(CNN) -- Naturalist Beth Pratt has been exploring and celebrating wildlife since she was a child, whether discovering the great whales of Cape Cod with her parents or creating a special luxury habitat for her backyard frogs.
As a young girl she gazed with longing at photos of grizzly bears and wolves, and vowed to see the charismatic mega-fauna of the West. She realized her dream in her 20-year career in environmental leadership has included work at Yosemite and Yellowstone national parks. She's the director of the National Wildlife Federation's California office, living just outside Yosemite.
Pratt has wandered extensively throughout Yosemite's backcountry, hiked the John Muir Trail, swam the mile-long Tenaya Lake in Yosemite and run the Cape Cod Marathon with her father and "survived" (her word) the Tioga Pass Run: a 12.4-mile trek entirely uphill gaining 3,000 feet in elevation to arrive at the entrance of Yosemite.
To mark Earth Day 2013, CNN.com asked Pratt to share some of her favorite spots to find nature. Here are some of her recommendations and what makes each wild place special, in her own words:
Gaylor Lakes Trail, Yosemite National Park, California
Yosemite National Park is my favorite place on Earth, and the area near Tioga Pass is my favorite place in Yosemite. My annual rite of spring is hiking the Gaylor Lakes trail. Depending on the snowpack levels, in some years I've trekked through deep snow, while in other years the trail has been bone dry.
Gaylor Lakes offers an array of wonders -- five shimmering blue, subalpine lakes, views of Yosemite's high peaks, colorful spring wildflowers like lupine and monkey flower, and ruins of the Great Sierra silver mine. There are also possible encounters with some of my favorite critters: the unbearably cute pika and the annual spring love songs of the Yosemite toad and Pacific chorus frogs.
This trail starts right at the Tioga Pass entrance station (almost 10,000 feet in elevation) and is great for all levels of hikers as you can stop at the first view (about three-quarters of a mile) and call it a day or do the whole five-mile loop. The first three-quarters of a mile is all uphill, but you are rewarded with stunning views of Yosemite's high country at the top, including the Cathedral Range, Kuna Crest and Mount Dana as well as middle Gaylor Lake. Don't stop there, as the rest of the hike allows you to wander through a sublime, expansive basin and is much less strenuous.
Mount Washburn, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
When I worked in Yellowstone and people asked me what to do if they only had a day in the park, I would recommend the Mount Washburn hike. Yellowstone is in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, but Mount Washburn is in Wyoming. It's easily the best trail in Yellowstone in terms of bang for your wildlife, wildflower and scenery buck.
In just the drive alone to Mount Washburn in springtime, no matter what your approach, nature will reward you with some unprecedented wildlife sightings, as it's the seasonal baby boom in Yellowstone, which includes the adorable orange bison calves, and gangly elk youngsters, along with grizzly and black bears cubs. Spring is the best time for wildlife viewing in Yellowstone, and my record is eight grizzly bears, one wolf and one moose (and countless bison, bighorn, pronghorn and elk) in one day. Dunraven Pass is usually awash with yellow flowers in springtime as well.
On the hike, you'll be strolling through wildflower gardens, which usually peak in July and August. And you'll likely encounter the herds of bighorn sheep that frequent the rocky terrain. It's rare to see rams here, but the cuteness of the playful antics of the young lambs more than compensates. The hike to the summit is six miles round trip and with access usually in June, just depending on the snowpack.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee
On a visit to the Great Smoky Mountains a few years ago, I searched of course for frogs (the park has 13 species of frogs and toad), but saw a bright red salamander crawling on a rock during a hike, and when I asked my guide about its species, I learned an amazing fact -- the Great Smoky Mountains are known as the "Salamander Capital of the World." The area houses five families of salamanders and 30 species. They are nicknamed "spring lizards" in the Appalachians, although they are technically not lizards. The Hellbender salamander, the largest in the Great Smoky Mountains, can reach 29 inches in length.
Some places to see salamanders in springtime, near any wet area in the park, include Grotto Falls at the Trillium Gap Trailhead; Ramsey Cascades (the tallest waterfall in the park); Cove Hardwood self-guiding nature trail, which starts from Chimney's Picnic Area; and Little River Watershed for the Hellbender salamanders. The Ash Hooper Branch Wildflower Trail is one of the best hikes for wildflowers and also pretty good for salamanders.
Lands End Coastal Trail, San Francisco