The Stanley Hotel. Majestic. Historic. Haunted. We got to spend the night there. Here’s what happened, some history, and lots of photos.
We could not check in to the Stanley until 4:00 pm, so we started our day in Estes Park early with a great morning hike following the Black Canyon Trail to its connection with the Cow Creek and MacGregor trails. The route is picturesque, winding through beautiful meadows with towering rock formations to the right and a stunning view of the back range to the left, before entering tree cover and starting a long and strenuous uphill. We covered eight miles out and back and were ready to go into town for a little while.
In downtown Estes we played tourist, popping into gift shops and picking up some delicious taffy and a sea salt caramel ice cream cone and then finally drove up to the Stanley Hotel.
It is hard to imagine a more imposing sight than the grand old Stanley, high on a hill above town, stark white and red against the sepia brown and pine green backdrop of the Lumpy Ridge Mountains. Although the Colonial Revival style is uncommon here in the west, the Stanley strangely fits in, crowning a glorious view.
Inventor Freelan Oscar Stanley (F.O.) built the hotel in 1909. With his brother, F.O. co-founded the Stanley Motor Company and co-invented the Stanley Steamer auto. He suffered from consumption (tuberculosis) and in 1903, doctors only gave him a short time to live. F.O. had heard about the restorative properties of the western mountain air and he traveled to Estes Park in 1903 where he actually regained his health. Estes was too rustic for F.O. and his wife Flora, however, so they created the hotel as a destination spot where they could visit each summer. Work began on the Stanley in 1907 and the hotel opened on the Fourth of July, 1909. The Stanley was high class: there were bathrooms in the guest rooms, electric lights, telephones, and uniformed workers.
Stanley wanted Estes Park to become a resort town, and he invested a lot to make that happen. He built a hydro plant on the Fall River, generating electricity for the city. He built the road from Lyons up to Estes Park which enabled people to drive to the Stanley, instead of having to take an excursion train. He also helped create Rocky Mountain National Park.
We ascended the front stairs to the main hotel promptly at the 4:00 check in time and entered to a spacious lobby graced with polished wooden floors and accents.
A gleaming Stanley Steamer auto stood by the front picture windows in honor of F.O. In a glass case behind the reception desk, shining gold door keys hung in rows, reminiscent of an older time.
The elevator was also a throwback to a different age. Its old-fashioned key hung on display next to the door. We watched the little gold arrow move silently from floor number to floor number as the elevator descended to the lobby. With a capacity of six, the elevator was like a gilt cage. A window set in the elevator door let you get an unsettling glimpse of your journey in darkness between floors.
Awe of the antique elevator quickly turned to fear. Pushing the up and down buttons gave off a static charge the likes of which I have never experienced before. Static electricity generally makes you think of mild things like rubbing your hair with a balloon and having it stand on end. This was a whole different version of static electricity. We got popped with ½-inch visible sparks arcing between our fingers and the buttons. I am completely serious. It was not just us: everyone who touched the buttons recoiled in literal shock and alarm. Maybe the carpet was a factor, who knows? The Stanley had a makeover of new carpet, wallpaper, and lots of mirrors when The Shining miniseries was filmed there in 1997. (King did not like the original Stanley Kubrick version of his book.) Was the carpet a wool blend that generated this massive electrical charge? Who knows? We do know those elevator buttons packed a punch.
At any rate, we arrived at the 4th floor, the most haunted floor in the hotel. Our room, 418, was located down the “children’s hallway.” Supposedly, the spirits of children play in this hallway at night. Guests complain about the noise, only to find that no children are staying in that wing at the time. Historically, the fourth floor is where the children of wealthier families and their nannies stayed. Our room also has the reputation of being haunted by a little boy ghost. Sometimes there are impressions of a body left on the bed. Hotel staff have reported strange noises coming from inside the room when it is empty.
Later on our Ghost Tour, we learned that our hall is also the “never-ending hallway.” When the exit door at the far end is closed, the lighting creates an optical illusion that the hallway goes on forever. Midway down our hallway are two couches. These are where the ghosts of two little girls appear: ghosts Stephen King saw – maybe – when he and his wife made their fateful visit in 1974: more on that later.
Our room was small: the king bed and a chair and dresser just barely fit, but everything was scrupulously clean, and the view past a pine tree to northeast was stunning. We opened the windows immediately because even though it was cool outside, the room was stuffy, and there is no air conditioning in the Stanley because of its protected historic status (it is on the National Register of Historic Places).
We went back down the grand staircase taking some pictures along the way and found the lobby full of beautifully dressed teenagers. It is a long-standing tradition for local high school students to take their prom photos in the Stanley and on the grounds of the magnificent old hotel. It seemed a perfect tribute to F.O. and Flora Stanley, as it turned out this day was the anniversary of their wedding.
After a fabulous dinner at the Rock Inn Tavern (off the beaten path, but worth the short drive), following some photogenic elk around at a safe distance, and people-watching by the fireplace in the lobby, it was at last time for our nighttime ghost tour.
Our tour guide, Travis, prefaced the tour by saying he was a skeptic when he first started at the Stanley as a night guard, but quickly became a believer in the paranormal after working there only a short time. He recommended downloading the Ghost Radar app which can use your smartphone as an EMF detector. It seems to be a little debatable whether cell phones can pick up electromagnetic fields (Only specific frequencies? Using the magnetometers?), but he was excited about it.
He passed out a handful of lollipops for some of us to use as lures for the children’s spirits on the fourth floor. I was a lollipop holder!
Our group of twenty or so trooped up to the first floor and started in the Music Room where we gathered around Flora Stanley’s piano. Flora loved to play the piano, and apparently still does, as piano music is occasionally heard coming from the music room. One story relates how Flora was angered at someone audacious enough to play her piano and retaliated by slamming the keyboard cover down on him.
The Music Room is also home to a large mirror. Travis explained that the Victorians were fascinated with the occult and spiritualism, and that mirrors played a large role in those beliefs. Mirrors set up to reflect each other might offer a glimpse of the spirit world. Or show you a spirit.
Worked into the woodwork above the mirror, one can see the letter “S” for Stanley. This is a recurring motif throughout the hotel. Travis advised us to take lots of photos of the many mirrors we would come across, and to remember who was in our group so we would know if we captured a spirit on film, or one of our fellow tourists!
Our next stop was on the grand staircase. Mirrors and framed pictures of former owners of the Stanley cover the walls on either side. A portrait of F.O. Stanley hangs at an angle next to a mirror of almost the same size so that F.O.’s picture is reflected perfectly, creating two images. This is a little creepy because F.O. had an exact twin brother, Francis Edgar. Together the brothers are both represented on the wall; one in portraiture, the other in a reflection.
Worked into the balustrade is another example of Victorian symbolism. The four posts represent the four seasons: winter, spring, summer, and fall. The corkscrew design of one post is supposed to mimic a Victorian ghost-catcher.
We continued up the stairs and stopped in front of the infamous room 217. Stephen King stayed in this room with his wife Tabitha at the end of September in 1974. The two had been on a tour of the Rocky Mountains, headed to Grand Lake. A blizzard shut down Trail Ridge Road and they had to turn back. They came to the Stanley, which was closing for the season the following day. The Stanley did not have heat until 1983, so it closed every winter. Somehow, the Kings convinced the two remaining staff – housekeeper and bartender – to let them stay the night. The four of them were the only people in the echoing, empty hotel.
Travis theorized that the Kings might have had to sign a caretaker’s waiver, allowing them to be there as temporary caretakers of the hotel, possibly removing the hotel from liability if they had stayed as guests. Together Stephen King and his wife Tabitha ate alone in the cavernous dining room. All the other tables already had their chairs put up for the winter. A number of strange things then happened to King over the course of the evening.
According to Travis, while exploring on the fourth floor, King saw twin girls who seemed so well behaved the author later complimented the housekeeper on them, thinking they were her children, only to be told that she had no children. Other versions state that King was on the second floor and saw a single boy. Either way, the author saw some child that really wasn’t there!
Later that night, King went down to the bar by himself and met the barkeep Lloyd, who became a key character in The Shining. King was not even sure if the man was real, because the whole situation was so eerily surreal. Travis assured us that there had been a bartender named Lloyd at the hotel who possibly gave King the famous line from the book “Your money’s no good here.”
King was in the process of writing a book about a berserk roller coaster that jumped off its tracks and attacked people…but apparently, it wasn’t going so great. His stay at the Stanley certainly fixed his writer’s block. According to King:
“That night I dreamed of my three-year-old son running through the corridors, looking back over his shoulder, eyes wide, screaming. He was being chased by a fire-hose. I woke up with a tremendous jerk, sweating all over, within an inch of falling out of bed. I got up, lit a cigarette, sat in the chair looking out the window at the Rockies, and by the time the cigarette was done, I had the bones of the book firmly set in my mind.”
He abandoned the rabid roller coaster tale and his dream vision became the horror classic The Shining, published in 1977.
Room 217 is also where a massive explosion occurred back in June of 1911. The generally accepted version goes like this: A storm knocked out power to the hotel. Guests were taken down to the lobby, while chambermaids went from room to room lighting the backup acetylene lamps. Chambermaid Elizabeth Wilson entered 217 with her candle, not realizing that the gas had leaked. The resulting explosion blew her through the floor into the dining room below. She suffered two broken ankles but miraculously survived. F.O. Stanley paid her medical expenses and made her head chambermaid of the hotel. She continued to work at the Stanley until she passed in the 1950s. Although her story ended happily, supposedly Elizabeth continues to haunt the hotel, tucking guests into their beds – even getting in the bed between unmarried couples – and folding their shirts.
News stories about the explosion differed wildly: There were seven injuries. Multiple different names of the maid. No storm. The acetylene gas lamps were being tested. One maid died. Another maid was blown onto porch and put out fire from the explosion with an extinguisher. Guests in the dining room below suffered injuries. The victim – or victims – went to Longmont Hospital. (Colorado Springs Gazette, Rocky Mountain News, Fort Collins Weekly Courier, Denver Post.)
Whatever the exact details, the detonation was real enough and decimated 10% of the hotel – most of the west wing. Fortunately, it was a “compression explosion” so it put out its own fire or the damage could have been much greater. I am not exactly sure what a compression explosion is, but it may be similar to the idea of using explosives to stop wildfires: the shock wave of a blast knocks the fire off its fuel source.
Interestingly, in 2014, pieces of wallpapered drywall and carpet from room 217 turned up in the employee tunnel down in the basement. One-hundred and three years after explosion! This discovery seems to lend some credence to the backstory of the ghostly chambermaid.
Actor Jim Carrey requested room 217 when he was filming Dumb and Dumber at the Stanley in 1994. He stayed only three hours before fleeing in terror and refusing to come back to the hotel. According to Travis, he also refused to ever speak about what happened to him in that room.
As we stood outside room 217, Travis said we were in the center of a vortex. We stood still and felt a light breeze. At this point, Travis extracted a volunteer from our group and attempted some pencil dowsing. They each held up two pencils with the ends lightly touching each other. When Travis asked a person’s name, the pencils swerved to point to that person. I was pretty skeptical about this one.
At last! Up to the 4th floor. There is a plethora of haunted rooms on this floor, including ours. We stood outside room 401 and learned that it was formerly the maids’ break room, and is now frequented by the ghost of Lord Dunraven. Dunraven was an Irish Earl who came to Estes Park in 1872, loved the land, and wanted to build his own hunting preserve. Thanks to some shady business dealings, he acquired thousands of acres of land – much of which is now Rocky Mountain National Park – and eventually ended up selling F.O. Stanley the land for the Stanley Hotel. Dunraven must have been something of a ladies’ man, if he was still looking for the maids in the afterlife. Dunraven also reportedly stands around in a corner of room 407. People have also claimed to see a face in the window of 407 when the room was empty of guests. A shadowy figure wearing a cowboy hat has startled visitors in room 428.
We tried our lollipop experiment in the children’s hallway. Making sure the lollipop wrapper was twisted tightly around the candy; we set the lollipops upright in the center of our palms. Walking slowly down the hallway, we hoped a spirit child would push the lollipop or yank it out of our hands. Alas, that did not happen while our group was there. It was amusing later to watch other tour groups coming through and seeing folks staring intently at the lollipops in their hands as they walked up and down in front of our room.
Next, we moved into one of the empty rooms (405) and Travis turned off all of the lights. He wanted us to sing to build up some energy to invoke any spirits that might be around. This became easily the most awkward three minutes of my life: cramped in a small, dark room with twenty people I didn’t know and couldn’t see (tho’ that was probably all for the best) all reluctantly singing the chorus of “You Are My Sunshine.” Needless to say, we did not generate the positive energy needed. Travis clearly sensed this, as he did not suggest a second verse, and we left quickly for the next stop.
Which was the Billiard room back down on the first floor, next to the Music Room. This was F.O.’s favorite room, where he spent a great deal of time. And possibly still does. Travis turned out the lights here and urged us to look at an American flag hung over the fireplace. In the upper corner of the flag, a strange image of a face stood out. Travis told us this was an image of F.O., which appeared after the flag was given to the hotel. There was a noticeable image there! The darkness was too much for my camera, but my husband got a nice shot.
Finally, tired, we returned to the basement and the employee tunnel. Travis shared his personal story of seeing a green mist there one evening. He thought it might have been ectoplasm. By this time it was getting late and I was fading. We took lots of pictures of the tunnel where employees and guests have reported seeing orbs: I did not get any in my images.
The night in our room 418 was discouragingly unremarkable. Maybe we were just too tired from a busy day, but nothing out of the ordinary happened. The only marginally abnormal thing that occurred was that while lying in bed with my eyes closed but not yet asleep, I noticed a flashing, like a light had passed over them. We did look out over a parking area at a distance, but then again, our room was up very high, and we hadn’t had any other reflections or lights shine in our window. Who knows?
Why is there so much paranormal activity at the Stanley? Many believe it is because of the unique geology of the location, claiming that the Stanley sits on top of oddly electric or magnetic mineral deposits. Travis had mentioned the abundance of quartz in the land. The Rocky Mountain Paranormal Research Society investigated the Stanley and included a soil survey as part of their report. Working with U.S.D.A. soil scientists from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the RMPRS discovered that there are not, in fact, large deposits of quartz or magnetite in the soil under the Stanley. The soil is primarily schist, a metamorphic rock formed from high temperatures and high strain – and is the same as the soil found all around Estes Park. The RMPRS also debunked the second floor vortex, noting that there was a power main nearby which may have been causing EMF fluctuations.
Despite our lack of ghostly experiences, we had a glorious visit. The Stanley is a gracious, beautiful old hotel. The staff was welcoming and we felt like VIPs. You can look out any window of the Stanley for a magnificent view. On our walk to breakfast at the Notchtop Bakery (delicious!) we saw elk grazing on the Stanley’s lawn, with the mountains towering in the distance.
Estes Park itself is a great little town with wonderful shops and restaurants. There are countless outdoor adventures – from gentle to extreme – available all around Estes for people of all physical abilities. Rocky Mountain National Park is just minutes away. All of these are great reasons to visit. And of course, there is always the opportunity to see a ghost at the Stanley: maybe you’ll have better luck catching one than we did!
Stanley Hotel Ghost Story Supported by Evidence of Room 217 Event – Estes Park Trail Gazette, 3/10/2014
The Stanley Hotel – Haunted History – accessed 4/8/17