The Ultimate Guide To McNeil River State Game Sanctuary

McNeil River Bear Viewing Salmon Eggs
The Incredible Power & Beauty Of The Fishing Coastal Brown Bears At McNeil | Photo – Phillip Flippo

Ever since I picked up my first real camera, I discovered many awesome people in the photography community that loved to share some of their favorite locations to see incredible things here in Alaska. People discussed the high mountain wonders of Denali National Park, the winding pathways and glacier views on the road to Valdez, and the incredible ocean wonderland that is the Kenai Fjords National Park.

As a lifelong Alaskan I was familiar with many of these types of places, but there was one place that came up early into my career that I had definitely never heard of – McNeil River.

Adding even more intrigue to this already mysterious place, was the fact that everyone talked about it in such different terms. Sure everyone included something along the lines of “World Class Bear Viewing” in their stories about McNeil, but after that one common denominator, it almost sounded like all these people who had been there, had actually gone to different places entirely.

I had one person tell me about how it is such an incredibly important conservation/education project, another who described it as a surrealist landscape that could emotionally inspire anyone on the planet, and then a very technical friend of mine tell me about how it has, “Really fascinating geology and history.”

After hearing enough of these stories I decided to look into McNeil River for myself.

So come along with me as I discuss and detail everything you need to know about what McNeil River is, how to get there, what to expect, and why it is just so darn special.

Know The Basics of McNeil Before You Try To Visit

McNeil River Bear Viewing River Geology
McNeil River Bears Relaxing On The Beach | Photo – Phillip Flippo

It is pretty clear if you talk to anyone about McNeil that you will definitely get to see Coastal Brown Bears if you come here, but what makes it different than Katmai, Alaska for instance?

A quick Google search immediately revealed a few interesting things to me (again this was all new to me). Firstly, that you can’t just go there, you must actually win an extremely limited lottery (you can apply here before March 1st of every year). Only 185 people in the entire world every year actually are awarded permits.

Second, (even if you do win the lottery) is that it’s not like you are going to fly out to a fancy remote Alaskan resort. This place is purposefully and meticulously maintained in such a manner to impact the Bears and surrounding environment as little as possible.

You will be tent camping next to the Bears, you will be getting your own water from streams, and the only food is what you can fit in your limited pack. There is no wheelchair access, there is no store, it is absolute wild remote Alaskan wilderness.

Third, is that going to McNeil is not cheap. The lottery itself is inexpensive at $30 for both Alaskan residents and out-of-state non-residents, but if you are chosen you will have to pay $225 as an Alaskan or $525 as an out-of-state non-resident in order to go.

You cannot drive here, it is only accessible by small float planes, so you will be paying $900 a seat (we went with Northwind Aviation). Not to mention after acquiring all the necessary camping equipment, photo gear, food, and clothing it can easily cost $5,000 or more if you are going with a party of two (so much more if you are coming from out of state).

If it’s this hard to win the chance to go, somewhere so remote and so expensive, would I say it is worth it? ABSOLUTELY!

Winning The Lottery & Getting Prepared For The Trip

McNeil River Bear Viewing Outside of Shack
McNeil River Communal Cook Shack | Photo – Andrea Frey

My wife, Ashana Flippo, considered the financial costs but put on a brave face and bought our lottery tickets online (again you can get yours here every year before March 1st) we figured what would be the harm as it was so incredibly unlikely that we would win. We both won, on our first try…

We had never really traveled somewhere remote like this, we had a ton of questions on how to get there and what to actually bring.

In this section of the article I am going to do my best to help anyone reading this on just what to do to prepare. We also consulted with several people who had been out to McNeil River before, so I will include some of their thoughts as well.

What To Pack & Why

McNeil River Bear Viewing Return Base Camp
McNeil River Bear Viewing Returning To Base Camp After A Long Day | Photo – Ashana Flippo

McNeil River is a cold place, it is a wet place, you will be walking long distances, and it has only the most basic amenities, so coming prepared will make you and your fellow campers a lot happier.

Although there are some simple recommendation lists out there on what to bring, they were never very comprehensive, and sometimes downright confusing. So I will attempt to be very thorough so you can feel confident in what to bring along on your trip to McNeil River.

Camping Gear:

  • Ultralight Tent (you must get something that is very capable of standing up to rain and high winds)
  • Sleeping Bag (it will be cold at night, I recommend a 30°F rated bag)
  • Sleeping Pad & Repair Kit (the small gravel patch you will pitch your tent in is cold and hard, you will need a pad)
  • Pillow (we sacrificed space and brought our actual pillows but camping pillows are fine)
  • Flashlight/Headlamp (walking around in the dark to find the outhouse without a light source is not what you wanna do, trust me)
  • Trash Bag/Large Ziplock
  • Leatherman
  • Bowls, Plates, Utensils (lightweight back country mess kit style is best, they have pots and pans)
  • Water Bladder
  • Water Filtration System (I recommend the pump style)
  • Hiking Poles
  • Hand Warmers
  • McNeil Permit Printed & ID
  • Lighter
  • Dry Bag
  • Games/Cards/Books (there is a surprising collection of books and a few games in the cook shack fyi)


  • Towel
  • Washcloth
  • Soap For Dishes (they will provide special body soap for the sauna)
  • Body Wipes (don’t forget these)
  • Deodorant
  • Toothbrush/Paste
  • Sunscreen
  • Bug Spray
  • Hand Sanitizer
  • Toilet Paper
  • Poo Bag (you cannot leave your… leavings, on the trail, you have to take them with you)
  • Chapstick


  • Raincoat (it will be very wet, don’t forget this)
  • Puff Coat
  • Fleece Jacket
  • Long Sleeve T-Shirt
  • T-Shirts (5)
  • Waders (you will get hot fast out on the trails, I recommend you wear non-neoprene chest waders with layers underneath as desired)
  • Hiking pants (1-2)
  • Sweat Pants
  • Long Underwear
  • Belt
  • Underwear (5)
  • Socks (5+ pairs)
  • Baseball Hat
  • Stocking Cap
  • Buff
  • Gloves
  • Bug Hat/Headnet (only once were the bugs out bad enough to warrant bringing this, but it would have been horrible without it)
  • Sunglasses
  • Camp Shoes
  • Laundry Bag


  • Prepackaged Dehydrated Camping Meals – Breakfast (5)
  • Prepackaged Dehydrated Camping Meals – Lunch (5)
  • Prepackaged Dehydrated Camping Meals – Dinner (6)
  • Fresh Food/Meals As Weight Will Allow (replacing a few dehydrated meals)
  • Wine (or whatever you like)
  • Protein Bars
  • Snacks In General (better to bring more than less)
  • Small Hot Sauce & Condiments

Camera/Electronics (If You Are A Photographer/Filmmaker):

  • Primary Camera Body
  • Backup Camera Body
  • 200-600mm Lens (wildlife, 100-400mm also would be excellent)
  • 20mm-70mm Lenses (landscapes)
  • 1.4x Teleconverter (I rarely used mine but still worth it)
  • Rain Covers
  • Batteries
  • Memory Cards
  • Binoculars
  • Tripod (Or Monopod)
  • Video Related Equipment (if filming)
  • Battery Banks (4) (solar power does poorly in McNeil, bring backup power)
  • Cords (as needed to support your work in the field)

How To Get To McNeil River State Game Sanctuary

McNeil River Bear Viewing Float Plane
McNeil River Bear Viewing Float Plane Drop Off | Photo – Ashana Flippo

Now that you have all your gear ready, you need to arrange to get on a plane to actually take you to remote McNeil River. It is highly recommended that, as soon as you have confirmation that you have won the lottery, you get your small float plane tickets (there is no guaranteed availability and you don’t wanna be stuck buying a whole plane when you just needed two seats).

Because of the geographical location of McNeil River (just north of Katmai National Park) it is much easier to get a flight leaving from a city in lower southcentral Alaska. The most popular is Homer Alaska which I highly recommend anyway as driving to Homer is absolutely stunning, see our article about the drive from Anchorage to Homer here.

Regardless, there are a number of different small aviation companies that can take you, see a list of them here. Like I mentioned before we used Northwind Aviation and they were great, we paid about $880 a seat. Additionally, due to how the permitting process works, you can actually book your flights for one day before and then one day after your permit period (this allows you to adjust for weather issues, but for us was just extra time with the Bears).

Once you’ve procured all of you camping supplies, food, and plane tickets you are set to depart on the adventure of a lifetime.

The Flight Over To McNeil River Base Camp

McNeil River Bear Viewing Flying
McNeil River Bear Viewing Flying To Base Camp | Photo – Phillip Flippo

The flight over to McNeil River is a pretty spectacular in and of itself, so be prepared to soak it all in. Even though I am a nervous flyer, and small planes are my least favorite, I was absolutely astounded by what I saw.

Ancient volcanoes, beautiful glittering ocean waters, loads of sea life, and when you get close to camp, Bears of course!

You can see the whole camp come into view after your short flight (our flight was about 45 minutes from Homer, Alaska) and when you do, oh boy!

The realization for just how remote this place is really sets in, alongside the incredible otherworldly geology… well I can just tell you it feels unbelievably special.

McNeil River Bear Viewing Aerial View
McNeil River Bear Viewing Aerial View | Photo Courtesy Of Alaska Department Of Fish & Game

This photo gives a pretty good layout of the entire camp where you will be spending a good deal of your time. It should also be noted that there are no more than 10 people ever at the sanctuary at one time, so it never gets too cramped.

The staff outhouse, tool shed, and two housing cabins are off limits (unless you need something, then you can knock on their door). There are usually three staff members present, a supervisor and their two right hand men/women.

There are two outhouses that we permit holders got to use (lots of funny comics all over the walls).

There is a food cache which we did not use, the limited number of gravel campsites for us all to use, and then the most important building in all of McNeil River, the legendary Cook Shack (or cook cabin).

The Cook Shack is the community center for everyone where you put all your food and gear when you first arrive. It has benches and tables, pots/pans, heating stoves (and they already have heating fuel), books/games, but most importantly it’s where everybody gets together at the beginning and end of everyday.

McNeil River Bear Viewing Inside Shack
McNeil River Bear Viewing Inside Cook Shack | Photo – Ashana Flippo

Orientation begins every morning at a set time inside the Cook Shack (they will tell you when you land) and then at night it’s where everyone hangs out. This is a really soul enriching place and even though its fun to be out camping in remote Alaska, I highly recommend you meet with and socialize with the other permit holders and staff. Sharing stories from around Alaska and the world, while being in an incredible place like McNeil River is absolutely part of the whole experience.

The whole feeling of being exhausted at the end of a long day, cooking together, and feeling just plain connected to both each other and the Earth is a powerful sensation. One that absolutely will change your life if you welcome it.

As far as facilities, there is only one more, but its good one, the Sauna! It is a relatively more recent addition and if you get hot and sweaty (or cold and sweaty), having a nice hot pot of water to dip into and rinse off with is incredible.

It is another element that will bring you closer to the planet I believe. It’s not the morning shower before a busy work day, you are in nature, the water is heated with wood, and you are sharing this experience with other real human beings, not at the same time of course, room for two max.

Where Do You Go & What Do You See During The Day

McNeil River Trail Map
McNeil River Trail Map
Developed By Mike Adams in Cooperation With Alaska Department of Fish & Game & The National Park Service

During morning orientation in the Cook Shack, we would have our guide for the day give us a run down on the weather and where we would be going and why.

There are however, two basic trails that you will take, one that goes to the McNeil Falls area or another that goes along the Cliff Trail towards the McNeil Lagoon (there are others, but these are the main two for the Bear viewing). Which trail you take really depends on the time of year and current weather conditions, but neither is “better” than the other.

We went at a time of year (mid August) where we saw Bears in both locations and they were very active pretty much everywhere, except the falls.

McNeil River Bear Viewing Falls Location
Just A Couple Bears At The Falls Location | Photo – Ashana Flippo

In addition to the Bears there is quite a bit of really amazing scenery and things to see so they may also alter the path you take entirely based on what everyone is excited for. The trails themselves are mostly low grades, there are even boards for walking on in certain tricky areas and I never felt like it was too challenging, and I am a bigger guy.

It should be noted, that during the daily hikes, you will be listening attentively to your guide. You will only go where they say you can go, and you will only do what they tell you you can do.

They are there to keep you safe, happy, and engaging with nature in the most respectful ways possible.

It is because of this environmental stewardship that McNeil River remains one of the most special and untouched wildlife sanctuaries on earth.

-Phillip Flippo

Yes, There Will Be Bears

McNeil River Bear Viewing Play Fighting
McNeil River Bear Viewing Play Fighting | Photo – Phillip Flippo

No wildlife sightings are ever a guarantee, but something very strange indeed would have to be going on for you not to see Bears every single day you are in McNeil River. It is also not just the magnitude of Bears we saw on our trip, but the sheer amount of animal behaviors we also got to witness.

We probably saw 25-30 bears each day on our trip, with a few repeat encounters in there I’m sure.

We saw them fishing for Salmon, diving underwater, play fighting, taking naps, moms teaching cubs how to live, Bears playing with sticks and logs, hanging out in the flowers, and so much more.

At a certain point, getting to see all of this spectacular animal interactions, became a lot less like “Bear Viewing” and a lot more like “Being Invisible Among The Bears“. The guides always take the same paths, exercise the same calm human actions, and they do whatever it takes to show the bears, for decades, that the Humans are merely visiting again.

It has been over 50 years of incredibly hard work to create an environment where Man and Bears can not just coexist, but to do so in an environment that likely looks like it did 500 years ago or more.

How Close Do You Get To The Bears?

McNeil River Bear Viewing Close To Bears
McNeil River Bear Viewing Close To Bears | Photo – Phillip Flippo

Very Close…

Although our guides would, never ever, actively encroach on a Bear’s space for any reason, Bears have minds of their own. On at least 5 occasions we had these huge and beautiful animals come cruising on by us, not 3 feet away.

The Bears are focused on food and after decades of calm and non-intrusive interactions with Humans in the sanctuary, we are just another part of the ecosystem.

I will admit that the first time this happened I was a bit scared, this was a very new type of animal interaction for me. However, after about the 3rd time I had one of these cool guys make eye contact with me, and then just move along, I realized “This is very special.”

I cannot imagine that there is another place like this on the whole planet, even places like like Katmai, which of course are still very special, have still become “relatively” commercialized to accommodate the many visitors wanting to see Bears.

These were wild animals, and thanks to the sanctuary and its staff’s hard work, we truly were able to see them in a seemly impossible way. It deeply touched my heart.

More Than Bears

McNeil River Bear Viewing Cliffside
McNeil River Bear Viewing Cliffside | Photo – Ashana Flippo

The cliffsides, rock formations, ancient volcanic activity, waterfalls, sea caves, and wildlife that coalesce in McNeil River is not like anything I have ever seen before. I caught myself and my wife on a number of occasions literally staring up and around ourselves with our mouths hanging open in awe.

On our last day we even specifically went on this incredible “Beach Walk” and learned about the history of the area and how parts of it formed. We saw crazy rock spires jutting out of the beach covered in millions of tiny smooth pebbles, layers of volcanic ash on the cliffside, and a few of us even found fossils.

It was absolutely amazing and I kept just kind of looking off into the distance, realizing over and over, we are utterly alone out here in this untouched strange little sanctuary on Earth. Not a plane, nor boat, just… us. Nowhere else in Alaska can you see something like this.

Contemplations Back At Camp

McNeil River Bear Viewing Tent Camping
Our Tent Nestled Amongst The Fireweed Back At Base Camp | Photo – Ashana Flippo

Everyday we could come back to camp, I would have new realizations about myself and the natural world. About how much an experience like this would change the entire planet if more people got to experience it.

I know I am waxing a bit dramatic at this point, but this place changed me. I initially was excited to come and try to get world class bear photos, but after day one, my goal changed entirely.

It became about absorbing the experience, often putting my camera to the side and just looking with my eyes in childlike wonder of what was happening in front of me. I cried twice.

To be in nature like this, in this remote place, with a few other people and a whole lot of Bears, seems like it should not be possible. In fact, it would not be possible without the people who manage and care for this incredible place.

In the beginning of this article I talked about how my wife and I were a little fearful signing up for this due to the cost and daunting nature of such an adventure. Had we known what this would do for for our souls, there would have been zero hesitation.

McNeil River Bear Viewing Fighting
McNeil River Bear Viewing Play Fighting | Photo – Phillip Flippo

I really wanted this article to be informative to anyone trying to come, going to come, or wishing they could come to McNeill River State Game Sanctuary. Not just informative about the concrete ins and outs of coming to visit, but to also understand that its not just another “Bear Viewing Trip” it really is something else entirely.

I took thousands of fun photos and my wife took hours and hours of great video, but this, which was of such massive initial concern, certainly melted away into so much more.

If you do in fact want to come and see the great people, animals, and landscapes that make this such a unique Alaskan destination, don’t wait to apply to the lottery, don’t sweat the cost, you are investing in your core levels of happiness and memories for a lifetime.

I hope you enjoyed this article, I hope you found it informative in just the right ways, and, moreover, I hope if you have never experienced the magic of McNeil River this will help encourage you to do so!

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Everything You Need To Know About Going To McNeil River For Bear Viewing
Brand Ambassador at The Alaska Frontier | + posts

My name is Phillip Flippo and I am a professional nature and wildlife photographer based out of Wasilla Alaska. As a lifelong Alaskan, I have always been captivated by the incredible scenes and amazing sights that our great state has to offer. Sharing photos, films, and articles from the real wild Alaska is a passion of mine, and I work hard to deliver the best of best to audiences around the world! Whether I am climbing mountains, spending time at sea, or exploring the frozen unknown I want to help others unlock Alaska’s mysteries for themselves. I truly believe we are always better off united, sharing the beautiful destinations of our world, and helping each other discover the most amazing experiences; and that is exactly my mission, to share, to help mentor, and to find the best Alaska has to offer!

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1 thought on “The Ultimate Guide To McNeil River State Game Sanctuary”

  1. This is my first time going to McNeil River. My husband and I had been applying for the last 8 years. My husband died unexpectedly in February of 2022 at 64 years old. He was healthy and it’s been such a shock. I kept on applying because it was what we did, I never imagined being selected.

    I am very overwhelmed at the task on hand. I do not have any of the equipment, no idea about what food to bring, or anything else. I appreciate your article, it really is informative and helpful. I am able to rent the McNeil River Permit camping gear from Beluga Air, no matter what company I end up using for transportation. It has been a little frustating in trying to get feedback from the other permit winners. Beluga Air also stated the flyin would be August 9th, even though our dates are August 14th-17th because of the tides. I really didn’t know much about this when applying.

    In 2012 my husband and I went bear watching in Katmai National Park for the day, just that was amazing. We were also able to flyin to Katovik to see polar bears for the day. It was just an amazing trip. I fell in love with all these bears, so we were looking forward to being able to make this trip.

    I live in Scottsdale, Arizona.

    Thank you for your article.


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