Have you ever wondered what it’s like to live in a movie set? That’s exactly what it feels like driving up the dusty road into tiny Dawson City, Yukon, where the old fashioned timber buildings emblazoned with signs like “Klondike Mines Railway” and “The Red Feather Saloon” make the town look like something straight out of the Wild West.
Famously known as being ground zero for the Gold Rush, Dawson City lies on the Yukon River and is actually closer to Alaska than the rest of Canada. Tens of thousands of prospectors flocked to the town to try their luck at gold panning in the 1890s, but were forced to head home after coming up empty handed when their hard work didn’t ‘pan’ out (see what I did there).
However, many of the structures that sprung up during that time remain along with about 1,300 residents, making it a surreal place for the steady stream of tourists who tack on a visit at the end of their Alaskan cruise or make the long drive up.
Where to get a dose of history
Compact and easy to get around, Dawson City is perfectly set up for those who’d like to simply wander around and take in the sites. Grab a map at the Visitor Information Centre, or sign up for a Parks Canada walking tour to learn more about the town’s history, including famous inhabitants such as author Jack London or the poet Robert Service. Start off along the waterfront which is where the S.S. Keno steamer sits, and follow the grid from there.
While most of the buildings have been standing for decades, they’re still functioning as hotels, bars, shops or pseudo-museums. There’s even a former brothel called Bombay Peggy’s that has been converted into a lovely inn.
One must-see is the 3rd Avenue Complex, which has suffered the effects of permafrost- a common problem in Dawson City. Their leaning frames make it easy to understand why most of the houses in town don’t have basements.
No trip to Dawson City would be complete without a trip to the place that started it all: Bonanza Creek. A short drive from town, a winding, dusty road leads to out to the still-active mining roads and Discovery Claim, where a tiny piece of gold triggered the entire Klondike Gold Rush.
Everyone’s welcome to try their luck at gold panning at Free Claim #6, and there are also tours where visitors can learn more about the area’s storied history. A side trip to Dredge No. 4 is well worth the time, to get an up-close look at the monstrous machinery that eventually replaced traditional gold panning. It’s amazing to learn that the huge dredge was once hauled all the way up the Chilkoot Trail in multiple pieces!
Where to party
While the Gold Rush may be Dawson City’s claim to fame, the case could be made that its nightlife scene is also legendary. From nightly shows to sour toes, there is no shortage of things to do once the sun goes down (or doesn’t go down, depending on what time of year it is). The most famous bar is found in the Downtown Hotel, which is home to the infamous Sourtoe Cocktail, a shot garnished with a real human toe. And to answer your question, yes, I’ve done it!
Once revellers have knocked that one off their bucket list, the next stop is likely Diamond Tooth Gerties. The mainstay has offered nightly shows for decades, and currently features the unbelievably talented ‘Gertie’ along with her sidekick and gaggle of dancing girls. Enjoy watching them belt out covers of songs like “I Will Survive” that even Gloria Gaynor couldn’t perform as well, then move on to the lively gambling hall. Admission is $12, and there are three different shows per night, May through September.
All good nights usually end at the Pit, an eclectic bar that lives in the Westminster Hotel. There are technically two bars- one known as the Snake Pit, and the other as the Arm Pit, which boast live music, slanted ceilings, and more stories than you could ever imagine.
If drinking shots of Yukon Jack all night long isn’t your scene, there are many quieter restaurants and bars around town where one can grab a pint of the local Yukon Gold brew and chat with the locals. Alternatively, time your trip for the annual Dawson City Music Festival, a three-day event featuring dozens of performers from across the country along with food trucks, beer gardens and even a playground for young ones.
Where to eat
Hands-down, one of the most memorable spots to grab dinner in Dawson City is aboard the Klondike Spirit. The paddlewheeler glides along the Yukon River every night from May to September, offering both river tours and dining options. Be sure to book ahead, as tables can be booked up early by cruise ship passengers.
Those sticking around town will want to head to the Drunken Goat, a fantastic Greek restaurant that recently opened a huge outdoor patio. The Aurora Inn just down the street is another top pick, as its Swiss owners have created a rich menu laden with hearty dishes such as breaded schnitzels and BBQ ribs, with the option to slather them in sauces like red wine gravy sauce. Pair a dish with a great bottle of wine, and it would be easy to spend the entire night there!
How to get there: Dawson City is an approximately six hour drive from Whitehorse along the Klondike Highway. At one point you’ll pass the turnoff for the famed Dempster Highway which goes all the way to the Arctic, so it’s worth quickly pulling over to at least get a photo. Air North also flies between Dawson City and Whitehorse, Old Crow and Inuvik.
Where to stay: There are numerous accommodation options throughout the city at different price ranges, with everything from hostels to historical inns. I stayed in the newly refurbished Eldorado Hotel, and was amazed to find an entire hot tub in the middle of my room. You certainly don’t see that too often!
Don’t miss: The best way to see the town is from the Midnight Dome viewpoint. About a 20 minute hike straight uphill or five minute drive, it offers a birds-eye view of the town below, and the confluence of the Klondike and Yukon rivers.
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Drinking a Sourtoe Cocktail in Dawson City, Yukon
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Globe Guide experienced Dawson City in partnership with Travel Yukon. As always, hosts have no editorial influence over articles.