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Know the West

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.


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.