Fanwood man trades N.J. traffic for Utah tourism

Mike Coronella, the 52-year-old founder of Deep Desert Expeditions of Moab, Utah, didn’t always spend his days exploring the desert southwest and hosting guided hikes through some of the country’s most breath-taking landscapes.

Much earlier in his life, this Fanwood resident worked for the Courier News as a delivery boy when he was 13-years-old, and again as a page, where he drove to pick up advertising copy, when he was 21-years-old.

Five years after his year-long stint working for the Courier News, Coronella found himself in a rut, reeling from a breakup and odd jobs, eager for a change that differed from his mundane life in New Jersey.

“I didn’t want to go to Wall Street and follow in my parents’ footsteps,” he said. “So, I decided that I would drive my Jeep out to Utah, where I had been two or three times before with my family, and ski for the winter while staying with my brother, who was a graduate student at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. When I got there, I said to myself, ‘You know what? This is nice out here. ’”

Mike Coronella in Capitol Reef National Park, from the third time hiking between Arches and Zion national parks in 2005. (Photo: ~Courtesy of Mike Coronella)

Mike Coronella in Capitol Reef National Park, from the third time hiking between Arches and Zion national parks in 2005.
(Photo: ~Courtesy of Mike Coronella)

It’s been 26 years since then, and Coronella hasn’t come home yet. Nor does he have any intention to.

He said that he hasn’t been back to New Jersey in about 20 years – he doesn’t remember the last time that he was here. Following his parents’ move to Phoenix three years after he arrived in Utah – making him the most eastbound one in his family – he had no reason to.

“I couldn’t even visit New Jersey comfortably now,” he said. “It would be very repressive to me. Fanwood is about one square-mile and it has 10,000 people. My county is 2,600 square-miles and it has 8,000 people.”

When Coronella first relocated to Utah, a world away from New Jersey, his family and friends weren’t thrilled. “My folks thought I was nuts, but they saw that I was happy with what I was doing,” he said. “I was paying the bills, and even though I had roommates and old junky cars, I had a smile on my face all the time.”

Arches National Park. (Photo: ~Courtesy of Mike Coronella)

Arches National Park. (Photo: ~Courtesy of Mike Coronella)

To make ends meet, Coronella held a slew of odd jobs, including a bartender at high-end ski resorts and a community college photography professor. This gave him time to do what he really wanted – ski, backpack, hike, raft and play.

He said, “Even after two years there, my friends would ask me, ‘When are you coming home?’ And I would just tell them, ‘When I’m done exploring.’”

After those initial two years of settling in, it finally occurred to Coronella that he would stay in Utah for good. His long-term relationship with a woman from New Jersey was over, and he found himself with a new love – Moab, Utah, which is where he lives now.

“I visited Moab with a friend and I was blown away by what I saw,” Coronella said. “I said to him, ‘How am I going to go back east?’ And my friend said, ‘Why would you?’”

Canyonlands National Park. (Photo: ~Courtesy of Mike Coronella)

Canyonlands National Park. (Photo: ~Courtesy of Mike Coronella)

After Coronella decided that he was in Utah for the long haul, he made another long haul after eight years in the state – one from Arches National Park to Zion National Park, which are on opposite sides of the state of Utah, since he said he needed “40 days in the desert” to revamp his life. After walking for 520 miles over a 94 day-period, Coronella and a friend reached their destination – and landed themselves in Backpacker Magazine.

Coronella’s “40 days in the desert” soon turned into much more. Looking at a long distance trail management map, he and his friend noticed that there was a vacant hole in the desert southwest with no trail. Two years later, the pair created one based off their original route – this time, after 650 miles and 101 days. They called it the Hayduke Trail, named from a character in the novel “The Monkey Wrench Gang,” which is about a mystic crew who decides they will defend the desert against development by any means necessary.

The trail, which is an 850-mile backpacking route, winds through public land with back-country, the Grand Staircase and six total national parks.

Around the same time Coronella founded the Hayduke Trail, he also had another life-changing experience, that led to creation of his own guiding company, Deep Desert Expeditions, in 2010.

Coronella on the San Juan River during "the early days." ~Courtesy of Mike Coronella

Coronella on the San Juan River during “the early days.” ~Courtesy of Mike Coronella

“After I had a heart attack and a triple bypass, I said to myself, ‘I don’t have enough time to work for someone else anymore,’” he said.

Relying mostly on word of mouth, he said that business has been doubling and he expects to guide around 2,000 people this year, partially due to his newly launched Mighty Five Tour.

Deep Desert Expeditions, beginning in June, will bring groups of six people through guided hikes on a 10-night, nine-day journey or a six-night, five-day journey from St. George, Utah for $7,800 a person or $5,200 a person, respectively.

Guests will visit Utah’s five “Mighty Five” national parks while staying in the region’s finest hotels and eating at the best restaurants, making for a backcountry expedition with a luxurious twist.

“It took me a few years of working the rat race until I realized that it wasn’t really interesting to me,” Coronella said. “I finally found that I didn’t have to follow the footprints that were expected of me.”

For more information on Deep Desert Expeditions or the Mighty Five Tour, visitdeepdesert.com

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