Rock stacking phenomenon reaching tipping point in Door County park

Rock piles called cairns are stacked up at Whitefish Dunes State Park in Door County July 3, 2018. (WLUK image)

TOWN OF SEVASTOPOL, Wis. (WLUK) -- On Tuesday afternoon, the rocky northern shore of Whitefish Dunes State Park looked much the way nature would have intended it: a narrow beach of white and gray rocks strewn about, scattered at random.

But over the years, it has frequently been the home to rock piles called cairns, up to six or even eight feet tall.

Over the course of history, they have served some practical purposes.

"They were put on trails to help mark a trail, a direction, a turn, or to mark a landmark of some sort. But that's not the case at this particular location," says Erin Brown Stender, the Work Unit Supervisor for Potawatomi and Whitefish Dunes State Parks.

People have been constructing these decorative cairns here for years.

State and county park officials never took a strong stance on the practice, but now signs are posted every hundred feet or so along the lake-side trail asking people not to make these structures.

So what changed?

The final stone that may have toppled cairns, in the opinion of the state anyway, was that people started moving off of the rocky shoreline and started ripping holes in the trails and the side of the trail to pull more stones out.

And we're not talking small stones. We're talking big, substantial rocks.

Some locals have noticed too, with this post going up on a local volunteer Facebook page dedicated to Whitefish Dunes State Park:

It's not just the physical damage officials are worried about, though.

"That can expedite the process of erosion. It has an impact on some invertebrate species as well. It's also a value question for the visitors of the park. Some people enjoy seeing those structures and other people want to see the park in as natural a state as possible," says Ben Nelson, the park supervisor for the Door County Park System.

It's a delicate balance to strike between attracting guests and keeping the park pristine.

"I'm disappointed because the stones are there, they're just stacked up," said Tina Romano, a visitor from Kenosha. "I don't see what the difference is if they're laying or stacked. It was just a cool thing I thought we could see."

"You see those videos of people stacking rocks next to the water, wanted to balance, just see how many they can balance up, so I was like, yeah, might be something fun to try. But you see a sign, so its like, maybe I shouldn't do that because you want to help protect the environment," says Daniel Grossheim, a visitor from Madison.

Nearly every park visitor on the trails we spoke to either came to see the cairns, or wanted to build one themselves.

It may take some time to topple this long-standing activity.

Officials say they won't start ticketing or citing people -- at least not yet, anyway.

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