Dawson City Yukon: Why this Remote Canadian Town is Worth a Visit

Dawson City as seen from above
Flying over Dawson City where the latte -colored Yukon meets the clear waters of the Klondike River.

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 out in 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.

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.

Main Street in Dawson City-Yukon_2017-8741
Frontier style buildings that harken back to the gold rush days

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.

High Season

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.

View of a historical log cabin site in Dawson City, Yukon

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

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.

The Klondike Spirit dwarfed by the mountains flanking the Yukon River

Hiking

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.

Guide portrait in Dawson City
Matthias Macaphee, our wonderful hipster interpreter

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.

Gravesite in Dawson City
A grave marker from 1899 in one of the cemeteries we visited on our hike

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.

Sternwheeler Graveyard

Sternwheeler Graveyard -Dawson City, the Heart of the Klondike Gold Rush

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.

34 thoughts on “Dawson City Yukon: Why this Remote Canadian Town is Worth a Visit

  1. Julianna says:

    What an awesome and well-thought out piece. As someone who’d never really considered travelling to Dawson, you have me sold. Thanks for taking the time to create such a thorough and informative article – I love how you brought the characters and place to life.

  2. Jenna Talia says:

    It’s a shame there are many writers out there who would have relished the opportunity you had to experience Dawson City that could have wrote something that rings original and honest about the town than what you’ve published. Who complains about food for a table of TEN (I bet you were a walk in too, no doubt) not coming at the same time during Music Fest? I’m amazed you had the fish and chips and didn’t get food sick – I used to work there and I’ve seen how food is handled there. Was it really necessary to label your guide from Husky Bus a “hipster”? Your Klondike Spirit interpreter’s name is Yasmine, not Jasmine. Megan, or Mo as they’re known as in town, actually prefers the pronoun ‘they’ not her or she. Belittling the Gertie’s dancers? Really?? Those girls dance their cute little butts off every night, three shows a night, ALL summer, smiles and all and you compare it to Broadway – seriously? Have a little respect for the choreographer and the girls who put in heart and soul into their art. The First Nations, the Tr’ondek Hwech’in were and ARE still there – it’s a shame you missed checking out their cultural centre. Also, you might want to reconsider your photo of the “revelers” not because they’re not even from Dawson, but you’ve posted on the internet a photo of people drinking open beer in public…….

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      Dear Jenna –
      Thank you for your thoughtful commentary. I appreciate your love for Dawson and its people and to defend any slight you perceive against it. Your passion for the town is heartfelt, that is obvious, and I assume fostered over time. Unfortunately, I only had a few days and therefore was left to my immediate impressions, which as you can see from the headline was positive. I recommended that people should visit.

      As to the rest, I won’t go line by line but I would like to address a few of your thoughts below.

      “Who complains about food for a table of TEN (I bet you were a walk in too, no doubt) not coming at the same time during Music Fest?”

      – We had a reservation. There was no line and the restaurant was not completely full when we arrived. As a patron of that restaurant, yes, I do believe a business should be able to accommodate its guests, otherwise they should have suggested we go elsewhere or not taken the reservation. I also believe that the food should be worth the price put on it. My ribs were very dry and tasteless. That was truthful. My mention of the music festival as a possible reason for the lack of quality was my attempt to give the restaurant the benefit of the doubt. But the fact remains, with us on that night, the service was not good nor was my food. That is my opinion of my experience.

      “I’m amazed you had the fish and chips and didn’t get food sick – I used to work there and I’ve seen how food is handled there.”

      – Not sure what you mean here. Are you suggesting that Sourdough Joe’s is not a clean restaurant? That’s where I had the Fish & Chips. Or are you still referencing The Drunken Goat? And if so, do you mean the Drunken Goat is unclean?

      “Megan, or Mo as they’re known as in town, actually prefers the pronoun ‘they’ not her or she.”

      —I am in contact with Monica. When we met, they did not tell me of their pronoun preference. There was no way I could have known. They and I have discussed an update which was added to the piece.

      “Also, you might want to reconsider your photo of the “revelers” not because they’re not even from Dawson, but you’ve posted on the internet a photo of people drinking open beer in public…….”

      –I am sorry that you are offended by an image of the individual holding a beer in public. He was not concerned about drinking an open beer in public, nor did he ask to put it down when they posed. I was capturing the moment. In addition, my interest in making their picture was to convey their energy and enthusiasm. Whether they were locals or just in for the weekend was not a factor.

      Lastly, as a local, I would love for you to recommend places and activities you feel travelers should consider as I was not able to see or do everything in the time I had.

      I wish you the best,

      Susan

      • Scott - Quirky Travel Guy says:

        Great article, Susan! I visited Dawson a few years back and thought your article very much captured the spirit of the town and portrayed it in a positive light. I wouldn’t give much thought to Jenna’s bizarrely oversensitive criticisms. This was definitely the Dawson I know, and the personal anecdotes made it even better.

      • Susan Portnoy says:

        Thanks a million, Scott! I’m really pleased you liked the article and found it to represent the Dawson you know. 🙂

  3. Carol Tyrrell says:

    We lived in Dawson for 12 years, loved it, loved the people. Nice article. I would have included Paul’s Church, the Han information building for all things indigenous, a meal at River West and a night or a drink at Bombay Peggy’s. Visiting at the very beginning or end of season gives a different perspective, people have more time to talk.I think my heart is still in the Yukon!

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      Hey Carol – Thanks so much for including your picks. I was only there a short time and didn’t nearly get to try anything. I appreciate the additional options for readers.
      Why did you end up leaving Dawson?

      And I”m so glad you enjoyed the article. Thank you. 🙂

  4. Allan says:

    Wow another article just like every other one written about Dawson. Writing more boring than a Dawson winter… Also smack talking a local business for being busy and not up to your standards ? Nice move. Congrats on being the 4000th person to write about the sour toe.

  5. CUD EASTBOUND says:

    Hi Susan, could you please correct the following;
    “Megan Creep” is supposed to be “Monica Creep”.
    Also istead of “she” can you please use “they”.
    Pronouns are important.
    Thank you

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      Thank you. I’m really glad you feel I was able to convey Dawson in a compelling way. It’s hard to know how others will receive your work. I really appreciate you taking a look.

  6. janinebeynon says:

    Wow looks like a really interesting place to explore and the photos are amazing! Great job on this comprehensive guide 🙂

  7. SommerKunst says:

    I love your stories and pictures! Especially those about places I actually HAVE heard of – like Dawson City! – but not yet been able to travel to. For my entire life I have been interested in places all over the world but I can only do so much at one time. I heard of Dawson City a while ago already and find it very appealing. So thank you for this little insight 🙂

  8. Loren Rhoads says:

    I love your cemetery photos! Please write more about your adventures in the Klondike graveyards. I imagine they’re full of stories like those in the California Gold Rush graveyards.

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      Hi Loren! Thank you. Unfortunately, I was only there about a half hour and it was not part of the hike. Mattias, our guide, only had basic info. That said, I included a link in that section to a pdf I found later that talks about the cemeteries and some of the people. Very interesting reading!

  9. Chris Riley says:

    Loved seeing those old wooden buildings, and the bright colours they’ve been painted. The brightness of the buildings against the grey skies reminded me a little of Portmerion in Wales.

  10. Kathy Brokos says:

    Great story. I lived in Montana for several years and it took awhile to get used to going to sleep at night while it was still light out. I need to visit Dawson city and see the small town ambiance.

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