Spooky stuff is not my thing. After reading The Amityville Horror, I couldn’t sleep on my stomach for years. I grew up Catholic, so I have an active imagination for spirits.
But I knew my daughter, Mia, would be into visiting the Stanley Hotel and Estes Park, Colorado. You’ve seen the movie The Shining? It originated from the novel by the same name by Stephen King. And the hotel that started it all, the Stanley, is situated in Estes Park, Colorado, gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park. Hello, jaw-dropping scenery. So despite the gray, snowy weather, which only made it more ominous, we headed up.
Touring the Stanley Hotel
This wuss right here was really glad that we chose the Haunted Stanley Hotel tour that’s approved for kids 8 and older. No way am I staying overnight or doing the seance tour. Maybe you’re brave. Maybe you don’t believe. I do. I think evil spirits can mess you up. So we took the noon availability and landed DD, the best tour guide ever. She re-enacts events. She tells stories. She makes history great fun for any age. She should be everyone’s teacher. If you can, see her on most Fridays and Saturdays if you’re visiting the Stanley Hotel. We love DD.
The stories are fascinating. You’ll learn about the brilliant twin brothers, F.O. and F.E. Stanley, both Geminis like me and entrepreneurs at age 5. They made toys, violins, photography, a car and a fortune. You’ll learn about tuberculosis, economics, the way women behaved in those days, structural engineering and the environment. And you’ll have a ball.
Highlights of visiting the Stanley Hotel include the story of Miss Elizabeth Wilson, who, upon lighting a gas lamp in Room 217, uncovered a gas leak and prompted an explosion that shot her down through the first floor and the basement, where she landed on her feet and the ceiling collapsed on her. She shattered her legs and hips, but her corset saved her spine and her life.
When F.O. Stanley visited her in the hospital, he assured her that she was family and would have a job for life. Miss Wilson returned to her job and kept it in the afterlife, lining up favored visitors’ shoes, creating cold spots between unmarried couples and scaring actor Jim Carrey right out of his room and the hotel.
You’ll also learn about the Cowboy, the spirits of children in the upstairs hallway, and the floating foundation. Fortunately, all that you learn upon visiting the Stanley Hotel feels relatively safe and full of goodwill. Most wonderful is the story of F.O. and his beloved bride, Flora, who enjoyed long life, great fortune, good friends and adventures together, serving each other until the end. It’s a love story to make one swoon.
I was surprised to learn that the popular movie with Jack Nicholson wasn’t shot on site; in fact, Stephen King didn’t agree with Stanley Kubrick’s movie interpretation of his book. King created his own miniseries, filmed at the hotel, to better represent his vision and the setting. I’m torn: I love Stephen King, and I love Jack Nicholson. I’ve included the miniseries in my viewing classics.
The Stanley Hotel tour is 90 minutes, so plan your day around it. Keep in mind that if you want Stanley Hotel or Shining memorabilia, you’ll likely need to buy it there—the shops in Estes Park don’t carry it. (Licenses, likely.) Make reservations for the tour online so you’re guaranteed a spot.
Legend says that F.O. Stanley was a brilliant man, a wonderful husband and a great environmentalist, establishing Estes Park to preserve the scenic beauty and natural resources. If he or his talented pianist wife, Flora, are haunting the hotel, I don’t think I mind. Miss Wilson seems like a fairly harmless soul as well. And the kids? Their exuberance seems to lend happy life to the hotel. Go explore the area and don’t miss visiting the Stanley Hotel…during the day, of course!
Visiting Estes Park
After an overpriced and under-delivered lunch in the hotel, we headed to downtown Estes Park to scope out the shopping. It was a bit disappointing. Just one shop carried goods from local artisans, and most of that was large-format painting, photography and glass. Beautiful, but not practical for shipping. The rest was largely the same T-shirts and mugs over and over, as well as some Nepal-style clothing and incense, I suppose because we were at elevation. There is a Fizz Rocket, which is fun, and a Starbucks, useful for a potty break and a hot drink. The town largely serves as the gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park.
One of the most exciting things for those who visit Estes Park is seeing herds of elk wandering the streets. You’re most likely to spot them from mid-September through mid-October and sometimes into November, during their breeding season. But keep your distance, and if they come near you, back away. Wild animals are incredibly dangerous, and elk are BIG. They’re also especially aggressive during this time. Take photos from a distance, and listen — sometimes you can hear the males bugling near dawn or dusk.
If you’re planning to visit Rocky Mountain National Park through the Beaver Meadows Entrance Station, the gate on the east side of the massive park and the most popular entry point, you may want to spend the night in Estes Park, which is the last outpost before entering the park. The National Park Service has implemented a reservations system for the park thanks to severe overcrowding, so it’s smart to snag an early entry time for best park access. The Ridgeline Hotel is an affordable option, nicely renovated and offering exceptional customer service. It’s a short drive into the park from there, and you’re likely to see elk grazing from your windows if you’re up early enough.
There’s also some great hiking near Estes Park. Hermit Park Open Space is a gorgeous location to explore, especially when the trails in Rocky Mountain National Park get too crowded. As with most places, it closes seasonally and sometimes randomly for extreme weather, dangerous animals or trail maintenance. Check Colorado Trail Explorer (COTREX) for trail updates there and around the state and be sure to pack the 10 essentials.
Before you visit Estes Park, check out the Estes Park visitors’ website, where you can request a guidebook and get ideas for other adventures at the base of one of the most spectacular mountain ranges on the planet (in my humble opinion). Be sure to make time for visiting the Stanley Hotel for your fright fix—or even book a room there before your Rocky Mountain National Park adventure. Just make sure you know which “extra guests” might also be staying in your room. Visiting the Stanley Hotel and Estes Park makes for a perfect two-day add-on to any visit to the national park, or a fantastic long weekend by itself.
Although we strive to provide the most current information, bars, restaurants and attractions mentioned may close at any time, operate with a limited menu or reduced hours, or have takeout options only. We recommend checking individual websites for operating hours and updates before visiting.
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