In this episode, Dean Wiltshire of Colorado Teardrops tells how he transformed his boat building chops into beautiful teardrop trailers and built nice business in Colorado.
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First Exposure to the Outdoors:
I live in Colorado, so it makes it easy. Growing up in California, we’d take these great vacations in Northern California, things like that. We’d go to various reservoirs renting cabins and along the Russian River, that and catching fish. Then we moved out here to Colorado in the late 80s. Our sky is so blue here in the summertime. Our mountains are so vibrant. That Bronco sunset, we see it almost every night, the deep blues, the bright oranges. It’s a fabulous place to exist.
Things We Talked About:
Test, test, test. Look up things like lean product management. It is all about throwing something out there and seeing if it gets some traction. If it doesn’t get some traction, understand why and how can you modify it to get traction? So when we started our business, for example, we started with a rental business. Why? So that we could get a lot of opinions on our product before we started making them for sale. So test, test, test, optimize, test, optimize, test, test, which is what we’ve been doing for years.
Start smaller. It doesn’t cost a lot to pop up a website and say, “I’m selling this,” and just measure your traffic. But test. See what kind of hits you get and keep tweaking it until you start to get hits. Of course, that’s in the virtual world. Nothing better than face to face with people. Now as you’re testing, you can’t ask leading questions. You have to ask open-ended questions like, “Did you think..?” And you have to be okay with somebody insulting your product or your ideas. So you got to keep smiling, let it happen because you’re learning. They’re giving you something better than money.
Other Outdoor Activities:
I’m a fly fisherman. I’m a skier, a mountain biker, a hiker.
Favorite Piece of Gear under $100:
Connect with Dean:
Colorado Teardrops – Dean Wiltshire Tells How They Build These Beautiful Trailers
Episode 177 of The Outdoor Biz Podcast. I’m talking teardrop trailers with Dean Wiltshire of Colorado Teardrops. I’m covering one of these beautiful trailers. Achieving success in the outdoor biz is dependent upon embracing the outdoor lifestyle and learning from outdoor leaders that came before you. If you agree, then read and learn tips, advice, and hacks about growing or starting your career in the outdoor biz. In this episode, Dean Wiltshire of Colorado Teardrops tells us how he transformed his boat building chops into beautiful teardrop trailers and built a nice business in Colorado.
It’s not until you physically build something that you’re able to make sure it all works well.
If you want to grow your outdoor adventure business with a podcast, I’ve created a proven ten-step guide that will show you how to increase sales, educate customers, boost authority, and publish the podcast. From choosing your podcast style and content ideas to publishing your episodes, it has everything you need to know about growing your business with a podcast. Head over to OutdoorBizPodcastAcademy.com/grow and download this free resource today.
Dean, welcome to the show.
Thank you. I’m glad to be here.
Great to catch up with you. Sorry, we couldn’t do this in person, but it’s always good to talk to someone who’s making cool products. You guys make some great stuff. I was drooling all over your website. It’s awesome.
Thank you for that. We take a lot of pride. I can’t take full credit for that because our customers have been driving us towards ergonomically, satisfying design for years.
How did you get into the outdoors? What was your first outdoor experience?
First of all, I live in Colorado.
Makes it easy.
Growing up in California, we take these great vacations in Northern California, things like various reservoirs, renting cabins along the Russian River, and catching fish, and then moving out here to Colorado in the late ‘80s. Our sky is so blue here in the summertime. Our mountains are so vibrant. That broccoli sunset, you see it almost every night. The deep blue, bright orange. It’s a fabulous place to exist.
I used to live in Louisville for a little while. It’s beautiful out there. You went from boat building to building trailers. What was that transition like?
My dad was a British carpenter and a boat builder before he left the UK. I’m an immigrant. We moved to the Bay Area as our first landing, if you will. He would make cabin cruisers in the back garden when I was a child. Being the eldest and loving the heck out of my dad, I would help him. I’d carry his fiberglass, nails and hold things in place. It was so satisfying to me to start with all these flat piles of plywood and these members. After 2 to 3 weeks, we physically have a 30-foot hole created in our back garden by my dad with me being this young assistant. That was cool. He taught me those types of skills that I didn’t always use in my professional career, but I’ve always appreciated them. They’re so handy.
You learned to work with different shapes early on then.
Absolutely. I have a disability. I’m dyslexic. Part of dyslexia is that you see and understand differently. If I close my eyes and I think of a teardrop trailer, for example, or a boat, I’d see it in 3D. I’d zoom into the layers and stuff, but please don’t ask me to spellcheck something. Those other skills aren’t there, but I’m pleased with the ones my disability has given me.
Those are some unique talents. You’ve used to build in small living spaces because boats are similar to trailers, I would imagine.
In 2007, I became a sailor. I lived aboard a sailboat in Santa Cruz for a little while and got my captain’s license. I didn’t trade with the tiny places you have to crawl into to sleep while you’re under sail or what have you. Being landlocked here in Colorado, I brought that. There’s a romance, if you will, with a sailboat in the sense that for centuries, whether they were Polynesians or Europeans, would get aboard and they would say, “See you all later. I’m going on in an adventure.”
They sail off into the sunset and in many cases, they never came back. Those that did had fabulous stories of the wonderment and the view beyond the horizon. That romance has always been with me. Being landlocked again here in Colorado, that’s what teardrops represent to me, that sense of adventure. We’re all modern people now with our automobiles and such to escape. With our teardrops, we hook up and roll over the horizon.
When you’re building a business, there will always be tough challenges like cashflow.
Go anywhere. Tell us about Colorado Teardrops. You guys make some cool stuff. What was the inspiration behind the product? Is it a carry-over on manufacturing sailboats?
My daughter and I went camping in 2011. She’s as old as the year, which is one of the reasons I started Colorado Teardrops. We went from Boulder, Colorado, all the way to Kauai, Hawaii for a wedding in August. We started in June and camped all summer long. We started out in a tent and about a week and a half into our camping trip across the west with stops like Steamboat and Dinosaur National Monument and such, we were up in Yellowstone Lake and got a normal camping site.
As we set up the tent, we looked up and there was a sign over the tree that said, “Danger bear activity. Do not cross.” It’s one of those spooky forests where you stick your head in and it’s like, “This is like Sleeping Beauty spooky forest.” We stayed out of that part of the forest and we had a wonderful time. We didn’t have any encounters.
The morning we left, we were going up to Glacier National Park for our next stop. A grizzly killed a camper that morning. I heard it on NPR as we were rolling north through Montana and decided, “Let’s make a left.” We went through Idaho and kept dropping south because we wanted to avoid the grizzlies. As fathers, we’re protective of our young ones like the grizzlies are. I started noodling on, “What could I do with a smaller car that would give Sarah and me a hard shell to protect us from bears?” At the time, I had a Honda Accord Crosstour. It took me about a year and a half to figure it out.
Bears can get in cars, as you know.
They can bust windows and so on. A grizzly, even if it attacks your car, you still have some metal around because a big grizzly is probably not going to crawl in your car. It’s the black bear that will do that.
You will see them in cars all the time. I live in Bishop, so when we get up to Yosemite, they’re in cars all the time. They get in there and get stuck.
Pursuing those McDonald’s wrappers. We wanted to hard shell around us and it took a little while to discover teardrops, which is interesting because teardrops were invented in the 1930s. The oldest picture I’ve seen of a teardrop trailer is in a remote part of Colorado at that time in the early ‘30s towed behind a Model T. This teardrop trailer had wagon wheels. The remote part for the locals reading in Colorado was Sloan Lake, which is this great part of Denver now. It’s park-like but still an urban setting.
I didn’t realize they’re that old.
Because of their shape, if you were to take molten steel and drop it through the air, it would form a teardrop. That’s how they used to make ball bearings, drop steel. A teardrop is a perfect shape to travel through space, especially one with an atmosphere. In fact, I haul across America, and I do not always follow the speed limit. I might accelerate a little bit. I’ll see the teardrop hunker down to the road a little more. Because of its shape, it hugs the road. I had an employee with a Tacoma pickup truck. He swore that if he towed our Kenya land teardrop to Moab from Boulder here, he would get better gas mileage in his pickup truck than just driving those.
That’s when more thought went into shape, if you will. In the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s, we started getting bigger and bulkier. Honestly, working with a big rectangle is easier for design as far as interior spaces but if we look at today’s fifth wheelers or big square boxy RVs, they are nice big boxes, which is efficient on the inside but not necessarily efficient on the outside.
It’s horrible on the outside. We had a 1959 Airstream growing up. My dad likes to modify things as well, so it’s difficult on the inside because of all those curves.
It’s still so satisfying. That’s where the boat skills come in. I love those French curves.
That’s got to be tricky. There’s got to be some math and a lot of design work that goes into all the creations that you guys do. It’s impressive.
Thank you. That’s where dyslexia comes in. Growing up in the Bay Area, I became a computer-aided PCB designer. I was using my skills or my disciplines to design in 3D. Today, we still use 3D CAD to design the shapes and that gives us some great accuracy. Of course, we can output anything to a CNC machine to get those curves. Quite honestly, we at Colorado Teardrops don’t have our own CNC. We’re still loving touching the wood and the aluminum making is precise to the shapes we’re making.
You can visualize something in 3D before you design it. That’s got to be a great skill.
Even with 3D, there are limitations. It’s not until you physically build something that you’re able to make sure it all works well. It is a satisfying niche. There’s nothing more professionally satisfying to me than to visualize something, sketch it out either on the whiteboard or a legal tablet, and then go off and build it, and then stand back and look at the actual object. To me, that’s the highest form of satisfaction professionally.
Is that what you enjoy most about your work?
There’s so much. We have a team of about seventeen. Part of the satisfaction I get as well is coaching the younger generation in craftsmanship, skill and pride, and other life skills. I find great satisfaction in mentoring the younger folks that work for me.
What has been a couple of the toughest challenges getting the trailers off the ground and grow? More than a couple of them.
There have been a lot. Always, at the top of the list has to be cashflow. Cashflow is always a challenge in the sense that you could buy six months’ worth of parts, but are you going to part six months’ worth of money in the parts? Are those parts going to be available next month? Maybe you should buy six months’ worth of parts. There are challenges in that respect.
The way we do business, we have never asked for credit with any of our vendors, banks, or anything because I get great satisfaction knowing that we’re paying our bills. We’re not over-leveraged in any which way. At times you’ll hit mid-December and it’s like, “It’s snowing outside. Teardrops aren’t on many people’s Christmas lists. We got to go lean for a minute.” Expanding and contracting the business to match the pulse of consumer’s purchasing habits is an art form. At times, it’s stressful as heck.
How do you engage consumers and buyers? Do you go to a lot of shows and events or do they all come to you to your showroom?
We love doing shows. In fact, I send my team out to do the local shows as well. I’m talking to builders, and some of them are introverts. The crowds scare them. Shows are absolutely wonderful for us. However, they don’t produce the quantity of leads that we’d like. Let me get back to the team. I like the people working for me to understand what a live prospect looks like, what are the questions they ask, and how the products appear? I like my team to get that feedback.
We’re selling nationally. Our biggest impact is our website, believe it or not. We’re getting about 1,000 hits a day of new visitors to our websites across America. Most of our trailers have been rolling out of state, which is so flattering for a person to communicate with you email-wise and say, “I like this. Can you do that?”
Mind you, we haven’t met them. We haven’t looked them in the eye. We haven’t shaken their hands. They’re like, “I like it. Here’s my credit card. I’m mailing you a check. I took out a loan.” We’re asking for 50%. What we’re saying to them is, “You don’t know us. Other people do. Other people seem to like us. We take great pride in what we do. We’re real people. We live in this beautiful place. We would like to enable your adventures.” They sign up for it. It’s so flattering.
Most of our business is coming from the internet. Probably the smartest thing I did when I started the company was declared the name as Colorado, location, which has all kinds of positive attributes, and then teardrop, product. That works well for us. Mr. Google and SEO have this pop up whenever anybody types in teardrop because we’ve been at it for over five years.
Good for you. What kind of shows do you do? Do you do consumer shows or county fairs? What kinds of things do you go to?
Yeah. We were starting to do more off-road shows.
Overland Expo, that kind of thing.
Exactly. We certainly do the International Sportsmen’s Expo. We do a couple of RV shows. We did the GoPro Mountain Games in Vail, which is in our backyard. Those kinds of shows, but in the bigger picture, we’d love to hit the West Coast, the East Coast, especially the Overland show in the Carolinas. That’s definitely on our list.
What’s your distribution network like? Do you have any dealers? Do you have anybody on the East Coast that has a few trailers that people can look at?
No, we sell directly out of Boulder, Colorado. I’m getting customers in Virginia, Georgia, New York, Pennsylvania, and all over the West Coast. They look at our websites. Sometimes they fly in and meet us, but they’re looking at our website and laying down both money and trust that will deliver the product.
It’s a beautiful website. I was poking around. You guys did a great job.
Thank you. My friends in the RV industry, I hate to admit it but we’re part of that industry. They both recommend and then discouraged a sales channel. One of the reasons we’re able to create such a great product is because we don’t have to pay a remote sales channel a chunk of money. Therefore, we’re able to put that money into materials and quality.
That’s smart. That can be a big expense. I’ve been a sales guy for a number of different brands. You get a big team of salespeople, samples, and things you have to have. That can be expensive quick.
Salespeople are typically driven by commission and so is a sales organization. If you are the lowest-priced unit on an RV showroom floor, then you’re going to get less attention from the salespeople. Probably the most attention, at least with our product, is the actual consumer. They’re going to use you for eye candy and then try and upsell you into a $50,000 or $100,000 box.
Sales people are typically driven by commission.
From what I can tell on the website, you guys do high-quality, beautiful work. The craftsmanship is part of what you’re selling there as well.
Thank you for that.
This whole category has exploded lately. What do you think the future looks like?
We’re early in it. You’re probably not old enough to remember, but I am.
I don’t know. I’m old.
In the 1970s, I remember sitting in the gas lines.
I remember that.
They’re giving you stuff. We’re talking $0.30 a gallon for gas.
I was driving. I was waiting in gas lines.
Detroit couldn’t meet the demand for small fuel-efficient cars. They tried it with the Pinto, Omegas, and Gremlin. Detroit couldn’t deliver. Meanwhile, Honda, Toyota, at the time Datsun, they were killing it. The Millennials, Gen Xs, and on the edge of Baby Boomers are saying, “Why did I take a second out of my house to buy this big box that’s depreciated right off the lot? I can’t take it to just any campsite. I have to get reservations, which in spectacular places, can take years to get. Why don’t I buy something that affords me mobility, agility, and the ability to get way out back away from the crowd, so you’re not camping next to the guy watching the NBA Playoffs on his big 50-inch TV outside of his RV?”
I see continued explosive growth. We’ve doubled every year since we’ve started both in units out, sales numbers, and square footage. It’s a pain to do both at the time. If you keep growing your space, you have to. I see that in the industry. There’s also an issue of quality within the RV that people are like, “I took out a second on this was RV thing that appreciated 27% as soon as I start it up and drove it away. I got fifteen years of payments on to where a teardrop is so much more flexible.” The world’s realizing that.
Additionally, while the RV industry has done somewhere between 400,000 to 500,000 units a year for the last several years, campsites have not scaled. You buy this big unit and it’s like, “In 2022, I’ll be in Yellowstone. Wonderful.” Your teardrop is already loaded. It might be parked in the garage. You look at the weather and go, “I’ll go camping tonight.” In my case, twenty minutes up the canyon, you’re in a wonderful, peaceful spot. It might be a Thursday night.
It’s super flexible. That’s why I’m thinking about it. I live in Bishop, so the whole eastern is here up and down. It’s perfect for these little teardrops because there’s so much public land with dirt roads and accessible. You can get away from the crowds and camp. It’s like a tent. It’s awesome, but it’s way more comfortable than a tent.
We have fourteeners here in Colorado. Everybody wants to summit their fourteeners and so forth. It’s a great thing to do. You have to prepare and be up early in the morning. You got to be up at 4:30 or 5:30 because you have to be on your way back down at lunchtime because the thunderstorms are going to chase you down. You don’t want to be up top when it starts lightening up. Our customers keep complaining that they’re sleeping in.
It’s too comfortable.
They were in a tent on the ground. They wouldn’t have slept in there. They’d be looking forward to the alarm going off so that they can get out.
Where did your entrepreneurial spirit come from? Did you always have that or is that something you cultivated later?
I used to think I was sick when I was a kid and developed business plans. Things like little regional airlines, build this, or what have you. I’ve always had the spirit. I worked for a local Boulder company and they had a script buyer personality profile thing, Myers-Briggs.
I took one of those.
I took that and the purpose was, if you have a meeting with somebody that you have a conflict with, you can look up their personality type and figure out the best way for the two of you to communicate. There were about 250 of us in this company. I took my test and I was the only one that got this exact same rating as the founder of the company, and it was entrepreneur. I was like, “Here’s another sign from the gods that I should be doing something.”
Is Colorado Teardrops your first business or did you have a business on the boat building side also?
I had a business designing printed circuit boards in the late ‘80s, based in Boulder, Colorado. That worked well for a while until the space shuttle blew up. My customers all froze up, so I sold the business and got a good corporate job again. I’ve always had the spirit and I’ve always wanted to be embedded. I had a software company going forward before I got into teardrops. I was writing the same app that’s still a little bit ahead of the curve several years later. When you write an app for mobile devices and such, you need a whole lot of money to promote it. I wrote this app and had a budget for marketing and launching the app, which was about $250,000.
Meanwhile, I had built this teardrop. When my daughter Sarah and I first went camping, we came down to Safeway to get our groceries for our camping trip. Our doors were open to our teardrop. People were all around our teardrop and people were inside laying down. Imagine getting that Corvette you’ve always wanted. You park in the parking lot and you forget to lock the door. People are sitting and pretending they’re in a race or something. We looked at these people and they were so embarrassed in the sense that they lost themselves with the romance.
Talk about consumer validation.
Sarah and I scurried them away, loaded our groceries, and went up camping all weekend. People were like, “Can I see inside?” We’re driving back late Sunday night or Monday morning. We had three cars follow us into the gas station and ask us all about it. Another sign from the universe. “Instead of spending that $250,000 on marketing this app that may or may not get traction, maybe I should be doing that.” I took 2 to 3 days and weighed all the pros and cons. Colorado Teardrops, here we are.
What outdoor activities do you participate in? Do you still get out and camp a lot? It sounds like it.
Yeah, we camp a lot. I’m a fly fisherman, skier, mountain biker, and hiker. I love our environment. Even when you’re driving through mid-Nevada, if you’re on Highway 50, the loneliest highway in the world, if you make a right or left off that highway, you can just keep driving. I love the romance of that. My mom lives in California in the Sierra Foothills on the California side. I can get there in a day and a half. I take five days nowadays. I get a good wondering, go with those spots.
You got to swing by. If you ever come to Bishop, let me know. We’ll go camping.
I would love that. Bishop has always been on my list because it’s also a great hang-gliding spot. The jump off the ridgeline there, you can go for.
They do that a lot here. Do you do that, too?
I used to until it scared the bejeezus out of me.
I’m not good at jumping off or out of things. Have you had any mentors that have helped you along the way?
Yeah. The cool thing about Boulder, Colorado is we have entrepreneurs throughout town. There’s a Boulder Startup Week every week. When I was doing my software company, I worked on the fourth floor to where everybody rented single offices. There were all these wonderful entrepreneurs that you could ask questions to and so on. Great folks like that.
I’m British, so Winston Churchill. The challenges he had. The mental challenges, he also had. He overcame. Being British and an immigrant, we’re tough folks. We can take a punch, shake it off, and get back up, which is what being an entrepreneur is like. It’s not as glamorous as Elon Musk makes it seem to be. He’s taken plenty of punches, some of them publicly. Little things like that, the city coming to say, “You’re not zoned to do that there.”
“What am I going to do?”
You kept inching your way in a rather bad situation.
Do you have any suggestions or advice for folks wanting to get into their own business like that or into the outdoor industry somehow?
Test, in the sense that if these folks look up things like lean product management, it’s all about throw something out there and see if it gets some traction. If it doesn’t get some traction, understand why. How can you modify it to get traction? When we started our business, for example, we started with a rental business. Why? So that we could get a lot of opinions on our product before we started making them for sale. Test, optimize, which is what we’ve been doing for years. Start off that way. Start off small. It doesn’t cost a lot to pop up a website and say, “I’m selling this.” Measure your traffic. You don’t have to deliver nor should you take money.
Test and see what kind of itch you get. Keep tweaking it until you start to get hits. That’s in the virtual world. There’s nothing better than face to face with people. As you’re testing, you can ask leading questions. You have to ask open-ended questions. “What did you think?” You have to be okay with somebody’s insulting your product or idea. You got to keep smiling. Let it happen because you’re learning. They’re giving you something better than money.
A lot of the feedback that you get ends up being some of your sales copy and your sales spiel because they’re the things that they like.
There’s so much to learn constantly. Even today, I continue to test and learn. Our customers are particular in some cases. We’re working with a woman in Northern California that would like us to pimp out a galley with wine glass holders. There’s a lot of wine involved, and other features. We’re going to do that for her so that we can test her theory. When we do that, we don’t price it to make profit. We price it to understand the concept mutually so that we can get pictures and see how they trend.
Learn it and then you can sell that to someone else.
We can productize it and be efficient with something that goes through it well.
Do you have any routines that keep your sanity every day? Do you meditate, walk the dog, or exercise?
Yoga, mountain bike riding, and boats are important to keep your sanity. Also, a little humor at night is important to shave off the day. The Daily Show or whatever you got to watch to make you laugh and forget about either the pure bliss or hell you went through that day.
How about favorite books? Do you give books as gifts? Do you have any favorite books?
Being dyslexic, I can’t.
How about a favorite podcast? That’s always asked by a lot of people.
How I Built This. That’s a great one. That’s a wonderful podcast, along with Freakonomics and some of the other great things out there. When I do read books, I love history. I love seeing courage. I love the typical Greek story setup. You got your hero that’s got a problem. He finds the guide, the guide guides him, and he solves all the problems. The guide, that’s how we position ourselves. By the way, at Colorado Teardrops, we’re simply guides. The hero in the story is our customer, the insights. Their family or their spouse or whoever is filling the same bliss when they’re out in the wild.
You guide their ideas into fruition.
It’s satisfying work.
How about a favorite outdoor gear purchased under $100?
I get myself the best gifts. There is a fire pit. Unfortunately, across the west, we see fire bans. We’ve been blessed. California, Colorado, and everywhere in between have had great wet seasons. Come September, we may still have fire bans. A fire pit off of our eleven-pound propane tank is awesome because if you are in a campsite, you will be the only person with a fire that’s rolling in that campsite. You’re going to meet everybody. Everybody’s going to come by and offer you a whiskey or a beer and they’re sitting next to the fire. It’s quite nice.
Do you have a particular one that you like? Do you guys make something?
I got this one from REI. It’s great. It was right around $100. Of course, Camp Chef makes great camp stoves, barbecues, and so on so forth. We use them for our outdoor on-demand hot water showers. We have people grab a bucket of creek water and use that for their shower. You can go from creek water for a nice warm shower really quick without using your drinking water. It’s cool.
Those guys are great. I got to get that guy on the podcast. He and I have been playing podcast tag. I have a Camp Chef smoker. It’s great stuff.
Being an entrepreneur is not as glamorous as it sounds. You have to take punches as you go.
I love the Ever stove. The reason being is it puts out 20,000 BTU, where most of you put out 10,000 BTU. That doesn’t matter if you’re camping on the California coastline, but it does when you camp in 10,000 feet in the Rockies and Sierras.
As we wrap up, is there anything else you’d like to ask of our audience or say to our audience?
Whatever you do, make sure quality is shown. Don’t ever give up on quality. Don’t let a financial adviser tell you that you can make more money if you’re cheaper on your materials or cheaper on your process. You have to start with quality because, at the end of the day, that shows value.
That’s a good idea. That’s a good suggestion. Where can people find you if they want to follow up? Is it Email, Instagram, LinkedIn? How can they reach out?
It’s been great talking to you, Dean. I look forward to seeing one of your trailers in person. I’m drooling all over them. Can’t wait to get my hands on them.
We’re getting more and more in California, too. I appreciate you. Have a wonderful day.
Thank you. You, too. Bye-bye.
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- Colorado Teardrops
- Overland Expo
- International Sportsmen’s Expo
- How I Built This – Apple Podcasts
- REI Co-op
- Camp Chef
- The Outdoor Biz Podcast – Apple Podcasts
- Stitcher – The Outdoor Biz Podcast
- Spotify – The Outdoor Biz Podcast
- Facebook – The Outdoor Biz Podcast
- Twitter – Rick Saez
- Dinosaur National Monument
- Yellowstone Lake
- Glacier National Park
- GoPro Mountain Games
- Everest Stove