Where Do the Rock Piles on the Island’s Trails Come From?

By Lara Dunning

One glance at Seattle’s skyline and it’s clear: building is part of human nature. And sometimes, it takes on the simplest of forms. Like a pile of rocks, otherwise known as a cairn. Though cairns can be found at Manzanita Park, Ted Olson Nature Preserve, and along the Forest to Sky Trail, one of the most popular places to stack stones is the 240-acre Grand Forest.

One oddly shaped boulder is home to a congregation of towering cairns, stacks gradually shifting over time at the hands of hikers—and, of course, Mother Nature. “They allow us to connect with nature in a special, non-destructive way,” said trail walker Samantha Everett.

“And they’re part of the magic of our woods. My daughters love to imagine fairies dancing around them in the moonlight.” Over the centuries, humans have used cairns for a variety of reasons, some practical and others not.

Sometimes they’re used for navigation, or to mark a significant resource or a burial site. Other times, they may simply be a creative outlet connecting a community of hikers. Some find their stony silence meditative. “It’s cool when you are out on a trail and see a cairn,” said Dan Hamlin, Park Services Division Director.

“Sometimes it means the place is significant or a reminder to take in the view. But, ultimately, the real meaning is in the mind of the builder.” Rock on, hikers.