Today I’d like to focus on a different sort of creation. One made not by one person, but many; one not fabricated for profit, artist expression, or even to be viewed by a public audience; but one that sits quietly, awaiting discovery. Today, I’d like to tell you about the stone city of the Glen Onoko Falls trail that sits above the once mining town of Jim Thorpe (formerly Mauch Chunk), Pennsylvania
If you’ve hiked the trail, you have no doubt noticed the rugged and often steep terrain; the remnants of old stone steps recalling a time when, at the turn of the century, Glen Onoko was a resort destination and the trail path led to the now long gone Hotel Wahnetah; the stunning vistas; and the Glen’s three main waterfalls- Cave, Chameleon, and Onoko Falls. But have you noticed the dozens of small stone structures that sit within a moss and lichen covered stone outcropping as you approach Onoko Falls’ summit?
I would have missed it myself had it not been for a larger stack of rocks positioned just before a bend in the trail. I stopped to catch my breath and take a photo of this curious pile of stones as I had photographed others before – on a hike a few years back up to Eagle Lake, situated above Lake Tahoe – and wanted to save it for my collection. There, nestled amongst the fallen leaves, it stood. I called out to my fiancé, who was steps ahead of me. He told me to that if I thought that was interesting I should take a look at what he was looking that. I had to fully walk around the bend in the trail see what he was viewing. It was nothing that I could have imagined.
There, nestled under a stone ledge, a cavernous-like space houses dozens of these stacked stones. Set back five or so feet from the trail and nearly shaded from the ledge above, the collection of tiny man-made sculptures could easily be missed by a determined hiker, set on making his or her way up to the top of Onoko Falls.
Some have been placed in groupings, others are nestled individually atop moss covered ledges. Some are tall and nimble, made up of eight or more stacked stones while many more sit short and stout, like the original pile that drew us to this mysterious city of stones.
Each mysterious structure is known as a cairn, a group of stones that have been placed on top one another to form a mound and they are found all over the world. Though an ancient practice, dating back an estimated 12,000 years in the Americas, the art of stone piling is still practiced today. Cairns have different purposes, some mark a grave or are constructed in memory of a loved one. Others are constructed to mark a path and are often used on hiking trails to inform visitors about the trek ahead.
Others simply mark a journey, like the ones we witnessed on the Glen Onoko Falls trail. According to Scottish folklore and custom, it is a tradition to carry a stone from the bottom of a hill and place it on top of an existing cairn. With time, the cairns grow ever larger. An ancient Scottish Gaelic blessing states Cuiridh mi clach air do chàrn, “I’ll put a stone on your cairn.”
Had we had more time (and no other hikers waiting to pass), we might have taken a moment to add our own cairn to this magnificent collection, or perhaps carefully place a stone atop another cairn as that old Scottish blessing goes. We’ll return to Glen Onoko Falls one day and I think we’ll do just that.
For further reading on (much older) cairn in Pennsylvania, see:
Early Stone Cairns and Rows in Easter Pennsylvania (New England Antiquities Research Foundation- Norman Muller, John Watz)
Exploring the Cairns of Susquehanna County (Weird Pennsylvania: Your Travel Guide to Pennsylvania’s Local Legends and Best Kept Secrets, Matt Lake)
Amy Pulliam, a self-taught jewelry artisan and the designer behind Helen Ethel Studio, was raised in the fresh country air and woodlands of central Pennsylvania but later moved to Philadelphia to pursue her studies in Art History. In addition to her work as a jewelry artisan, she is also the research librarian/historian for an historic architectural stained glass window studio in Philadelphia. Discover her Facebook page, etsy shop and blog .