A trip to Dawson City in the Yukon Territory of Canada is not unlike a trip through time.
Think back to when thousands of young men streamed up the West Coast of North America over a century ago, caught up in gold rush fever. Almost overnight, a gold panning town was created, complete with banks, hotels, and entertainment. Dawson City, in a flash, became the largest city north of Seattle and west of Winnipeg. Yes, you’ve heard of this place — it was the center of the Klondike gold rush over a century ago. Known as the Queen City of the North, by 1898 it had amenities like running water, electricity, and telephones long before other cities further south.
Today, the resident population (around 1,400) more than doubles here in the summer on any given day. But rest assured, it never gets crowded like in the good old days when fortune seekers, grifters, and fools made their way here.
Nowadays, people arrive here in trucks, semis, motorbikes, and bicycles, but also on foot and — more frequently than you might think — by canoe or raft. Many visitors just happen to be passing by, hoping to drive the Top of the World highway. By plane, it’s easily a full day of travel, normally to Whitehorse, Yukon, before driving another 6 hours north.
Even if you arrive by plane, there is a shared feeling of having toughed it out to get here. So why come all this way to wander about in the mud? Yes, that’s right: mud. The streets were never were paved in Dawson City. Well here are six good reasons, and the best things to do in Dawson City.
1. Get To Know The “Real” McCoy
It’s over 100 years after the gold rush, but Dawson City is still a frontier town. People come here to start over, sometimes fleeing some unhappy situation, sometimes seeking a new beginning. Some who make their way to Dawson City want to live off the grid. This can mean living in the even older part of town, across the Yukon River in the woods, where there is no electricity and none of the modern conveniences. There is no ferry service in winter, which seems to suit residents just fine. One man has lived in a cave there for over 15 years.
Whether you want to live off the grid or not, I recommend taking the George Black ferry, as it is the only way to cross the Yukon River and is, in itself, a kind of trip back in time.
One soon gets acclimatized to the land of the midnight sun, as Dawson City is located at 64 degrees Latitude North. I mean, it took the better part of my first day to make my way across Canada so, I was a tad tired my first night but was revitalized by the day that never ends by my second night in town.
2. How Locals Enjoy Themselves
A great place to experience this town’s unique feel is The Westminister Hotel or “Pit,” as it’s known to locals. The ambiance is the same at midnight as it is at 8 in the morning — raucous talk, vile language, and wall murals unlike anything you’ve ever seen: Showgirls and members of the Royal North-West Mounted police are depicted. I heard the same shrill and hoarse voices there regardless of the time of day.
The main reason for my visit: The very popular Dawson City Music Festival has been going strong since the 1970s. It began soon after my arrival. There was a large crowd of “cheechakos,” those people who, like me, plan to spend only a short summer visit, and the locals, or “sourdoughs.” Yes, the latter tend to be a tough lot, having survived the brutally cold, dark winters here. Imagine living without sun for a few months every year.
That alone would have explained the large, enthusiastic crowds basking in the sun at the town’s gazebo for a free concert that kicked off the festival. What can I say? The crowd was great, the music was superb, and it was even a splendid sunny day.
I got used to days that never end. And the music festival schedule adapts, too. Many concerts began after midnight and were well attended. You just don’t want to go to sleep because of the sun and of course because of the great music acts.
3. Sourdough Saloon At The Downtown Hotel
I mentioned that the term sourdough is used to describe any resident who’s spent a full year here. A way for visitors to become “sour-toes” is to visit the Sourdough Saloon at the Downtown Hotel. Here, you can join the over 100,000 who have dared to down a whiskey served with a mummified toe! You have to make sure that the toe touches your lips, making sure not to bite, chew, or pull it. If you should swallow the toe by accident or on purpose, the fine is the same: 1900 smackeroos.
The gnarled Toe Captain will administer the drink and then give you your certificate. Toes have come and gone and there is a surprisingly large reserve of them, if need be.
4. Gold, Gold, Gold
A guided tour I took offered by Parks Canada let me linger in the old bank, which when it first opened, used a suitcase as a safe! I loved the Gold Trail Jewelers on Front Street but had to rush my purchase so as not to lose my tour group. I ended up buying a ring with a thin, raw gold nugget encrusted on the top. Barely had time to admire it!
Another, real sourdough experience is to pan for gold. You can pan like the original three sourdoughs who are credited with the first discovery of gold here in 1896. Panning for the golden stuff with Claim 33 Gold Panning is the place to go.
A blast from the gold rush past is Diamond Tooth Gerties Casino, the first casino in Canada. Its bar is well attended, and well-stocked. The main show is the high-strutting Gold Rush Girls, who try to recreate the gold rush days of ribald entertainment.
Truth be told, I preferred the modern, all-night vibe out on the street. Dawson City restaurants, cafés, and bars were open well past midnight and there was a cheery, exuberant vibe in the air. I kept running into people I’d seen earlier, over and over again.
5. Writers Came Here With The Gold Rush
Pierre Berton, a well-known Canadian writer from the mid-20th century was born in the Yukon after his father had come for the gold rush. The family home for the first 10 years of his life can be visited here. It now belongs to the Canadian Writers Guild.
Two other adventurers from the old days are remembered in Dawson City, too. One is the American Jack London, who at the time, was probably the best-known popular writer in the English language. His original log cabin from 1898 is replete with photos, documents, newspapers, and other Jack London memorabilia, and is easily visited during daytime, which in summer, you may recall, never really ends.
Although London didn’t strike it rich, he turned his Klondike Gold Rush exploits into best-selling books like White Fang and The Call of the Wild.
I discovered another adventurer, known to the Czech people, at the local public cemetery, a beautiful spot on a hill overlooking the Yukon River. It was a hefty walk, and about the time I arrived, a little rain had begun. I noticed a large group of tourists grouped around a tomb that boasted a Czech flag. Turns out it was a kind of pilgrimage place for Czechs who remember Jan Welzl. He was an intrepid traveler, hunter, gold digger, and Eskimo chief who lived much of his life in the Canadian North, Russia, and Alaska. His final 20 years were spent in Dawson City.
6. Tombstone Park: Nature Is Never Far
An absolute must-visit is Tombstone Park, which I visited with a group. Let’s say it’s starting to rain a touch in Dawson City. The locals told me that inevitably this meant that it would be good weather at Tombstone. And they were right.
We started up Goldensides Trail, a short 1.7-kilometer (roughly 1-mile) trail reached easily after a 2.5-kilometer (1.5-mile) car ride from the Tombstone Park interpretive center. It was a glorious day, (remember it had started to rain in Dawson City), but as we hiked higher and higher we reached misty conditions. Or were we actually in a cloud? Warning: It’s quite a steep hike!
For some reason, I had a small railway whistle with me. (Full confession, I’d been to an American trolley museum a few months earlier.) I played the whistle for Danny, our guide, and he said “It sounds just like a hoary marmot…bears love them!”
At the top of the trail, as if on cue, we saw a hoary marmot. I blew my whistle, and the others in the group, who’d been told that there is one bear for every Yukon resident, were not amused.
The gold nugget ring I bought at the trading post? I lost it on another trip soon afterward. Guess I’ll have to go back to Dawson City to find another — or pan for one. There must be something truly special about spending endless days in the midnight sun, as I still remember my experience vividly. And, I’d go back for the wildlife.
That said, Dawson City’s “wildlife” scene is best experienced back in town. Did I mention the Pit, the dancing girls, and the Sourdough (or should we say Sour-Toe?) Saloon?
For more wild Canadian inspiration, consider: