This world-famous sanctuary is so popular for bear viewing that visitors must enter a lottery to get access.
The McNeil River State Game Sanctuary, just north of Katmai National Park and Preserve on the Alaska Peninsula, protects the world's largest concentration of brown bears. The 200 square mile sanctuary is 100 air miles west of Homer.
Things to Do
This spot is renowned among wildlife photographers hoping to capture images of brown bears fishing at the famous McNeil River Falls. It’s not uncommon for 20 or more brown bears to feed together at the falls. Up to 74 have been spotted there at one time.
The prime time to see the greatest number of brown bears is mid-June at Mikfik Creek or July to mid-August at McNeil River. A permit is required to view the bears at McNeil River, and the demand for them is so high that a lottery is staged by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. The state agency allows 10 visitors per day for a four-day period between June 7 and August 25 to watch the bears feed.
There is a nonrefundable fee to enter the permit lottery and a user fee to visit the sanctuary for the lucky 185 people per year who receive a permit. Applications for the current year must be received by March 1. Applications received from April on will be applied to the following year.
Lucky permit winners fly out to a remote camp to stay at a campground and take daily trips out to the bear viewing areas, led by Department of Fish and Game naturalists. Guided groups typically spend six to seven hours each day watching the bears feed less than 60 feet away in the pools where salmon gather. Watching and photographing giant brown bears at such close range is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
McNeil River’s salmon runs are the reason why the area attracts such a dense concentration of bears. All five species of Pacific salmon can be found in the sanctuary. The chum salmon run from July to mid-August is the main target for bears at McNeil River. The sockeye salmon run in June attracts a smaller number of bears to the Mikfik Creek area, the other top bear viewing area in the sanctuary.
In addition to brown bears, the sanctuary is home to a wide variety of wildlife including wolves, red fox, moose, caribou, wolverines, eagles, ducks, cormorants, and seabirds.
The McNeil River originates in the Aleutian Mountains and travels northeast to empty into Akumwarvik Bay in the lower Cook Inlet. The river offers prime fishing for bears due to a collection of rocks and boulders that make up McNeil River Falls. The falls’ pools and rapids slow down the salmon as they migrate upstream to spawn, making them easy targets for hungry brown bears.
Facilities and Camping
The sanctuary offers only primitive camping in a designated camping area. Visitors need to be totally self-sufficient and bring their own camping gear and food. Cook stoves are not needed and basic pots and pans are supplied, though visitors will need to bring personal utensils, plates, and bowls. All cooking is done in a designated cooking cabin for bear safety. Visitors needs to be prepared for possible cold, wet weather conditions and be in good physical condition to make the four-mile round-trip hike to the bear viewing area.
There is no road access to McNeil River. Most visitors depart from Homer with one of several air charter operators who fly to the sanctuary. Air service to McNeil River is also available from Anchorage, Kenai, and King Salmon.
Learn about bear viewing at Brooks Falls in nearby Katmai National Park and Preserve.
For more information, visit the McNeil River State Game Sanctuary website.
The sanctuary offers only primitive camping in a designated camping area. Visitors need to be totally self-sufficient and bring their own tent, sleeping bag and pad, hip boots, clothes and food. Cook stoves are not needed and basic pots and pans are supplied. Visitors will need to bring personal utensils, plates, bowls and any specialized cook gear they need. They also need to be in good physical condition as it is a four-mile round-trip hike to the bear-viewing pad.
There is a nonrefundable fee by March 1 for the lottery draw and a user fee to visit the sanctuary for the lucky few who receive a permit. Applications for the current year must be received by March 1. Applications received from April on will be applied to the following year. You can apply online or by mail to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Full details on the permitting process, fees, key dates and more are online at www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=mcneilriver.main.
There is no road access to McNeil River. Most visitors depart from Homer with one of several air charter operators who fly to the sanctuary. Air service to McNeil River is also available from Anchorage, Kenai or King Salmon.
For more information contact the Alaska Department of Fish & Game office (907-267-2182; www.wildlife.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=mcneil_river.main) in Anchorage.