As I got ready to board our small, Pilatus PC-12 aircraft headed to Moab from Denver, I was struck by firsts. It was my first time traveling on a small plane, first time away from my daughter for more than three days, first time traveling solo while seven months pregnant and, most notably, first time seeing some of Utah’s national parks. It’s one of the things I love most about travel—there are bound to be firsts.
I had driven through Moab multiple times, but only stayed there once—and shamefully had never visited the parks that surrounded this quirky and charming city. But this time, my sole purpose of traveling to this part of the country was to experience the wonder of Utah’s Mighty Five National Parks: Zion, Bryce, Canyonlands, Arches and Capitol Reef. The only state with this concentration of national parks, Utah has made a name for itself with regards to these treasures that make up more than 1,300 square miles of the state’s public land.
There are many ways to experience Utah’s five national parks, but this time, instead of fighting the crowds on Zion’s shuttle bus or schlepping gear from campsite to campsite, I was traveling with the Mighty 5 Signature Tour, which promised unforgettable, personalized park experiences, all within the comfort of high-end properties and fine dining. It occurred to me that it might also be the first time I experienced a national park in a luxury setting. So I buckled up, got comfy, and anxiously waited for what was coming on the other side of the Rocky Mountains.
When we deplaned at Moab’s tiny airport, our host and trip leader Mike Coronella greeted us—his dark brown eyes rich with wisdom from what can only be a life of adventure. His assistant Logan (a young Errol Flynn look-alike with piercing blue eyes and a tall lanky frame), added quite the contrast to Coronella’s shorter stature, and as I took in this quirky and unlikely pair of adventurers, I could feel my trust in them growing along with my excitement for the trip to begin.
Over the following week, I was humbled, surprised and delighted by what the tour for our group of six entailed. We covered an incredible amount of ground to unseen places in the national parks. And while we did check off the boxes (like seeing Delicate Arch in Arches and The Narrows in Zion), Coronella knew the terrain so well that the tour provided the almost unattainable experience of witnessing the beauty of the parks in a solitary way. To feel the awe and beauty of those wild places is truly best when not surround- ed by hordes of people. And while many tours offer the promise of this type of experience, few have the knowledge and experience to deliver on such a promise.
The food was an unexpected perk of this tour as many small adventure towns haven’t quite caught up with the modern culinary scene. While all of our meals were delicious and satisfying, one meal stood out as a truly unimagined experience. After a day of exploring Capitol Reef National Park, we embarked on a dinner outing to Boulder. This tiny town situated between Escalante Grand Staircase National Monument and Capitol Reef National Park was hard to get to, but well worth every mile. Our final destination, Hell’s Backbone Grill, appeared in warm shadows of evening light, setting the stage for what is still one of the best meals I have ever had. We dined on multiple courses of fresh, local, creative comfort food that left us wishing for larger stomachs and sent us back to our lodging with an after-dinner glow that would last many days. Where we rested our heads was as diverse as the parks themselves. At quaint bed and breakfasts with private gardens, stunning mountain lodges with elk heads mounted on the walls, and modern inns with all the conveniences for weary travelers, comfort came second only to ambiance. Along with Coronella’s wisdom came his connection to these places and the people who ran them. Each innkeeper and hotel manager welcomed us with familial arms and splendid smiles.
The highlight of the tour was our guide. Coronella peppered each panoramic drive, lunch stop, and scenic hike with the wealth of information that is ingrained in his every bone. His factoids and trivia filled the many miles and we listened and laughed while he shared adventure stories, folk tales and local lore.
Reflecting on my flight back to Moab, it was hard to believe that in only 10 days, we covered such an incredible amount of ground, made such treasured friendships, and learned so very much about Utah’s diverse and captivating landscapes. The substance of this trip was truly special, and while this was my first comprehensive tour of Utah’s Mighty Five, it will certainly not be the last.
After growing up in California and years of East Coast city living, Jordan Martindell moved to Boulder. Martindell blends her love of aesthetics and the outdoors, documenting adventures that are delicious, exciting and sometimes unexpected.
She has written for Dorado Magazine, Elevation Outdoors Magazine, Outdoor Retailer Magazine and offyonder.com.
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