Park ranger Leigh Gardner debates the popular trend of leaving gnomes on hiking trails

Contributed photo by Sunny Montgomery / Tiny plastic figures of pirates guard a treasure chest near the Hill City trailhead at Stringers Ridge.

Alongside the chipmunks, woodpeckers and white-tailed deer, unusual critters have been spotted at Stringer's Ridge: miniature elves poised at the base of trees and peering out of hollows.

In recent years, "gnome homes" have begun to appear along trails and in parks across the region. The dioramas often depict elf figurines or other fairy tale-inspired characters and are usually placed trailside by other hikers simply for the sake of discovery by others.

On Stringer's Double J trail, two thumb-sized gnome statues stand next to a miniature replica of a national forest welcome sign. Near the Hill City trailhead, tiny plastic pirates with their swords drawn guard a treasure chest inside a tree hollow.

  photo  Contributed photo by Sunny Montgomery / A close-up photo of tiny pirates guarding a treasure chest at Stringers Ridge.

"Gnome homes are super cute and can bring a sense of wonder to a space," says Leigh Gardner, Cumberland Trail State Park ranger. "I think people do it because they want to do something nice for others."

But, she adds, "they're really not appropriate if we're following Leave No Trace principles."

Gardner says she began to see an uptick in these types of setups about two years ago. She believes they're an extension of cottagecore, a trendy aesthetic characterized by rustic, whimsical decor — garden gnomes, for example.

Gardner remembers once, at Soddy-Daisy's North Chickamauga Creek Gorge State Natural Area, spotting a hiker placing a small plastic cup filled with tiny troll dolls near the trail. She spoke with the person about Leave No Trace principles, then later discovered a note at the trailhead kiosk encouraging other hikers to try to find all 14 of the gnome homes stashed in the area.

  photo  Contributed photo by Sunny Montgomery / A close-up photograph of gnomes planted in secret spots on Stringers Ridge.

"I was able to collect about seven or eight," she says. "When we find them, we throw them away."

Still, Gardner says she understands their appeal.

"They're fun to discover, especially for kids." But the problem with left-behind manmade objects, she explains, is that they create microplastics and clog up streams, and any oils or food residue on them will attract wildlife.

As an alternative, Gardner suggests geocaching.

Geocaching is a global game of hide-and-seek in which participants stash small treasures, called caches, just about anywhere. The caches are then registered online so others can search for them using GPS coordinates and other clues.

Geocaches in state parks and other natural areas are almost always there with permission from rangers, Gardner says. That way, they can be removed if necessary.

"If you want to leave little trinkets behind," she says, "make sure you're doing it with best practices in mind."

  photo  Contributed photo by Sunny Montgomery / Gnomes planted in secret spots like these on Stringers Ridge can be fun to discover, but according to Cumberland Trail State Park ranger Leigh Gardner, these objects can leave behind elements that work against traditional Leave No Trace principles.