When visiting, the Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona, folks are enamored by the beauty and uniqueness of the petrified wood. It has been that way for centuries since the first explorers came through the area; the first routes were blazed through the region in the mid-1800s and up until today. Travelers have long carried off pieces as keepsakes, and in the past, wagons and trucks were filled to the brim and hauled away to be sold.
But, since the Petrified Forest became a National Monument, it has been illegal to remove any specimens of petrified wood from the park. Today, theft of petrified wood can result in a fine. But does that stop people from removing a piece of history from the park? No!
However, many who thought no one would notice that one little rock missing or were absolutely sure they hadn’t been seen often find out later it really wasn’t a good idea.
Evidently, they were unaware of the Curse of the Petrified Forest.
Over 200 million years ago, large trees and rich vegetation flourished in northeast Arizona. The region was a tropical wetland with abundant streams and rivers at that time. During heavy rains, the waterways would flood, sweeping fallen trees into the sandy floodplains. Later, volcanic lava destroyed the forest, and the remains were embedded into sediment comprised of volcanic ash, mud, and water. Trees are transitioned to stone by permineralization, a process of fossilization in which the organic materials are replaced with minerals, such as quartz, making a “cast” of the original organism. Millions of years later, the petrified logs were revealed by erosion.
The Petrified Forest area was designated a National Monument on December 8, 1906. The Painted Desert was added later, and on December 9, 1962, the whole monument received National Park status. Today, the park covers 93,533 acres.
In the 1930s, visitors to the Petrified Forest began to report that after taking a piece of petrified wood from the park, they were seemingly cursed with bad luck. This curse continues today and is now a part of the park’s history.
In fact, there is a room dedicated to these hundreds of cursed thieves in the Rainbow Forest Museum at Petrified Forest National Park. From divorce to being jailed, medical conditions to car problems, unemployment to generally terrible lives, and even death, the Petrified Forest National Park has received bucket loads of confessions, tales of tragedy, and returned petrified wood from those who lived to regret it. Like the curse of the Hope Diamond or the allegedly ruined lives of those who have tampered with Egyptian Pharaohs, bad luck comes to those who possess stolen petrified wood from the park, prompting thousands to send it back.
For decades, the Petrified Forest has received pilfered samples in the mail, returned by visitors who regret having stolen them. Notes included with the fragments describe lives wrought with misfortune since the rocks’ theft. In the letters, filchers plead with park officials to return the pieces to their rightful place.
One visitor described a piece of petrified wood he had taken more than ten years earlier. “It was a great challenge sneaking it out of the park,” he wrote. “Since that time, though, nothing in my life has gone right.”
Another pleaded, “My life has been totally destroyed since we’ve been back from vacation. Please put these back so my life can get back to normal! Let me start over again!”
And another says, “Take these miserable rocks and put them back; they have caused pure havoc in my love life.”
At the southern entrance to the park is a pile of conscience rocks, and it is not the only one. There are other piles throughout the park. Unfortunately, once the rocks are moved, they cannot be put back in the park because they are out of “scientific context.” The park is thriving for archaeological, geological, and paleontological research. Moving rocks and other artifacts affects the value of scientific study.
The display in the Rainbow Forest Museum is called “Mystery of the Conscience Wood.” A large piece of petrified wood sits on a bench. It was returned by a man who said he had stolen it 66 years ago. A three-ring binder sits beneath the display that contains letters from all over the world. Comprising some 1,200 pages of guilt-ridden letters, the oldest “conscience letter” dates back to 1935.
The letters describe the feelings and bad luck many have experienced:
“You’re right; it’s a curse to take wood from the forest. My girlfriend of three years finished with me on the drive home. So here’s your damn wood back.”
“These miserable rocks have caused pure havoc in my love life. By the time these rocks reach you, things should be back to normal. If not, I give up. Dateless and Desperate.”
“Believe me, if I would have known the curse went with any of the rocks, I never would have taken these. My life has been totally destroyed since we’ve been back from vacation. Please take these so my life will get back to normal. Let me start over again. Forgive me for ever taking these.”
“When we were there, we read the letters of the many people who had returned wood to you with tales of bad luck, ruined marriages, and other stories of misfortune. At first, we did not believe the ramblings of such obviously superstitious persons, but upon a review of the life and lack of luck that our family member had these past 30 years, we have begun to wonder if possibly the legend could have some truth to it.”
“I picked up this petrified rock about 13 years ago when I visited the national park. I came across it today and decided I should send it back to you. I am sorry that I took it and wish for you to have it back. Thank you. P.S. It has been bad luck to me.”
It’s truly a sad state of affairs, as tourists can purchase petrified wood collected legally from private land in several nearby businesses. These pieces are generally inexpensive, and the curse doesn’t come with them.
Attention Would Be Thieves!! — Head on down the road, shell out a couple of bucks for your souvenir, and avoid the curse!
© Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, updated November 2022.
Petrified Forest National Park
Across the Painted Desert on Route 66
Arizona – The Grand Canyon State
Arizona Daily Sun
National Park Service