Best place to see a crowd of grizzlies

A few tourists get close to amazing numbers of bears catching salmon at Alaska's McNeil River Falls.

  • Dozens of grizzlies crowd into the McNeil River during the summer to catch migrating salmon. Visitors to the McNeil River State Game Sanctuary and Refuge can get within 10 feet of the bears in certain viewing areas.

    Drew Hamilton /Alaska Department of Fish and Game
 

Official name: McNeil River State Game Sanctuary and Refuge, run by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Why it's the best: Grizzly bears gather in amazing crowds to feast on the salmon migrating up the McNeil River and Mikfik Creek; they also browse sedge and dig clams on nearby flats. From the best viewing positions, you often see huge bears that are only 30 feet away; sometimes they wander as close as 10 feet, because they pretty much go wherever they wish.

Timing: The bear-viewing season runs from June 7 to Aug. 25. Most tourists spend four full days in the camp, which is on the shore of Cook Inlet, 250 miles southwest of Anchorage, meaning five to six nights depending on how you arrange the travel to and from.

Exclusivity: Each four-day viewing period is limited to 10 tourists, chosen by lottery. People from around the world enter, and your odds of winning range from 2 percent to 25 percent, depending on whether you're trying for one of the peak periods during the last three weeks of July (when you're likely to see 40-60 grizzlies at a time, and sometimes more than 70, as they concentrate on the salmon jumping up McNeil River Falls) or nonpeak periods (when you'll likely see 10-30 grizzlies in the wider area). It's harder for groups: Each application can represent no more than three people. Suppose you want to go with two friends. As soon as the lottery fills the first eight slots for the time period you want, your application will be automatically excluded, because there are only two slots left. Submitting three applications with one name on each won't help, because the odds of all three being drawn are infinitesimally small.

What to bring: The weather is typically cool and rainy; Fish and Game recommends bringing a good raincoat and rain pants, plus waders, boots, a tent and other camping gear, food, insect repellent and a camera. Bear spray and guns are not recommended; a few resident Fish and Game staffers are here to ward off any trouble. The camp has outhouses and a shared kitchen in a cabin, equipped with basic pots and pans. The viewing position for the river's falls is simply a gravel pad. You'll spend as long as eight hours a day there; camp chairs are provided, but don't forget to bring your sense of endurance.

Cost: $25 to enter the lottery. If your application is drawn from the pile, it's $150-$350 for a standard permit, depending on whether or not you're an Alaska resident. "Standby" permits, which are cheaper and easier to get, allow you to hang out at camp in the hope of taking the place of anyone who decides to take a day off while you're here. (Standbys typically get to view bears at least one day.) Plus, to reach the camp, you buy a seat on a small floatplane (about $750) for the final hour or two of travel from Homer or Anchorage or other launching places. And if you're not in Alaska to start with, you'll have to get to the state – figure another $1,000 or so for a commercial jet, cruise ship or a long drive.

Expert advice: Notice how "the bears have different fishing methods, and there's all sorts of social interplay between them, as they jockey around to see who's dominant," says Ed Weiss, a Fish and Game biologist who helps manage the sanctuary. Some grizzlies slap the salmon onto the banks, while others catch the fish in their mouths. Some even swim underwater – a strategy called "bear snorkeling."

Alternatives: Browse the Web for info on other good places to view crowds of grizzlies, such as Anan Creek, in the Tongass National Forest near Wrangell, Alaska; Katmai National Park; and British Columbia's Khutzeymateen Provincial Park. Floatplane operations based in Homer also offer one-day round-trip flights to bear-viewing spots.

This story is part of an April 2014 special issue of the HCN magazine devoted to travel in the West. Ray Ring is an HCN senior editor based in Bozeman, Mont.

High Country News Classifieds
  • MEMBERSHIP DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement: Membership Director Job Title: Membership Director Supervisor: Executive Director Classification: Full-time exempt Location: Boise, ID Job Overview Winter Wildlands Alliance is seeking a...
  • IMPROVED LOT
    Private road, hillside, views. Well, pad, septic, 99 sq.ft. hut. Dryland permaculture orchard. Wildlife. San Diego--long growing season
  • STEWARDSHIP SPECIALIST
    San Isabel Land Protection Trust seeks experienced person to manage its 133 conservation easements in south-central Colorado.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Executive Director Position Announcement POSITION TITLE: Executive Director ORGANIZATION: Friends of Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument REPORTING TO: Board of Directors LOCATION: Ashland, OR POSTING CLOSES: March...
  • ARIZONA CONSERVATION CORPS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Arizona Conservation Corps is seeking a Program Director in Flagstaff or Tucson
  • UNIQUE INVESTMENT OPPORTUNITY
    Profitable off-the-grid business located 2 miles from Glacier National Park. Owner has 6 years operating experience. Seeking investor or partner for business expansion and enhancement....
  • NEW MEXICO PROPERTY - SILVER CITY
    20 acres, $80,000. Owner financing, well, driveway, fencing possible, very private, sensible covenants, broker owned. Contact - 575-534-7955 or [email protected]
  • GRANT WRITER
    "We all love this place we call Montana. We believe that land and water and air are not ours to despoil, but ours to steward...
  • COMMUNICATIONS COORDINATOR
    ABOUT US: "This thriving citizens organization exemplifies the ideal of public involvement in public processes." - Billings Gazette At Northern Plains, we believe that true...
  • ST. LAWRENCE UNIVERSITY - ASSISTANT DIRECTOR IN THE OUTDOOR PROGRAM
    To view the complete position description please visit: http://employment.stlawu.edu. St. Lawrence University is an Equal Opportunity Employer.
  • TRAIL CREW & ASSISTANT TRAIL CREW LEADERS
    SEEKING TALENTED TRAIL WORK LEADERS The Pacific Crest Trail Association, headquartered in Sacramento, California is dedicated to protecting, preserving and promoting the Pacific Crest National...
  • SEASONAL SAN JUAN RANGERS
    Seeking experienced crew members to patrol Colorado's most iconic mountain wilderness.
  • REMOTE SITKA ALASKA FLOAT HOUSE VACATION RENTAL
    Vacation rental located in calm protected waters 8 miles from Sitka, AK via boat with opportunities to fish and view wildlife. Skiff rental also available.
  • DEVELOPMENT AND ADVOCACY DIRECTOR
    Provide stewardship and protection for the Great Burn wildlands along the Montana-Idaho stateline. This position is based in Missoula, MT, where a river runs through...
  • LISA MACKEY PHOTOGRAPHY
    Fine Art Gicle Printing. Photo papers, fine art papers, canvas. Widths up to 44". Art printing by an artist.
  • WILDERNESS CONSERVATION CORPS - OREGON
    The Siskiyou Mountain Club is hiring interns for the 2020 Field Season. Interns utilize non-mechanized tools to complete trail restoration and maintenance while gaining job...
  • EXPERT LAND STEWART
    Available for site conservator, property manager. View resume at http://skills.ojadigital.net.
  • CONSERVATIONIST? IRRIGABLE LAND?
    Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details: http://seeds.ojaidigital.net.
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Colorado Plateau Natural & Human History Field Seminars. Lodge, river, hiking options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • WESTERN NATIVE SEED
    Specializing in native seeds and seed mixes for western states.