At the northern end of the Alaska Peninsula, 200 miles southwest of Anchorage, this game sanctuary was established in 1967 to protect the world's largest gathering of brown bears. Since then, it has earned a reputation as the finest bear-viewing locale in North America, and likely the world. McNeil River is the standard by which all other bear watching is measured. The main focus is McNeil Falls, where bears come to feed on chum salmon returning to spawn. All those
National Geographic films you've seen of bears fishing? Odds are this is the spot. During the peak of the chum run (July to mid-August) dozens of brown bears congregate at the falls playing who can slap the most fish out of the water. When the salmon are running thickest, the bears only eat the fattiest parts of the fish—brains, roe, and skin—which means the leftovers are a smorgasbord for other animals; even the plant life depends on nutrients from bear leftovers. As many as 70 bears, including cubs, have been observed along the river in a single day. More than 100 bears roam along the river each season, most of which have been identified by the Alaska Fish & Game scientists whose job it is to monitor both mammals and salmon flows at the falls. It's not just the sheer number of bears that makes McNeil special; over the years several bears have become highly accustomed to human presence. The bears will play, eat, nap, and nurse cubs within 15 to 20 feet of the falls viewing pad, sometimes even closer—which lets visitors learn firsthand that bears smell like very wet dogs. Do not think the bears are tame; they are still wild animals and the sanctuary staff makes sure that visitors behave in a nonthreatening, nonintrusive way. Nevertheless, in all its years of placing man alongside bear, there has never been an attack.
To that end, no more than 10 people a day, always accompanied by one or two state biologists, are allowed to visit bear-viewing sites from June 7 through August 25. Because demand is so high, an annual drawing is held in mid-March to determine permit winners. Be warned: Alaska residents get preferential treatment in the lottery. Applications must be received by March 1 to be eligible. Nearly all visitors fly into McNeil Sanctuary on floatplanes. Most arrange for air-taxi flights out of Homer on the Kenai Peninsula; prepare to pay at least $600 for each roundtrip flight. Once you are in the sanctuary, all travel is on foot and closely guided by state biologists.