Updated May 2020
Dawson City, Yukon, can’t let go of its past. And for this tiny town less than 200 miles from the Arctic Circle, that’s a good thing.
The Gold Rush
On a hot August day in 1896, gold was discovered in Yukon swampland that would later be known as Dawson City, and the Klondike Gold Rush was on. In less than two years, the population exploded from a handful of prospectors and First Nations people to over 30,000 souls. Seventy thousand hopefuls who ventured along the treacherous Chilkoot Trail, turned back or lost their lives en route.
They dreamed of striking it rich but, alas, most did not. By the time the word got
Why it’s Worth Visiting Dawson City Today
Today, year-round locals number under 1,400, but the spirit of the Gold Rush is alive and well. The city banks on its history and travelers reap the benefits. Colorful frontier-style buildings (some original, most reconstructed) line the dusty streets and an array of history-centric activities pay homage to the town’s heyday.
Think Westworld light with real locals, not androids, and a smattering of kitsch.
What to Do First
Start by checking out the Visitor’s Information Center at 1102 Front Street which runs along the Yukon River. It’s a wonderful resource for getting a feel for all there is to see and do. There are all the usual brochures and maps but what sets it apart from visitor centers elsewhere, were the friendly staff members who took the time to figure out what I’d enjoy and made thoughtful recommendations. They can sign you up for local walking tours right there or provide information on road conditions, and all that necessary stuff.
The center is open seasonally between May 1 and September 30. If you’re planning a trip within those months, reach out beforehand at 867-993-5566 or email at [email protected] If you want details during the off-season (Oct 1 – April 30) you’ll want to call the Klondike Visitors Association at 1-867-993-5575.
The city’s high season from my experience is a wild ride. In the land of the midnight sun, locals and tourists alike end up burning candles at both ends, even if they don’t mean to. I found myself out past midnight more than once even though I woke up every morning at six.
I wasn’t doing anything crazy my brain saw 3:00 pm daylight at 11:30 pm and my body said: “You’re not sleepy, let’s stay up!” The late nights caught up with me, however, once I was home. My first day back I slept 14 hours.
When I asked some of the locals how they survived all the late nights in the summer, along with a smirk and shrug, the frigid winter seemed to be the pat answer. “Everyone is so exhausted from the summer we don’t mind that it’s freezing. There’s nowhere to go and nothing to do,” one local told me. “It’s the human equivalent of hibernation.”
Dawson City Upcoming Events
(Due to COVID-19, please check ahead to see if these events have been cancelled or rescheduled)
- TBD: Diamond Tooth Gerties Opening Show – see below for info on DTG
- June 5 – 7th: Weekend on the Wing-Tombstone Park – Birders take heed!
- June 24 – 27: Yukon River Quest – Longest canoe and kayak race in the world from Whitehorse to Dawson City.
- July 17 – 19: Dawson City Music Festival – Attendees come from all over for this highly anticipated event.
- August 13 – 16: Yukon Riverside Arts Festival – An opportunity for visitors to directly interact with local artists.
- Oct 8 – 11th: Dawson City International Short Film Festival
- TBD: Great Klondike International Outhouse Race – You have to see it
- TBD: Gertie’s Last Show
Fun Things to Do in Dawson City
By no means is the list below definitive. There’s a ton of other things to do including golf, canoeing, and other outdoor activities, but I didn’t experience them personally, but when it comes to such exciting pastimes, how bad could they be?
Here is a list of options from the tourist board.
Jack London Museum and Cabin
If you’re a White Fang fan, you’ll enjoy a visit to the Jack London Museum and Cabin. London spent a year in the Klondike. In 1897, he gave mining a try but he was unsuccessful. His skills were best suited for penning the stories that would later make him famous.
The cabin is a replica of London’s that once stood in the remote woods near Henderson Creek 75 miles from Dawson City. It’s decorated with period-appropriate furnishings and artifacts. Apparently, half of the logs used to build the reproduction were from the original. The other half is in California were London was born.
You can roam the museum and cabin on your own or join a scheduled interpretive session.
The Klondike Spirit Paddle Wheeler
In the days of the gold rush, there were hundreds of paddle wheelers on the Yukon River, transporting people and supplies back and forth from the capital of Whitehorse, but that era has long passed. Dawson’s Klondike Spirit, built in the early 2000s, is alone on the water.
Tourists from Alaskan Cruises in town on an add-on land visit to Dawson City comprise a lot of the Spirit’s passengers, but it’s still fun for the average visitor.
I went on one of the company’s low-key cruises (ie.. the cruisers weren’t in town) on a gorgeous summer morning. Yasmine, the ship’s interpreter, regaled us with stories of Dawson’s history and the First Nations people who’ve inhabited the region for centuries. It was a lovely way to learn more about Dawson while enjoying a bit of sunshine and the natural splendors of the region.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to explore all the trails available (you can find a list here), but on my first afternoon, I went on a nice jaunt with Mattias Macaphee from the Klondike Experience, a local outfitter. He was very nice and a bit of a hipster (man bun, skinny jeans rolled up at the ankle, glasses, and beard).
He first familiarized us with the city on a brief walk through the streets, painting a picture of the early days when the gold rush began.
Afterward, we took the Crocus Hike route, an easy 1.5-hour journey through the woods behind the city to a lookout point where we could see the convergence of the Klondike and Yukon Rivers.
In the gold rush days, Dawson City’s footprint in Canada’s Yukon was much larger. The thick woods that stand at the base of the mountain today was cleared and the land used for prospector tents, shanties, and cabins. If you look hard enough while walking through the forest you may find some period artifacts. According to Matthias, they’re everywhere.
We added on a few old cemeteries, though they aren’t typically part of the Crocus tour. (I love old cemeteries) One cross read: “Alphonse Constantine. Murdered 1902. Buried June 1, 1904.” You know there’s a story there.
The cemeteries were a mix of old, restored, and remarked graves. Some were segmented by religion or whether they were public or private lots. For a place so connected to its history, it seemed fitting to spend some time looking around.
(After my trip I found some really interesting information about who’s buried in each cemetery. I wish I’d had it with me when we were exploring. If you go, you may want to print it out and have it with you.
Hike Tip: Everyone (tourists and locals alike) told me they loved the Ninth Avenue trail. A 2.5 km, scenic route that overlooks the city. Unfortunately, my schedule was a little crazy and I didn’t get a chance to try it.
Hike Tip 2: The sidewalk that runs along the Yukon River off Front Street is a lovely stroll any time of day.
HIke Tip 3: Make sure to bring bear spray with you. While it’s unlikely you may come across one, it’s not so unlikely that you shouldn’t be prepared.
Artifacts from the Gold Rush Era: The Sternwheeler Graveyard
In the early days, paddle boats (Sternwheelers they used to call them) were the mains source of transportation to and from Dawson. As the years passed and roads were built connecting Dawson to the outside world, the boats became obsolete. In the 1950’s, the paddle boat business failed, companies went bankrupt and the owners abandoned their ships on the side of the Yukon where they’ve remained ever since.
There are seven Sternwheelers in the graveyard in various stages of decay. I’ve always found abandoned things and places fascinating and I knew once I heard about the graveyard I’d have to check it out. (I loved Eastern State Prison in Philadelphia or the Ivigtuut Mine in Southern Greenland.)
If these wrecks sound like your cup of tea, please WEAR closed-toe shoes, there are jagged metal pieces and exposed nails everywhere, many of which are hidden underneath the foliage. Keep your eyes peeled.
How to Find the Sternwheeler Graveyard
Walk to the free, George Black Ferry connecting Downtown Dawson (You’ll see it at the North end of Front Street) with West Dawson and where the legendary “Top of the World Highway” begins on the far side of the Yukon River. It should take you about 10 minutes.
Then walk along the main road (there are no others) for a minute or two until you see a campground on your right. Walk through the campground to the end where you’ll see a yellow gate to your right next on the beach. Step around the gate, turn left, walking next to the water for a few minutes and you’ll see it on the left.
Tip: If you take a Klondike Spirit cruise beforehand, the boat idles by the graveyard for a little while and it will give you a sense of where it’s located on the river.
The Midnight Dome
For those partial to scenic views or photographic opportunities, the Midnight Dome, a spot atop the mountain towering over Dawson, is a divine location.
The view encompasses the city below and miles of lush forest and rivers beyond. If you have a car, take Dome Road all the way to the top, otherwise, take a taxi or join a scheduled tour. You can walk but I wouldn’t recommend it unless you’re training for a major marathon. It’s a very long, uphill route.
The best time to go is in the evening. The Klondike Experience offers 1.5-hour tours at night between 7:00 pm – 8:15 pm and 8:30 pm and 9:45 pm. It’s still bright but not blinding.
I went in the morning which was beautiful, but photography-wise, I had to contend with long shadows from me and the surrounding trees which was slightly frustrating.
The afternoon is challenging because you’ll stare into the sun.
Flightseeing over the Tombstone Territorial Park
Regrettably, such an adventure is rarely cheap but if your budget allows and you can splurge on something, make it flightseeing.
The Tombstone Territorial Park is a short flight northeast of Dawson—a mountain range named after its ominous resemblance to grave markers.
The morning I went, the sky was thick with dark clouds and smoke from distant forest fires. Together they cast a veil over the jagged rocks and ragged peaks, transforming the pinnacles into a scene out of Game of Thrones.
Our pilot from Great River Air looked 16 but he seemed to know his stuff and we had a delightful time.
(Another Yukon flightseeing favorite is over Kluane National Park. It’s closer to White Horse, and worth the 45-minute drive. There you’ll see the impressive Kaskawulsh Glacier and the largest non-polar icefield in the world.)
Saturday’s Green Market/Artist’s Market
Every Saturday during the summer season, local artists and farmers sell their goods in two adjoining markets that include the Community Events shelter on Front Street next to the Yukon River.
It’s small and easily navigable. Most of the artist’s work was handmade jewelry, much of which had a mystical or First Nations theme. Megan Creep (see below in “People”) a sketch artist, sold pieces of silkscreened fabric with her drawings on it. There was also an industrious masseuse who brought a large pup tent for privacy, complete with a fan.
Try Panning For Gold
Try your hand panning for gold at Claim 33 & Jerry Bryde Klondyke Mining Museum, a few minutes south from downtown Dawson by car. Pans are $15.00 per person, and the family that owns it will teach you the finer points of the trade.
There’s an indoor museum with classic souvenirs, Gold Rush era reprints, the kind the “stampeders heading north would have read.” They also have a selection of gold nugget jewelry and artifacts from the period.
Outside on the grounds, is a huge collection of antique mining equipment and vintage vehicle––the’ve all seen better times.
Diamond Tooth Gertie’s Gambling Hall
No visit to Dawson would be complete without a night at Diamond Tooth Gerties, Canada’s first legal casino. It’s a hoot.
I’m not a gambler and hate Las Vegas, but I still had fun at Gerties. The business is owned by the Klondike Visitor’s Association and all the proceeds are invested back into the community.
There were the usual: blackjack, poker, and roulette tables and a few banks of slot machines—I”m amazed how addictive those things are. People sat for hours like button-pushing zombies. As you would expect, the interior was period decor with massive chandeliers, a balcony, and staff wore costumes straight out of central casting.
Gertie’s puts on three different shows every night (8 pm, 10 pm and midnight from May – September) that become a little racier as the night goes on. The entire cast is only six people but they give it their all.
The Dawson City Locals
As much as the city serves up its past, there’s more to Dawson than its history. It’s blessed with a quirky, population whose passion for the city is infectious, and I’d be remiss not to give them a special shoutout.
When I asked Why Dawson? their answers were pretty much the same: a passion for nature, love of the close-knit community, and another feeling they found hard to articulate. It netted out somewhere in the realm of Dawson spoke to them. “I can’t really say what it is,” one man told me. “I came here and I didn’t want to leave.” Something about Dawson grabs people and doesn’t let go.
In addition to the summer influx of tourists (huge Holland America buses roll in and out all the time), there’s a slew of free-spirited, artsy millennials, drawn to the city by SOVA, the Yukon’s School of Visual Arts, the long-running Dawson City Music Festival, arts festivals, and the romance of honing their craft in a remote location.
Monica Creep, a 23-year old musician and sketch artist who prefers the pronoun “they”, first came to Dawson four years ago on a whim.
“My bandmate came up here to go to SOVA, and I was like, I’m living in Toronto, I have a car, I’ll drive you to the Yukon.”
Monica fell in love with Dawson and its community of like-minded artists. Their friend left after a year but Monica was hooked enough to brave a subarctic winter living out of their van. This year, however, the following year they were looking forward to the warmth of a cabin they secured for the frigid weather.
Sue Taylor, a vivacious fifty-three-year-old Texan with a deep, nasal voice and a rapid-fire cadence that made my head spin, hitchhiked to Dawson in 1982 when she was 18. “I did a lot of partying when I came here,” she said. “All we wanted to do was drink and party and dance and run around all day because you could. No rules. Live in a tent, just camp and camp, and camp. I spent my first winter in a wool tent. Don’t need to do that again.”
Sue worked various mining jobs including running a drill but years ago she began interpreting for Parks Canada leading walking tours in period costumes.
I met Sue on the Strange Things Done tour, an intriguing hour and a half filled with historical anecdotes and funny stories dating back to the gold rush. The experience was made all the more entertaining by Sue’s animated story-telling.
Brad Whitelaw, a local business magnate who owns the Klondike Spirit Paddlewheeler, the popular Triple J Hotel, and a hunting outfitter, came to Dawson as a young man and hasn’t looked back. Brad loves Dawson’s extremes. “Six months from now, this place will be the polar opposite.” And he meant that literally. He also loves that he can fly to Vancouver in a few hours or drive into the wilderness and be completely alone. “I embrace the extremes.” If you’re a reality show fan, Brad appeared twice as himself in the 2017 season of Gold Rush Alaska.
One of the more colorful Dawsonians is Caveman Bill. I didn’t meet Bill, but he waved to us as we passed his “home” while cruised on the Klondike Spirit.
I was curious whether he was looney or some sad misanthrope who gave up on life to live in the wild. Turns out he’s nothing so dramatic. He’s just a regular guy who 18 years ago decided to try living in a cave and liked it. I’m told he’s fixed it up with some modern conveniences such as lighting and a door. Bill has become a bit of a tourist celebrity but pays his bills as a handyman and woodworker.
Places to Eat
There are many restaurants scattered throughout Dawson but Front Street running along the Yukon River is a great place to start if you’re looking for ideas.
Places I recommend
On Front Street: I had a fantastic turkey club at Cheechakos Bakeshop. If you’re hankering for Fish n’ Chips try Sourdough Joes. There’s the classic version with Cod (my favorite), or with Halibut, and of course French fries.
The Aurora Inn restaurant on 5th Avenue had delicious poutine (that’s French fries smothered in cheese curds and gravy for all Americans like me who hadn’t heard of this Canadian delight), and veal schnitzel with mushroom sauce. Yum!
I’m a big chicken wings fan but I usually take them with BBQ or hot sauce. At the Westmark Inn restaurant, a friend suggested I try a Canadian wings favorite: honey & garlic. I dream about them now. So. Good.
I never made it to the Alchemy Cafe but it’s always busy and I’m told I missed out.
Places that were meh…
The Drunken Goat, a Greek restaurant also on Front Street is a cute little place but the ribs were hard and tasteless, and while I get that I was there during a festival it still doesn’t excuse that a few people within our party of 10 were served a good 15-20 minutes after everyone else. Other people liked it but I was not impressed.
I had a very disappointing scoop of Cookies n’ Cream at Klondike Cream & Candy. It was bland, watery, more ice milk than ice cream. In its defense, there was always a line out the door so maybe my experience was a fluke.
Places to Drink
The Westminster Hotel: The Pit (tavern & lounge)
There’s nothing like a good dive bar and The Pit, as it’s affectionately called, is a great one. Just the right mix of seedy and cool with good live music, a pool table, and a relaxed vibe.
Its home is the Westminster Hotel, a large, bubblegum pink building on Third Avenue with a history that dates back to the 1930s. Some of the building is as old as the gold rush when it was the headquarters for the Klondike Thawing Machine company.
I’m told the structure is condemned—not that it’s about to fall down. At least I don’t think it is. They say to bring it up to code would be too expensive. It would make more sense to tear it down and start over, but no one wants to do that. Part of the lounge’s charm is its sloping ceilings and tilted floors.
The Pitt is where all the locals (and pretty much everyone else) go to end their night. I took these photos early in the evening. By 11:30 pm, lines were starting. Be advised: if you’re not in before midnight, chances are you won’t get in.
Fyi. There’s a popup hotdog stand next door if you should get the late-night munchies.
Sourdough Saloon and the Sourtoe Cocktail Club
I would be remiss not to mention the infamous Sourtoe Cocktail. It’s more than a drink, it’s an event. In short, it’s a popular and somewhat twisted marketing gimmick that’s inspired over 70,000 people to take the Sourtoe challenge since the early 1970s.
Here’s the deal: You down a shot of hard liquor—your choice as long as it’s 40 proof—garnished with a dehydrated human toe. (Yes, you read that right.) The challenge: you have to slam the drink and let the toe touch your lips. If it does you’re initiated into the Sourtoe Cocktail Club. You even get a certificate. Why oh why is this so popular? I have no idea. It’s one of those nutso ideas that takes off and becomes a thing.
Did I take the Sourtoe challenge? Of course, I did. check out the video above.
I was a guest of the Downtown Hotel, a large red frontier building, much of which dates back to the Gold Rush days. It’s home to the Sourdough Saloon which makes it easy as walking downstairs to line up for the Sourtoe challenge. The location is prime. It’s a quick walk to almost anywhere. Two blocks to Front Street and the Yukon River, a block from a grocery store and two blocks from Gerties. The rooms were clean and comfortable and recently renovated. The hotel provides complimentary wifi (why doesn’t everyone?) and my room had an empty mini-fridge I stocked with diet coke. The hotel also offers guests free shuttle service to and from the airport.
Note: There’s no elevator or bellman, so if you’re on the second floor ask the front desk for some help with the baggage and they’ll happily oblige.
Where is Dawson City ?
Dawson is almost 300 miles northwest of Whitehorse the Province’s capital. It takes about six hours to drive or a one-hour flight by small plane.
Tip: If you decide to drive, make sure you have enough gas, there are few stations along the way.
Tip 2: Along the way on Klondike Hwy, near Carmacks, Yukon, don’t miss the Coal mine Campground (Open May through October). It serves one of the best burgers (veggie and meat) I’ve ever tasted.
Dawson City Weather
In short, the weather is variable and you’ll want to bring layers. It was warmer than I anticipated but occasionally at night, I needed a light jacket. Bring comfortable walking shoes since your feet will be your best mode of transportation.
Really, REALLY cold. Dawson City is a great place to see the Aurora Borealis, but not much is open in terms of tourist fare. Best time to visit is from May- September.
I hadn’t heard of Dawson until this trip. To be honest, I may not have chosen it on my own. That’s why I love doing what I do. I experience places I’ve never considered before. I have so many friends who are rigid in their thinking about travel. Only a certain kind of place with a certain level of luxury. It’s limiting. No matter how nice the poolside massage may be.
Dawson will never be for the lux-only folks, but it is for anyone with an adventurous spirit and a love of the outdoors.
I was a guest of Tourism Yukon for this trip but words and sentiment are my own.
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