The late CBS News travel correspondent Charles Kuralt called U.S. 212, or Beartooth Highway, "the most beautiful road in America." For me, it's true. My jaw dropped open in awe the entire drive; this was a continual scenic vista on steroids. I recommend you drive this magnificent 67-mile highway by all means, but get out of the car as well. There are many beautiful lakes to see a short walk from the road. The Island Lake trailhead, one mile east of the Top of the World Store at the end of a short road to Island Lake Campground, provides as much or as little a hike as you like.
Be sure to look (and listen) for pika along the route. Besides frog, pika are a favorite critter of mine. These intrepid creatures live at high altitudes and do not hibernate in the winter. Instead they gather vegetation in haystacks to dry for winter forage. And they are also unbearably cute. Listen for their distinctive high-pitched chirping as you walk through rocky terrain.
And the springtime wildflowers are stunning. I cherish the delicate sky pilot because the flowers seem to me like precious gems worn by the mountains. But the endless meadows filled with a purple-blue ocean of lupine, or the sunset orange-red of the Indian paintbrush (Wyoming's state flower) will leave you speechless. The road usually opens, depending on snow conditions, mid-April to mid-June.
Platte River, Nebraska
In college, I drove across country every summer, visiting national parks and other wild areas. One year I visited friends in Kearney, Nebraska, the Sandhill Crane Migration capital of the world. As we strolled along the Platte River, I was disappointed to learn I would just miss the fall stop over. The Sandhill Crane migration is a truly remarkable event.
More than 80% of all of the world's sandhill cranes (about 500,000) make a pit stop in spring here before heading north to their summer breeding grounds. In addition, more than 10 million ducks and geese travel here as well. That's a lot of birds.
The spring migration runs from February to April. If you want to avoid the crowds and get out of the cars, birding friends recommend the North Platte Area such as at Buffalo Bill State Historic Park. In the Kearney area, Audubon's Rowe Sanctuary offers tours for a fee.
Cape Cod National Seashore, Massachusetts
Cape Cod is my childhood wilderness, where I came to love both nature and the outdoors because of my parents' affection for the place. We vacationed there annually throughout my youth, and eventually moved to the edge of Cape Cod, Plymouth, when I was in high school. I remember my dad taking me to see beached whales as a kid -- and live ones on whale watching trips -- and swimming in the waters of Cape Cod National Seashore.
My favorite discovery on the beaches of Cape Cod was the horseshoe crabs. These relics from the dinosaur age transfixed me, and I would collect what I thought back then were dead horseshoe crabs -- I now know it's their molted shells -- and bring them home to study. Finding a live one in the water was always a delight. Watching the horseshoe crabs spawn by the full moon, which they do generally from April to June, has always been a highlight for me.
In my talks about California wildlife, I always end with a photo of a horseshoe crab, even though we lack the animal on the Pacific Coast. For me these ancient creatures engendered my love of wildlife, and they remind me of the wonder of running around the beaches of Cape Cod as a kid, excitedly searching for these prehistoric creatures in the soft sand.