This sanctuary is so popular for bear viewing, 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 and 250 miles southwest of Anchorage, protects the world's largest concentration of brown bears. The sanctuary protects about 200 square miles of wildlife habitat, and is located approximately 250 air miles (400 kilometers) southwest of Anchorage and 100 air miles (160 kilometers) west of Homer.
This spot is renowned among wildlife photographers. It’s not uncommon for 20 or more brown bears to feed together at McNeil River Falls; up to 74 have been spotted there at one time.
The Alaska State Legislature designated the McNeil River area as a wildlife sanctuary in 1967, and enlarged it in 1993, to protect the world's largest concentration of wild brown bears.
McNeil River originates from glaciers and alpine lakes located high in the mountains of the Aleutian Range. About one mile upstream from its mouth, a series of rocks and boulders forms McNeil River Falls. Salmon are slowed in their movements by the falls, and they congregate there during their upstream migration to their spawning grounds. Since there are few rivers in the area with similar fishing sites, bears congregate at McNeil River Falls in numbers that have brought McNeil River worldwide fame.
As the river makes it way toward the shores of lower Cook Inlet in southwestern Alaska, it provides sustenance to an array of fish and wildlife, most visibly salmon and brown bears. Although all five species of Pacific salmon are present in the sanctuary, it is the calico-colored chum salmon that primarily attract bears to McNeil River in early July through mid-August.
In addition to brown bears and salmon, red fox, arctic ground squirrels, harbor seals and bald eagles are commonly observed. Other wildlife that may be observed in the sanctuary includes moose, caribou, wolves, wolverine, various furbearers, waterfowl, sea ducks and sea birds. McNeil River and nearby Mikfik Creek drain into Kamishak Bay in the shadow of Augustine Island, an active volcano. This is a roadless area with no modern amenities and it is virtually undisturbed by human development.
During June, a smaller number of bears are attracted to nearby Mikfik Creek by migrating sockeye salmon. During this period, visitors observe bears from a variety of sites on or near the creek while the bears catch fish and graze on tidal vegetation.
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 to watch the bears feed. From a camp, park guides lead a two-mile hike across sedge flats and through the thigh-deep Mikfik Creek to the viewing area on a bluff. There you can watch 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 an once-in-a-lifetime experience.
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.