McNeil River State Game Sanctuary
At a Glance
You have to enter a lottery to obtain a permit to visit McNeil River where visitation is tightly controlled. Most people arrive by floatplane, facilities are minimal (i.e. bring a tent), and visitors must be prepared for stiff hikes through muck, tidal flats, and over hill and dale. But if you’re up for it, it’s worth it.
McNeil River hosts the world’s largest documented concentration of brown bears. As many as 144 individual bears have been observed at the river over the course of a summer and as many as 74 bears observed at one time. The sanctuary is located at the base of the Alaska Peninsula, 100 miles west of Homer, among rolling hills and tundra set against a back drop of snow-capped peaks and volcanoes along the Aleutian Range.
Of course, the number of bears sighted varies depending on the abundance of food. Early in the season (before July), bear viewing is centered along Mikfik Creek’s short sockeye salmon run. Visitors are at eye level with the bears at Mikfik making it easier to observe individual behavior more closely than at the more chaotic McNeil River Falls, where there may be dozens of bears. Bear activities may include fishing, mating, competition for mates, and establishment of local dominance among adult bears.
Bear activity at the McNeil River Falls starts in early July as dog salmon (chum) begin to spawn and continues through the end of August. This is the time and place to see lots of big bears at one time. Viewing is from a two-tiered rock bench above the falls.
There are no lodging accommodations or food services at McNeil. Visitors must bring their own food, camping equipment, clothing, and camera gear. Since access is generally by floatplane, weight can be a consideration so consult with the air taxi services when planning your trip. A small camping area, located just off the beach, has level gravel pads to accommodate tents. A cook shack is available for preparing meals (propane is provided) and storing foodstuffs. There is also a wash shack/sauna and outhouse. Fresh water can be hauled from a nearby creek for cooking and drinking—bring your own disinfection equipment.
A day in the field can last from eight to 10 hours. Bring everything you need for the day—hip boots (preferable) or solid-soled waders are a must, along with extra clothing/rain gear, food, water, and camera gear.
Access to McNeil River Sanctuary and camp is generally by floatplane. Several commercial air taxis offer transportation to the sanctuary from Homer, Kenai/Soldotna, King Salmon and Anchorage. Floatplane access into the McNeil camp is limited by tides, weather, daylight, and transporter availability. Make reservations well in advance of your visit.
The following list provides information on air taxi operators who have obtained, or indicated they plan to obtain authorization from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to transport visitors to the sanctuary. This list should not be considered a recommendation of any particular operator, nor should it be considered a complete list, other transporters may be available but will need to obtain an access authorization prior to flying into McNeil River SGS & SGR.
For information on rates and schedules contact air taxi operators directly.
Visit the McNeil River webpage for information on visitation, fish and wildlife, and public use
Questions on Lottery, Viewing Program & Permits:
Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game/Division of Wildlife Conservation
Attn: McNeil River State Game Sanctuary
333 Raspberry Rd
Anchorage, AK 99518-1599
State Game Sanctuary and Refuge Management