It’s always fun to have a theme for a motorcycle tour, and my plan for a late August ride was a four-day loop from my home in Oklahoma to visit three historic hotels that are widely purported to be haunted. The first would be the St. James Hotel in Cimarron, New Mexico, followed by the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado, and finally the Eldridge Hotel in Lawrence, Kansas. Between the fright nights, I’d ride first-class mountain roads on a nearly 1,900-mile route through five states.
One Hot Motorcycle Tour with a Side of Wind
To make time, I rode west on Interstate 40 for the first 150 miles or so. Wind turbines were spinning at a good clip, and flags at roadside businesses whipped around in the hot wind. I rode in what my buddies and I call “the I-40 lean” – riding with the bike pitched a few degrees to the left to counteract the constant gale.
It was nearly 100 degrees when I crossed into the panhandle of Texas, and the empty landscape was dotted with cattle and oil wells. When I stopped in Dalhart to refuel, a guy with long hair and a shaggy beard pulling two Harleys on a trailer behind a pickup asked where I was heading. After I shared my plan, he said he was heading home after riding many of the same roads.
Eyeing my Suzuki V-Strom 1050XT, he said he still owns a KTM he bought back in the ’90s when he was in Germany. “I spent three years there myself,” I said, “when I was in the Army.” Turns out we were stationed in some of the same places, decades ago, on the other side of the world. And here we were, on a sweltering afternoon in small-town Texas, talking motorcycles and swapping memories.
St. James Hotel
The temperature subsided a bit after crossing into New Mexico, where I rode through high plains grassland. North of Springer, I continued west on State Route 58, climbing into the foothills of the Rockies. Once in Cimarron, I parked in front of the St. James Hotel. Walking into the lobby felt like going back in time to the Old West of the late 1800s.
Built in 1872 near the Santa Fe Trail and originally known as Lambert’s Inn, this hotel was a favorite of Old West legends such as Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, Buffalo Bill Cody, Annie Oakley, Jesse James, and Billy the Kid.
During the lawless days of the Wild West, the hotel was the site of at least 26 murders; bullet holes are still visible over the bar in the hotel’s main dining room. Today, the St. James has 12 restored rooms in the original building, each named for a famous guest who stayed in the room, and 10 more rooms in a modern annex.
Several ghosts have been identified by paranormal experts in the St. James. Room 18 is off-limits because it is believed to house the malevolent ghost of Thomas James Wright, who was murdered after he won rights to the hotel in a poker game. The spirit of Mary Elizabeth Lambert, wife of the hotel’s founder, is said to be a protector of the hotel. She died there in 1926, and some say her rose-scented perfume still wafts through the hallways. There have been reports of a persistent tapping sound in Room 17, the mysterious smell of cigar smoke even though the hotel is nonsmoking, and sightings of a mischievous ghost resembling a little old man, nicknamed the “Little Imp,” who supposedly steals and relocates objects.
I stayed in the Pancho Griego room in the old building. Griego, a card dealer and local enforcer, picked a fight in the hotel’s saloon with gunslinger Clay Allison over the killing of Griego’s nephew. Unfortunately for Griego, he was a little (or a lot) drunk and took a bullet to the head from Allison’s gun. Would Griego’s restless spirit pay me a visit?
After a nice dinner in the hotel restaurant, I turned in. I’ve stayed in supposedly haunted hotels all over the country going back at least 20 years, and I’ve never had a paranormal experience. But at the St. James, I was awakened at 3 a.m. – the so-called “witching hour” when the spirit world is said to be most active – by an unidentifiable foul odor that defied explanation (no, it wasn’t me).
A Motorcycle Tour on the Enchanted Circle
Continuing west on U.S. Route 64, I enjoyed flowing curves and yellow wildflowers as I rode through Cimarron Canyon State Park. Climbing out of the canyon revealed Eagle Nest Lake, an alpine lake above 8,000 feet near the Enchanted Circle Scenic Byway.
Turning north on State Route 38, I followed the byway toward the ski town of Red River. I knew this stretch of highway from many ski trips there with my wife and kids. The road meanders through the mountains, winding its way up to 9,820-foot Bobcat Pass and into Carson National Forest. Memories of those family trips rushed back – the cabins we stayed in, our favorite ski lifts and runs, the restaurants we liked, and the fun we had.
Crossing into Colorado, I rode over 9,426-foot La Veta Pass on U.S. Route 160 and then up through Colorado Springs and Denver. At Loveland, I turned west on U.S. Route 34 and enjoyed a winding ride through Big Thompson Canyon and Roosevelt National Forest to Estes Park.
After a 400-mile day, I arrived at the Stanley Hotel, which sits on a sprawling property with views of the city that serves as the gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park. When it opened in 1909, it rivaled the finest hotels in America. It was established by Freelan Stanley, who, along with twin brother Francis, co-founded the Stanley Motor Carriage Company, which manufactured steam-powered automobiles from 1897-1924. Freelan fell in love with the Estes Valley, in part because he believed the area helped restore his previously failing health. Early hotel guests were impressed by features such as electric lights, telephones, modern bathrooms, a uniformed staff, and a fleet of Stanley Steamers.
By the 1970s, the hotel was struggling but got a shot in the arm when it became known as the inspiration for Stephen King’s bestseller The Shining. The book may be fiction, but there are plenty of real-life ghost stories swirling around the Stanley.
After checking in, I took the vintage Otis elevator to my fourth-floor room, which was hot as hell – fitting. The front desk dispatched a service technician, and as he worked on the air conditioner, I quizzed him about the hotel’s ghostly reputation.
“Is there anything to the ghost stuff?”
“Yep, they’re here,” he said. “I had my first experience after I’d been here a few months – tapped me right on the shoulder, but there was nobody there.”
“Interesting…” I replied, feeling a little chill down my spine.
At twilight, I walked out front to admire the Stanley’s beautiful facade against the darkening sky and visit the mildly creepy hedge maze, disappointed that a frozen Jack Nicholson was nowhere to be found. Back inside, I peeked in the séance room. The place certainly looked haunted.
Although Stephen King’s frightful night was in Room 217, the fourth floor where I was staying is thought to be the most haunted part of the hotel. Guests in Room 407 have reported being tucked into bed by an invisible force, and the apparition of a cowboy has been reported in Room 428. But Room 401 is the creepiest – female guests have reported inappropriate “touching” by what is thought to be an unfriendly male ghost. After my unsettling experience at the St. James, learning about the paranormal activity that has occurred just down the hall from my room had my eyes wide open as I turned off the bedside lamp.
However, after a restful sleep undisturbed by the spirit world, I packed up and headed south on the Peak-to-Peak Scenic Byway, a beautiful, curvy mountain road that reminded me why I’m a motorcyclist. Thinking it couldn’t get any better, I was proven wrong on State Route 119 toward Boulder, which follows a burbling stream with high rock cliffs on both sides for 16 glorious miles.
The fun soon came to an end, and I steeled myself for a long, hot slog on Interstate 70 into Kansas. It was well after dark and I had clocked 652 miles for the day when I arrived in Lawrence for the last stop on my ghost tour.
Originally built in 1855 under the name Free State Hotel, the Eldridge Hotel was burned down twice because of its role as a focal point of anti-slavery sentiment. Each time it was burned, the hotel’s founder, Col. Shalor Eldridge, rebuilt it at the same site. In 1867, it was renamed the Eldridge Hotel, and through the turn of the 20th century, it was considered one of the finest hotels west of the Mississippi River.
The Eldridge Hotel also has a long history of paranormal activity. The fifth floor is thought to have a direct connection to the spirit world, with Room 506 at the epicenter. Guests have reported seeing apparitions, breath marks on mirrors, doors opening and closing by themselves, and lights mysteriously turning themselves on and off. The elevator is said to have its own ghost who erratically opens and closes the elevator doors.
I checked into Room 305, which is spacious with modern amenities, and got cleaned up. Later, I wandered downstairs and explored the lobby, bar, and basement. The Eldridge is a beautiful old hotel, and I felt the weight of its history. With that history in mind – some of it painful – I can see how the energy of the past may still be imprinted on this place.
I once again slept peacefully in the comfy bed and woke up early, anxious to get on the road home. The only possible evidence of mischievous spirits was that my television was stuck on the Hallmark Murders & Mysteries channel.
Some of the roads and stops on my Old West motorcycle tour could certainly be considered supernatural, but did the experience make a believer out of me? Until I can find a logical explanation for what happened to me at the St. James Hotel, the jury is out.