The Truth About The Curse Of The Petrified Forest

The Petrified Forest National Park is filled with what once was a lush forest that millions of years and flooding have torn from the ground and eventually petrified, leaving behind evidence of a different time on Earth through the beautiful remains. According to, petrified wood is a type of fossil that "forms when plant material is buried by sediment and protected from decay due to oxygen and organisms."

Almost a million people visit the Petrified Forest every year to set their eyes on the beautiful unlikeliness of a forest in the desert (via National Park Service). While the park is a breathtaking sight and there's plenty for visitors with all interests to do, it also has a slightly darker history that isn't related to geology — the Petrified Forest National Park is known by many to be cursed. Stories of the curse have been passed down through generations and kept alive by hundreds of thousands of visitors over the years, and the details are quite interesting. Let's unravel them.

Year after year, visitors steal pieces of petrified wood

Removing artifacts (including petrified wood) from the Petrified Forest National Park is not only unethical, but it's also illegal. This law, however, doesn't deter all visitors from giving in to the temptation of taking a part of nature's beauty home with them, and over the years, many pieces have been stolen by guests.

Park officials were so concerned about theft and its effects on the park — such as its status of a national park being revoked — that they decided to take matters into their own hands. Signs were placed in multiple areas around the park warning against theft and the consequences that would ensure if someone did try to steal a piece from the park. Furthermore, according to The Journal, visitors had to undergo inspection upon leaving the park, and certain areas became restricted to keep the wood safe. Unfortunately, even with the step-up in security measures, the theft continued, and each year, pieces of the park went missing.

Past park guests began mailing the stolen wood back

While thousands of visitors each year leave the park with a piece of stolen petrified wood hidden within their belongings, many of them wind up returning them later on. Over the years, the Petrified Forest has received hundreds of letters from past park guests that include not only the piece of wood they removed but also a letter of explanation. Both the letters and stolen pieces of wood are so common at the park that these days, park officials keep a stack of them and call it the "conscience pile," according to The Journal.

The letters each carry a similar tone, describing the negative impact the stolen wood has caused the writers. Legends of America includes some excerpts from several letters: "Take these miserable rocks and put them back, they have caused pure havoc in my love life," one letter reads; another says, "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!"

People who stole from the park began to experience bad luck

With hundreds of letters piling up over the years, word got around about a curse on those who stole wood from the Petrified Forest. It isn't clear how the legend of the curse originated, but it's clear that there are those who believe in it and those who believe they've felt its wrath. The letters that the park receives each seem to tell a different story out of the same book: A visitor manages to sneak a piece of petrified wood out of the park, and shortly after returning home (or, in some cases, shortly after leaving the park), their life fills with bad luck and negativity (per Legends of America).

Stories range anywhere from someone not being able to find a job to getting a divorce or just feeling an overwhelming amount of dread and negative mental state at all times. The letters sent back to the park are usually a person's effort to rectify what they've done in hopes that the curse of the Petrified Forest will be lifted and they can go on with their lives and remedy the bad things that have happened to them. Some letters seemed to be nothing more than a guilty conscience, but the majority of them read with a tone of urgency and despair ⁠— as if the piece of wood and the curse itself have been destroying their life.

The park's deterrents for stealing had the opposite effect

The security measures taken at the park didn't seem to deter any theft. Eventually, a psychology professor from Arizona State University named Robert Cialdini did a study on the park and its security (per The Journal). In his study, he found that the signs that were placed around the park to warn people against stealing were actually normalizing the act, and when researchers put pieces of wood by the signs as an example of what not to steal, thefts tripled. 

The signs around the park showed groups of people stealing fragments of wood, and Cialdini's solution to this was to replace these signs with ones that showed only one person stealing as a way to set the law-breaking individual apart from the others. It seemed that what the park did in an attempt to deter theft (the most common crime in the U.S.) was actually leading to more stolen pieces of wood.

The park has since adjusted its security tactics, though the consequences of trying to steal a piece of a National Park remain heavy. Retired park superintendent Brad Traver has a theory for the change of approach as written in The Journal. He said, "Now, the focus is on being more welcoming, providing more opportunities for visitors, while remaining diligent with law enforcement and presence."

The curse lives on today

Today, the curse of the Petrified Forest remains alive and well, and the park continues to receive letters from those that can't bear the burden of their past actions or the past actions of their loved ones. The park, however, has taken a different approach as far as presentation goes and chooses a path of science instead of fear in an attempt to deter theft.

With historical photos and educational tidbits placed throughout the park, guests can appreciate the value and beauty of the park while respecting its place in the desert. However, for those who do steal from the park and believe they have been struck with the curse, it should be noted any wood that is returned can no longer be placed back into the park as there's no way for park officials to know where it was located or if it was even a part of the park to begin with (via The Journal)

So it seems that the best way to avoid being cursed is to respect national parks and nature by leaving behind the beautiful piece of petrified wood you're tempted to take home. Or just purchase your own from the souvenir shop.