Ghostly Tales From The National Parks: Petrified Forest National Park

Might the Painted Desert Inn at Petrified Forest National Park be haunted? Kurt Repanshek photo.

Editor's note: With Halloween just days away, we searched around the National Park System and rummaged in the Traveler's archives for some ghostly stories.

It’s easy to see why Petrified Forest National Park Ranger Rita Garcia loves the Painted Desert Inn so much. Handcrafted from natural materials, the colorful adobe appears to be as much a part of Arizona’s Painted Desert as the sweeping views of behind it.

Since 1924, motorists traveling Historic Route 66 have stopped here for rest and refreshments before taking a gander at a forest of trees turned to stone. The old inn once had a curio shop, a tap room, and what Ranger Garcia calls “the nation’s first fast-food restaurant.” But that was before the National Park Service renovated the building into a museum in 2006.

Almost 60 years ago, during the evening of April 9, 1953, the Painted Desert Inn caught fire. A park ranger broke down the locked door and crawled on his hands and knees into the smoke-filled building. He found Mrs. Marion Mace, the hotel manger, lying unconscious in her bedroom. The ranger carried the woman outside and laid her on the lawn. Then he returned to save the structure.

After putting out the flames with a fire extinguisher, the ranger returned to his damsel in distress only to learn that his heroic efforts had gone for naught. Mrs. Mace was dead from smoke inhalation.

No one knows for sure what caused the fire, but most people assumed the smoldering blaze had been ignited by a cigarette, for the flames had started in manager’s bedroom, and Mrs. Mace was rarely seen without a death stick between her fingers.

The Painted Desert Inn is on the National Register of Historic Landmarks. A distinction Ranger Garcia is proud to point out. “Only 2,500 buildings are on that list,” she says.

Ranger Garcia worked as a guide at Petrified Forest for over 11 years. She has grown extremely fond of the old inn. It makes no difference to her that it’s haunted.

“Old buildings talk,” Ranger Garcia says. “They shift. They creak. They moan. You hear things.”

The ranger was working on the main level one afternoon when she heard someone coming up the stairs from the tap room below. “It was footsteps on stone,” she says, “but when I looked up to wave at the person coming up the stairs, no one was there.”

Other employees report hearing whispered conversations coming from unoccupied rooms, and some have wondered if Mrs. Marion Mace is still lingering around after closing time.

After locking up one evening, one park ranger looked back through the windows and saw someone inside the museum walking from one room to another. Slightly irritated at the wayward tourist, the ranger unlocked the door and stepped inside. As soon as she entered the doorway, the ranger detected the unmistakable odor of cigarette smoke. Now the ranger was royally peeved. Not only was this tourist in a closed government building; the person had the gall to smoke in a museum! The ranger rushed from room to room in hot pursuit of her cigarette-smoking miscreant, until she realized there was no one in the building but her.

More Questions Than Answers

The phantom smoker loitering around the Painted Desert Inn is not the only unexplained occurrence at Petrified Forest National Park. Behind the ruins of Puerco Pueblo, etched into a boulder, there is an enigmatic spiral. Every summer solstice, as the sun comes up, a shaft of light moves across the top and down the side of the boulder, and at exactly 9 a.m. the beam of light hits the center of the small spiral. The purpose of this ancient solar calendar remains unclear.

“The interesting thing about the Puerco Pueblo,” says Ranger Garcia, “is that it has given us more questions than it has answers.”

Giant bones

Inside the park visitor center, you’ll find an exhibit displaying a few samples of what the NPS calls “conscience letters.” Since the 1940s, up to ten packages of petrified wood are mailed to the National Park Service each week. Most packages also contain anonymous letters telling of the numerous woes the thief has suffered since he succumbed to the temptation of taking home a few illegal souvenirs. Some letters include detailed maps directing the rangers to please return the artifacts to the exact place from which the petrified wood was stolen.

Most rangers believe the curse of the petrified wood is nothing more than self-fulfilling prophecy inspired by guilt. But tourists are not the only ones superstitious about the park’s artifacts. In years past, traditional Navajos would not touch petrified wood because they believed it to be cursed. In Navajo legends, pieces of petrified wood or yei-bits-in were the bones of the greatest and fiercest of all the alien gods, a strong and mighty giant named Yei tso.

Looking at the barren badlands of the park’s Painted Desert, it’s hard to fathom that this area was once covered by a lush forest of coniferous trees. More than 190 million years ago these trees died and a few were buried in sediment before they could decompose. Then volcanic eruptions dumped tons of ash over these sediments. Over time, water seeped down and through the layers, dissolving the silica out of the ash, infusing it into the logs, crystallizing the wood into quartz. Some logs are so well preserved by this process you can still see tree bark and growth rings.

It took Nature 200 million years to make these beautiful tree fossils for us to enjoy. It takes only two seconds to put one in your pocket. Some of you might be thinking the petrified wood curse is a bunch of malarkey. Some of you might be tempted to smuggle a few yei-bits-in out of the park. If so, you had better be a good liar. The rangers at the entrance stations have an uncanny knack for detecting a guilty conscience, and the curse of the petrified wood will begin with a fine that takes a painful bite out of your bank account.