Stacking stones ‘not allowed’ in Texas: This is why rock cairns are prohibited at Lone Star State parks, authorities say

Rock cairn stock photo (

HOUSTON – You’ve probably seen them at parks across Texas and the United States, and probably the world: rock cairns.

They’re the stacks of stones people place, often in waterways or on trails. In Texas parks, they aren’t allowed, as Dinosaur Valley State Park - Texas Parks and Wildlife pointed out late last week.

“While we are impressed by your rock stacking abilities, the building of rock cairns is not allowed,” a social media post reads. “Doing so disturbs sensitive and critical wildlife habitats that rely on the rocks for protection. This is even more serious during times of drought and low water levels just like we are experiencing here at the park. Wildlife are already isolated to specific areas of the river and streams when water levels drop, and the building of rock cairns destroys what habitats are left. This results in those wildlife species moving somewhere else causing a break in the ecosystem.”

“Wildlife such as aquatic macroinvertebrates specifically rely on these rocks for survival and protection,” the post continues. “When the rocks are moved, it destroys and disturbs their home. Aquatic macroinvertebrates help indicate overall water quality, and are crucial to the freshwater ecosystems for other species such as fish. While their job and role in the environment becomes much harder during times of low water and drought, it becomes near impossible when rocks are removed to build rock cairns. Help protect the river and stream ecosystems by leaving all rocks alone, not building rock cairns, and enjoying your time in the park by following Leave No Trace.”

However, some parks in the United States do have cairns and they serve a specific purpose to help hikers and mark trails, as the National Park Service noted in its writeup on cairns. It advises visitors to check each park’s guidelines before visiting.

In Texas State Parks, they’re just not allowed.

“The building of rock cairns (rock stacking) is not allowed inside Texas State Parks,” the social media post from Dinosaur Valley explains. This destroys and disturbs sensitive and crucial wildlife habitats found within the park. This can also cause confusion for other hikers and bikers out on the trails. Follow Leave No Trace and State Park Rules by leaving all rocks, fossils, plants, animals, and resources alone while visiting Dinosaur Valley.”

The guidance on rock cairns extends to national parks as well, but it may seem a little murky as you’ll see established ones in parks, but existing rock cairns are OK, as the National Park Service notes here: “Do not build cairns or stacks of rocks. Don’t change existing cairns or build your own along trails.”

Rock cairns have existed since humans have been around to build them, as Zion National Park explains in this article. “The name originates from a Gaelic term that means ‘heap of stones,’” the article notes. “It was likely first coined by Scots who used them to mark trails across grass-covered, hilly landscapes. In the Andes Mountains and Mongolia, rock cairns were used to mark routes to safety, to food, and to villages. Early Norse sailors used them to mark the land, long before lighthouses came into use. Other groups used them to mark gravesites, for ceremonial purposes, or even to hide caches of food supplies.

”When European explorers started making their way along the Arctic coast, they left cairns of their own with messages hidden within. In many cases, these messages would be an explorer’s last. To that end, they also dismantled many cairns left by indigenous people, thinking that they had instead been built by their fallen comrades leaving messages behind.

“In the American Southwest, it’s unclear exactly when rock cairns began to be used to mark trails. Evidence suggests that Native American tribes used stacks of rocks to mark burial sites and create memorials. But dating rock cairns is nearly impossible, so scientists and archeologists have no way of knowing when the earliest stacks were built.”

Have you seen rock cairns at Texas parks? Let us know in the comments.

About the Author:

Amanda Cochran is an Edward R. Murrow award-winning journalist. She specializes in Texas features, consumer and business news and local crime coverage.