Rangers, hiking groups urge public to stop making rock towers on hiking trails

Stacking rocks on a scenic hiking trail may seem like a harmless act, but forest rangers and hiking enthusiasts say the practice does more damage than we think, and they want to end it.

When ranger Cathy Gatley recently came across an entire stream bed full of piles in central Queensland’s Cania Gorge National Park, she took a photo.

The photo was shared widely on social media and quickly sparked heated debate after years of debate across the country.

Ms Gatley, a senior project officer with the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service, said the intensive rock pile-up had changed the landscape.

“What was once a pebble bed of a creek is now bare ground, only with rock piles there,” said Ms. Gatley.

The piles, known as cairns, were traditionally used as navigation aids when there was no clear track to follow.

“Whereas placing signs can be difficult in places like over rocky headlands or exposed mountain peaks…they are there as a safety tool to ensure that hikers don’t get disoriented,” she said.

But Ms. Gatley said the piles were becoming more common on hiking trails and most were not built for navigational purposes.

“Most of us go to national parks to really experience that natural landscape, and just like scratching your name in a tree, rock piles are seen as vandalism.”

Rock towers piled on a beach
Hiking enthusiasts say cairns are increasingly common across the state, including on this beach north of Cairns. Delivered: Lisa Mason

Not so ‘harmless’

Michael Pugh, organizer of the center of Queensland and Townsville Hike and Explore Groups, said he had also seen the practice grow in recent years.

He attributed the trend to the rise of social media.

“They’re popping up everywhere,” Mr Pugh said.

He recently spotted cairns on a trail in Pinnacles National Park.

“They don’t need it,” he said.

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Ms Gatley said moving rocks could lead to erosion.

“The rocks help to absorb water and prevent it from running off,” she said.

†[They also] provide a refuge for many plants and animals… moving the rocks takes away that habitat and also allows animals to be more open to predators because they have fewer hiding places.

If the environmental impacts weren’t deterrent enough, hikers could also be fined up to $600 for creating unnecessary cairns, as it’s classified as “unauthorized works.”

Ms Gatley said anyone who finds a pile of rocks should report it to the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service.

Bad walking behavior

Mr Pugh said other bad walking habits are on the rise in central and northern Queensland, including walkers using pink marker tape.

“People may worry that they won’t be able to find their way, or mark a particular area path,” said Mr Pugh.

“We find our trails are covered with pink and orange marking tape… it’s not necessary.”

A man standing in front of a creek with a cap in an orange shirt
Michael Pugh says he’s seen several bad walking practices crop up lately, including cairns, pink tape and toilet etiquette. Provided: Mihcael Pugh

Mr Pugh said some of the outdoor community also needed more education about toilet etiquette while walking.

“I’m not saying this is a problem everywhere, but it is certainly becoming a lot more apparent given the increasing popularity of bushwalking and hiking after COVID-19.”

Mr Pugh said it was great that more people were going outside, but it was important to remember the mantra “leave nothing but footprints, take nothing but photos”.

“I think like [everyone] refers to the ‘leave no trace’ principle across the board, which will make things a lot easier for people,” he said.

Mrs. Gatley also encouraged walkers to stay on the trails.