Dawson City was built on gold, with more than $500 million worth extracted from its gold fields at a conservative estimate. Its very name conjures up images of bewhiskered gold rush prospectors, crossing steep mountain passes in the Yukon terrain to dig through permafrost or pan the icy waters of the Klondike’s rivers in hopes of finding their fortune. The discovery of gold in this remote area of north-western Canada in 1896 sparked an incredible stampede. Over the next three years, an estimated 100,000 hopefuls from across America and beyond boarded boats to Skagway and trekked the dangerous Chilkoot Trail or White Pass. Just 30,000 reached Dawson City; most turned back, many perished. Of those who made it, few struck it rich. By 1900 the rush was over following the discovery of gold in Nome, Alaska.
Today it has a population of around 1,500, one-third of them First Nations descendants. To visit Dawson City is to step back in time, the authentic character of Yukon’s “City of Gold” preserved in the restored and faithfully-recreated Victorian wooden buildings along its boardwalk-lined streets. A lively, artsy and colourful community set on the banks of the Yukon River, the city embraces tourism while retaining its Wild West frontier atmosphere. Around 80 small, family-owned mines still operate in the Klondike, and present-day gold seekers can try their hand at panning for gold in the creeks. If you score big, you can gamble your winnings at Diamond Tooth Gerties, where raucous can-can shows provide a taste of the wild Klondike Gold Rush days.
Attractions in Dawson City include the SS Keno - one of the last Yukon River sternwheelers, the cabins where the poet Robert Service and writer Jack London lived, and the huge Dredge No 4 - a lasting reminder of Dawson’s gold heritage. There’s even golf in Dawson City’s stunning hills, the nine-hole Top of the World Golf Course being the world’s most northerly grass course.
Dawson City is also the gateway to the wonders of Yukon’s vast wilderness. Hit the road and explore the Top of the World Highway, which runs across towering, treeless ridge tops to Alaska. Or drive the Dempster Highway to stunning Tombstone Territorial Park and up through tundra plains as far as Inuvik, inside the Arctic Circle. You can also hike trails amidst majestic scenery, take a leisurely canoe trip, ride a latter-day paddlewheeler, go fishing, learn about local First Nations culture, bask in the midnight sun in summer and marvel at the shimmering Northern Lights in winter.
Things to do
Top tips for visiting Dawson City
1. Learn about the First Nations
• The Dawson City area was the traditional territory of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation and you can learn about their history and culture at the Dänojà Zho Cultural Centre, which features guided tours of its Hammerstone Gallery and Gathering Room, hands-on activities and cultural events.
• The gift shop sells a variety of hand-made items such as beaded footwear. The centre is open Monday to Saturday in the summer.
2. Join The Sourtoe Cocktail Club
• The Sourtoe Cocktail Club is one of Dawson City’s strangest traditions. To join, head to the Downtown Hotel’s Sourdough Saloon (a Sourdough is someone who has lived through all four seasons in Yukon) and order a Sourtoe Cocktail – a shot of liquor, typically Yukon Jack, into which is dropped a real, mummified human toe.
• You then have to recite the Sourtoe Oath: “You can drink it fast, you can drink it slow, but your lips have gotta touch the toe.” Having knocked it back while remembering not to swallow the toe, you are enrolled into the club with a certificate.
• Since its inception in 1973, the club has gained over 100,000 members worldwide…and more than 10 donated toes.
3. Drive the Top of the World Highway
• The Top of the World Highway runs from Dawson City for 187 miles across the Alaska border to Tok, where it leads eventually to Fairbanks after another 200 miles.
• Reached by crossing the Yukon River via the free George Black Ferry, where queues can be long in the morning, it traverses mountain ridges high above the tree line to afford stunning views.
• The unpaved highway reaches over 4,500 feet at one point and is usually open from mid-May until mid-September.
• Watch out for wildlife such as caribou, black bears and occasional grizzly bears, and fauna such as Arctic cotton.
4. Take the Dempster Highway
• Take the Dempster Highway to visit Tombstone Territorial Park, a sprawling, pristine wilderness of craggy peaks, permafrost formations, meadows of tundra vegetation and wildlife.
• Located in Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in territory 40 minutes from Dawson City, you can go for a day hike or camp out, with permit, for longer treks. But check in first at the interpretive centre before wandering off.
5. Get active outdoors
• Rent a canoe for a day trip on the Klondike River or multi-day exploration of the Yukon River.
• Hike easy routes such as Dawson’s Ninth Avenue Trail or the challenging Midnight Dome.
• Hire a rental mountain bike from the Dawson City River Hostel and ride scenic routes such as the Waterfront Trail.
• Winter snows bring the chance to go snowshoeing, renting snowshoes from the city’s Recreation Department, and skiing on cross-country ski trails or Dawson’s ski hill, Moose Mountain.
6. Experience the midnight sun
• The sun barely dips below the horizon around the summer solstice, with Dawson enjoying up to 21.5 hours of sunlight.
• Enjoy daytime activities late into the night including a round on the Dawson City Golf Course, which is open from 10am-10pm from late May until early September. The course stages an annual midnight sun golf tournament over the June solstice.
7. Witness the Northern Lights
• Dawson City is one of the best places to view the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights. The often-brilliant, dancing displays can be seen from late August until April when the skies are clear.
• For forecasts of aurora intensity, visit www.gi.alaska.edu/AuroraForecast
8. Dress for the weather
• Make sure you dress appropriately for your visit. Summer daytime highs can top 30°C (86°F) but the average July temperature is 15.6°C (60.1°F), while the January average is -26.7°C (-16.1°F) and the thermometer often drops below -40°C (-40°F) in winter. The weather can change quickly at any time.
9. Take a paddlewheeler cruise
• Recreate the glory days of the river steamers with a nostalgic evening dinner cruise along the Yukon River aboard the Klondike Spirit, Yukon’s only operating paddlewheeler.
• The narrated tours unveil the stories of the Klondike Gold Rush, Dawson City and historic native site Moosehide.
10. Take photos!
• Avid photographers will be in their element in and around Dawson City, thanks to the amazing quality of light in these northerly latitudes, the astonishing beauty of the boreal forest, soaring mountains and snaking river valleys, and the glorious colours of the Yukon flora.