placed, what rocks should be used, will it survive the elements? Over the course of our 11 day hitch, our youth crew became experts at answering these questions. Here is what we found.

The height of a rock cairn can vary depending on your landscape. For a desert such as the Pryors, our rock cairns needed to be high enough to be seen from a far-off distance since the trail is not always clearly defined. A rock cairn should be placed where it can be seen by someone walking from either direction on the trail. It should also be placed close enough to the trail to clearly define the path but not so far onto the trail that it becomes an obstruction. The best rocks for making a rock cairn are flat. However, nature rarely lends itself to creating perfectly flat rocks, so we had to do a lot of twisting, turning, flipping, and swapping in order to get specific rocks to match up. In this way, it is best to think of a rock cairn like a vertical three-dimensional puzzle except you don’t know what pieces you need or what the puzzle is supposed to look like. The main hazards to a cairn are wind and water. In order to test if a cairn can last in the face of these elements, one of our youth devised “the glove test”. The glove test works by throwing your work gloves forcefully at the side of your completed cairn. If it remains standing, it passes the glove test and is deemed weather-worthy!

Throughout the course of our hitch, we built 47 rock cairns. Over time, we got better and better at building them and even started to add design elements like side towers and shiny rocks on top. It is important to note that you should never build a rock cairn unless it is being used as a trail marker. Social rock cairns can lead to hikers getting confused about where a trail may go and are also not visually appealing on a natural landscape.