The McNeil River starts from glaciers and alpine lakes in the Aleutian Range of the Alaska Peninsula and flows generally northeast for 35 miles (56 km) to McNeil Cove in Kamishak Bay, 103 miles (166 km) southwest of Homer and 101 miles (163 km) northwest of Kodiak, Alaska. The river is accessible only by boat or airplane.
In 1923, the prospector Charles McNeil was living at McNeil Cove and had a trappers cabin several miles up the Big Kamishak River. Today, the river lies entirely within the McNeil River State Game Sanctuary that was created in 1967 by the State of Alaska to protect brown bears from hunting. McNeil Falls is famous for the brown bears that gather during the summer to catch salmon migrating up the river to spawn. As many as 100 bears have been seen at the falls in a single day with frequent sightings of 60 or more at one time.