Updated April 2019
DawsonCity, Yukon, can’t let go of its past. And that’s a good thing.
Dawson City Gold Rush
On a hot August day in 1896, gold was discovered in the Yukon near swampland that would later be known as Dawson City, and the 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
Dawson City Today
Today, the 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-styled buildings (some original, most reconstructed) line the dusty streets and there’s an array of history-centric activities that pay homage to the town’s heyday.
Think Westworld light with real locals not androids and a smattering of kitsch.
Check Out the Visitor’s Information Center
The Visitor’s Information Center in Dawson City is a great resource for getting a feel for all there is to see and do. There are all the usual brochures and maps but what I loved were the very friendly staff members who took the time to figure out what I’d enjoy. They can also sign you up for local walking tours, provide information on road conditions, and all that good stuff.
The center is only 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 got 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 once I was home, however. 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, 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.”
Key 2019 Events
- April 18: Dawson City International Short Film Festival
- May 10: Diamond Tooth Gerties Opening Show – see below for info on DTG
- May 31: Weekend on the Wing-Tombstone Park – Birders take heed!
- June 26: Yukon River Quest – Longest canoe and kayak race in the world from Whitehorse to Dawson City.
- July 19: Dawson City Music Festival – Attendees come from all over for this highly anticipated event.
- August 15: Yukon Riverside Arts Festival – An opportunity for visitors to directly interact with local artists.
- September 1: Great Klondike International Outhouse Race – You have to see it
- September 21: Gertie’s Last Show
Things to Do in Dawson City, Yukon
By no means is the list below definitive. There’s a ton of other things to do such as golf, canoeing, and other outdoor activities, but I didn’t experience them personally. Here is a list of options from the tourist board.
When you first arrive, I recommend stopping at the Visitor information Center on Front Street, the city’s main drag that runs parallel to the Yukon River. It’s better than most I’ve been to. The staff is helpful and there’s a lot of information readily available on what you can see and do. It’s a great way to orient yourself and figure out your game plan.
The Klondike Spirit Paddle Wheeler
In the gold rush days there were hundreds of paddlewheelers on the Yukon River, transporting people and supplies back and forth from Whitehorse (the capital), but no more. The Klondike Spirit, built-in the early 2000’s, is alone on the water. I took a low-key cruise on the Spirit on a gorgeous summer morning. The ship’s interpreter, Yasmine, regaled all the passengers with stories of Dawson’s history and the First Nations people who were there long before anyone else. It was a nice way to learn about the city’s past while enjoying a bit of sunshine and spectacular views.
I didn’t have time to explore multiple trails (you can find a list here) but I did go on a nice jaunt my first afternoon with Mattias Macaphee from the Klondike Experience. He was very nice and a bit of a hipster (man bun, skinny jeans rolled up at the ankle, glasses, and beard). He familiarized us with the city with a brief walk through the streets, painting a picture of the early days when the gold rush first took hold of the region.
Afterward, we took the Crocus hike, 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 was much larger. The thick woods that stand at the base of the mountain now was cleared and the land used for prospector tents, shanties, and cabins. If you look hard enough while walking through the trees you may find some period artifacts. According to Matthias, they’re everywhere.
We checked out a series of cemeteries, though the visit isn’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 there.
(I found some very interesting information about who’s buried in each cemetery after the trip. 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.
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.
If you go, wear closed toe shoes, there’s a lot of jagged pieces and nails in the wrecks and hidden underneath the foliage. Keep your eyes peeled.
How to get there: Walk to the free George Black Ferry that connects Dawson City with West Dawson and the Top of the World Highway, across the Yukon. It takes about 10 minutes. Walk along the main road for a minute or two until you see a campground on your right. Walk through the campground until it ends where you’ll see a yellow gate to your right next to the shore. Go around the gate, turn left and walk along the water for a few minutes and it’s right there. 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.