Dawson City Travel Guide
Dawson City, the heart of the Klondike Gold Rush
Situated on the banks of the Yukon River, Dawson City is a vibrant, colourful northern community. I fell in love with the place the moment I first arrived. Restaurants and businesses are named after Dawson’s short fame. There is a Jack London grill, a Diamond Tooth Gertie’s dance hall and a Klondike Kate’s restaurant. Many old buildings are boarded up and look very original from times past by.
Good news is, Dawson has failed to turn itself into a Klondike version of miniature Disneyland and instead is a beautiful, remote and laid-back jewel with a real Wild West border town vibe. The secret of Dawson’s success seems to lie with its people living there today.
Less than 2,000 permanent residents live in Dawson city. You find a bunch of creative, resourceful individuals who have chosen to be there, living 240 km south of the Arctic Circle. You can tell, people who settled here have loved what they found and have stayed.
In summer, you can follow guides dressed up in period costumes around the buildings of the gold-rush days and listen to history and stories of the Klondike.
Dawson City is the heart of the Klondike gold rush. After the historic discovery of gold on Bonanza Creek in August of 1896, Dawson City grew out of a swampy area at the confluence of the Yukon and Klondike River into a large frontier town. Dawson City was the centre of the Klondike Gold Rush. Within two years Dawson had a population between 30,000 and 40,000 people.
Only a few hundred gold seekers found substantial riches in the creeks of the Klondike and only a handful managed to hold on to their wealth. More fortunes were won and lost in the gambling halls of Dawson than in the gold fields. Dance-hall girls and prostitutes were working long and hard and earned good money.
Dawson’s fortunes were all tied to the goldmines. By 1899, when the gold rush had ended, there were only 8,000 people left. By 1970 the population was under 900, but then before it vanished into a ghost town it was rediscovered. Improvements to the Klondike Highway and links to Alaska opened the old gold rush town up to summertime tourists. Parks Canada designated much of the Dawson City as historic and began with restorations. And what an awesome job they’ve done. Dawson City was the territorial capital until it was moved to Whitehorse in 1952.
The Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in is a Yukon First Nation Band based in Dawson City. The citizenship of roughly 1,100 includes descendants of the Hän-speaking people, who have lived along the Yukon River for millennia, and a diverse mix of families descended from Gwich’in, Northern Tutchone and other language groups.
Back during the Klondike Gold Rush, the only way to get to Dawson City was via the steep Chilkoot Trail and the rough rapids of the Yukon River. Today you can access Dawson in a variety of different ways.
- From Whitehorse: Dawson City is 533 km from Whitehorse on the North Klondike Highway. Travel time is approximately six hours, depending on the season, road conditions and weather. The road is paved all the way and is in good condition with the odd pot-holes.
- From Alaska: The Top of the World Highway is only open in summer. The chip-sealed gravel road connects Dawson to the Taylor Highway and Tok in Alaska. The sensationally scenic route takes you to incredible heights with a top of the world panoramas. If you have a vehicle I suggest that you drive at least part of it, it’s totally worth it; even if you don’t have the intention to enter into Alaska. If you do plan to cross the border, remember that it’s only open from 8 am to 8 pm (Yukon time) from mid-May to early October.
Buses connect Dawson City with Whitehorse and Fairbanks during the summer months only.
It takes 10 days to 3 weeks to paddle the Yukon River from Whitehorse to Dawson. You can start your rafting trip up to the Klondike at any other up-river communities like Carmacks, Pelly, or Stewart.
A dog team takes a week or two to haul you between Dawson City and Whitehorse, or Dawson and Fairbanks, on the Yukon Quest Trail. Dawson is half-way point of the race.
Dawson City is a small town and ideal to navigate on foot. Still, if you want to go and pan for gold in the creeks of the Klondike or visit Dredge Number 4 you will need transport.
Crossing the River
The George Black Ferry across the Yukon River connects downtown Dawson to West Dawson and the Top of the World Highway. The ferry is free and runs 24 hours a day during the summer months. The crossing takes about five minutes. In winter there is an ice road across the river. During the weeks of freeze-up and break-up you have to decide which side of the river you want to be on, and stay there.
What to See and Do
Take a Guided Walking Tour
Guided walking tours are offered by Park Canada all summer. Pick up a program flyer at the Visitor’s Centre on Front Street to check on the different tours available and the times.
Taking part on a walking tour gives you information about all the historic buildings in Dawson and you will hear some great stories. You will visit the old post office and marvel at the detail work of the building.
Like many of the buildings in Dawson, the CIBC Building located dates back to the gold rush. The city of Dawson has started a long-term restoration of this riverfront bank building on Main Street. It’s remarkable to see how tin was moulded to look like stone. Poet Robert Service was once a teller here.
Dawson City Museum
Here at the Yukon’s largest Museum, you can make your own discoveries. Enjoy the displays about the First Nations history, the Klondike gold rush and the Northwest Mounted Police. Upstairs you find archives with lots of photographs, newspaper clippings and interesting documents. In the winter the museum screens great classic movies.
The SS Keno was one of the fleets of paddle wheelers that travelled the Yukon River for more than half a century before roads were built. The boat is grounded along the waterfront. and is a similar attraction as the SS Klondike in Whitehorse.
Dãnojà Zho Cultural Centre
Dãnojà Zho Cultural Centre (a long time ago house) is located opposite the Visitor Centre on Front Street. The centre is dedicated to the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation. Rotating exhibitions, videos and photographs tell the story and history about the people.
When I was in Dawson, we were invited to the Dãnojà Zho Cultural Centre for freshly baked sourdough bread and bannock.
Klondike Institute of Art and Culture
I can’t imagine a better place than Dawson to study art. The town may be small, but it has a creative community and a rich program of art events throughout the year. Many of the events take place at the KIAC building. KIAC hosts Dawson’s annual short film festival each April as well as the Yukon Riverside Arts Festival in August.
Also check out KIAC’s ODD Gallery, Dawson’s contemporary art centre.
Trek to the wrecks and see the remains of the old Yukon sternwheeler. To get there, take the free ferry across the river and walk through the Yukon River Government Campground. Walk to the end of the campground and go through the small yellow gate. Follow the trail to the river’s shore and walk approximately 200 m further to the first site. The wooden vestiges of several paddle wheeler were dry docked here on the shore of the Yukon River. Once considered the primary mode of transportation in the region, boats were abandoned when ground travel became more popular.
Please note that the site is not managed and should be explored at your own risk. Drop in at the Visitor Information Centre for an information flyer. Also, check on weather and water levels before heading over.
Cruise the Yukon River
Cruise the Yukon River on a paddle wheeler and get right into the Klondike spirit. The paddle wheeler runs the Yukon river daily from May-September offering river tours and dinner options. Get aboard and find out what makes Dawson City and the Yukon River so special.
Tombstone Territorial Park
A day or overnight trip to Tombstone Territorial Park should definitely be on your list unless you do it on route to Inuvik. From downtown Dawson, take the North Klondike Highway for approximately 40 minutes. Turn left onto the unpaved Dempster Highway and continue your drive for another hour, until you reach the Tombstone Interpretive Centre (located on the left).
More To See and Do
- Midnight Dome – Hike or drive to the top and get great views of Dawson, the surrounding landscape and gold mining areas.
- Cemeteries – (Mary McLeod Rd) A 15-minute walk up King Street and Mary McCloud Road near town leads to 10 cemeteries that are filled with great Dawson characters including Father Judge and Percy DeWolfe.
- Crocus Bluff – (off Mary McLeod Rd) near Dawson’s cemeteries, a short trail with interpretive panels takes you out to Crocus Bluff where you get great views of Dawson City and Klondike and Yukon Rivers.
- Goldbottom Mine Tours – Take a tour of an actual working mine and try your luck at some gold panning.
- Dredge Number 4 – (Bonanza Road) Tour the Klondike’s legendary gold Dredge No. 4, some 13 km off the Klondike Hwy
- Bonanza Creek Discovery Site – (Bonanza Road) About 1.5 from the Dredge No 4, this national historic site is where gold was first found in 1879.
Entertainment and Nightlife
Diamond Tooth Gerties
Diamond Tooth Gerties is historic gambling hall with a honky-tonk piano and dancing girls; Canada’s first legalized gambling hall. The casino helps promote the town and fund culture. Each night there are three different floor shows with singing and dancing at 8:30 pm, 10 pm and midnight. Visitors must be 19 or older.
The Westminster is a must-see if you are visiting Dawson and want to get a real taste of the Klondike. Known as the bar in Dawson City, the Westminster is also referred to as “The Pit” by locals. The original 1898 building has sloping ceilings, crooked floors and always interesting clientele. Apparently, there are more tales in this building than anywhere else in the Klondike. Stop in for a weekday drink special or for the live music Friday and Saturday nights.
Dare yourself to sip a Sour-toe Cocktail garnished with a real, pickled human toe and officially become a “Sourdough”, a true Northerner. I missed out on this occasion during my first visit to Dawson.
Yukon Quest – Dawson City Layover
The Yukon trail follows historical Gold Rush and mail delivery dog sled routes from the turn of the 20th Century. The trail comes alive each February with hundreds of sled dogs and their Mushers who attempt the 1000 mile race.
Dawson City is the halfway point and it is a mandatory stopover for each mushing team. I sure would enjoy getting some of the action!
Percy DeWolfe Memorial Mail Race
The Percy DeWolfe Memorial Mail Race is a 210 mile (338 km) international dog sled race, running from Dawson City, Yukon to Eagle, Alaska and back! The race follows the Yukon River along the same historic mail once travelled by Percy DeWolfe.
Trek over the Top
Trek over the Top is an international snowmobile run from Tok, Alaska to Dawson City, Yukon. This event happens in March. Riders travel over 200 miles of groomed trail through an amazing lonely landscape to arrive in Dawson City. The event is organized by the Klondike Tourism Association.
Accommodations have come a long way in Dawson City since the early days of the gold rush. Wall tents and old cabins have been replaced by comfortable hotel suites and off-the-grid campsites in great locations. Dawson City has really got it all. Fortunately, they’ve managed to keep their accommodation in the rustic, frontiers-like style that makes this town so great.
Gold Rush Campground and RV Park
This campground is located near the centre of town and is better suited for RVs than tents. Basically, it is just a big parking lot. I did stay there when I came through Dawson the first time, with my tent perched between big RV’s. Because of its central location, I didn’t mind, and especially enjoyed their clean washrooms and hot showers.
The Dawson Visitors Centre is close to the campground which makes it very convenient.
Yukon River Campground
This is a Government Campground km 0.3 on the Top of the World Highway. From Dawson, you take the ferry and it’s on the right-hand side when you head up the hill. The campground has 98 shady sides and is perfect if you like more privacy and less noise. It’s suitable for RV’s as well as for pitching a tent. Some sights are right on the river.
Dawson River Hostel
Located on the west bank of the Yukon River, this delightful and eccentric hostel offers the best views of Dawson City. Take the ferry from town and the hostel is five minutes up the hill from the ferry landing. It has cabins, platforms for tents and a communal bathhouse. Meet people from all over the world as you share in this rustic experience at this beautiful spot.
Hotels, B & B, Cabins
Reservations are a good idea during the busy times in July and August. Many places will pick you up from the Dawson Airport. Unless otherwise stated, the following are open all year round:
- Aurora Inn
- Whitehouse Cabins
- Alchemy B & B
- The Bunkhouse
- Bonanza Gold Hotel
- Downtown Hotel – Canada’s Best Value Inn
- Westmark Inn
- Bombay Peggy’s Inn and Pub
- Dawson City has a sub-Arctic climate with pleasantly warm summer temperatures averaging 16°C during the long days of July.
- In winter, January temperatures average about – 27°C and there is usually snow from October through to April.
- Learn more about local weather information and weather patterns.
Road Trips from Dawson City
- Take an epic road trip across the Arctic Circle towards the Arctic Ocean on the famous Dempster Highway.
- Drive the amazing Top of the World Highway into Alaska.
- Take the day-long drive on the Klondike Highway to Whitehorse, Yukon’s capital city.
Visitor Information Centres
- The Dawson City Visitor Centre – a friendly place with great and helpful people. Ask them whatever you want to know and they will make you feel welcome. You can use their Wi-Fi for free, unlimited, and like me, leave the camera overnight for charging the battery. Here you find out about the activity schedule and available walking tours. The visitor centre is located on Main Street near the waterfront. Phone: (867) 993 6768; Website: www.dawsoncity.ca
- Northwest Territory Visitors Centre – Make sure to stop here if you plan to drive the Dempster Highway. The friendly and helpful staff will provide you with information to safely plan your trip. You get here current road and weather conditions for your trip further north. Phone: (867) 993 6167.