DawsonCity, Yukon, I town that just can’t let go of its past. And that’s a good thing.
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 out 1897 there was gold in them thar hills, most of the land had already been claimed. Wannabe millionaires became bar owners and shipbuilders or whatever else serviced the miners. A few years later, word of a gold strike in Alaska prompted another mad dash and Dawson’s population dwindled.
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.
A big draw is the spectacular wilderness that surrounds Dawson City. There are dozens of hiking trails and a variety of outdoor activities for visitors to enjoy. And don’t bother looking for a Starbuck’s or McDonald’s or any other international franchise, you won’t find them here. Dawson prefers to support local businesses.
The city’s high season is May thru September and from my experience, it’s a wild ride. Granted, I was there during its 39th Music Festival, a popular weekend and rowdier than others. But 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 wild or crazy, I was just out. 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.”
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.
When I asked why Dawson their answers were all similar: 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 band mate 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 bevy of like-minded artists they said inspired them from the start. Their friend left after a year but Monica was hooked enough to brave a subarctic winter living out of their van. This year, however, they look forward to the warmth of a cabin they’ve secured for the cold 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.”
As with many others, Sue fell in love with Dawson. She worked various mining jobs including running a drill but eight years ago she began interpreting for Parks Canada leading walking tours in period costumes. I met Sue on the Strange Things Done tour, a really interesting 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 on 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 cruising on the Klondike Spirit. The first thing I wanted to know was 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 makes his way as a handyman and woodworker, and I saw him occasionally in Dawson chatting up friends.
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.
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 great location. I went in the morning which was beautiful, though shadows were a bit frustrating. If you visit in the afternoon you’ll stare into the sun. The Klondike Experience offers 1.5 hour tours at night between 7:00pm – 8:15pm and 8:30pm and 9:45pm. It’s still bright but not blinding.
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 go with a scheduled tour. You could walk but I wouldn’t recommend it unless you’re training for a major marathon. It’s a very long, uphill route.
Flightseeing over the Tombstone Territorial Park
I love aerial views of beautiful places, whether by helicopter, hot air balloon, or small plane. I’ve never been disappointed. It’s 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 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 mountains that made the jagged rocks and ragged peaks look like a scene out of Game of Thrones. It had a wonderful haunting and sinister beauty. Occasionally, the sky would brighten and subtle hues of pink, green and rust would emerge on the mountainsides below. We went with Great River Air. Our pilot looked as if he was 16 but he knew his stuff and we had a great time.
(If you love mountain flightseeing, consider a trip the Kluane National Park. It’s near White Horse. There you can see the Kaskawulsh Glacier and the largest non-polar icefield in the world.)
Saturday Green Market/ Artist’s Market
Every Saturday during the 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 above 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 tent for privacy complete with a fan.
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. Gertie’s is owned by the Klondike Visitor’s Association and all the proceeds are invested back into the community. There was 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 huge 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 get a little racier as the night goes on. The entire cast is only six people but they give it their all.
Dawson City Music Festival (July)
I didn’t attend the music festival. Before you say, what?!!! It was only coincidence that I was there at the same time. My objective was to get to know Dawson City. I experienced the festival from afar. I talked to musicians who were in town to perform and I often heard acoustic acts playing at outdoor venues when I explored. There’s no doubt the festival added a jubilant vibe to the place, and those I knew who went had a good time.
Places to eat
There are many restaurants scattered throughout Dawson but Front Street 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.
Places that were meh…
The Druken Goat a Greek restaurant, also on Front Street. Cute little place but the ribs I had were hard and tasteless, and while I get that I was 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 close their night. I took these photos early in the evening. By the time I left around 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 1970’s.
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. And there’s a video to prove it. You can see it here.
Lodging in Dawson City, Yukon
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.
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 never thought of. 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.