Pastel-toned boomtown-style buildings and storefronts still line most of the ‘downtown core’ of Dawson City. Walking down 4th Avenue is like walking through an old western movie set, except everyone is dressed in jeans and t-shirts.
For a ‘city’ with a population of about 1,300 people, Dawson offers a lot. Some visitors have lamented there are no real landmarks in Dawson City but the entire town is one. The entire town is an experience. All of the history and quirks tie together to create what’s basically a living museum.
The first building on the site of Dawson City, still standing, is the Yukon Sawmill Company Office at the end of Front Street. It’s one of the eight National Historic Sites of Canada around Dawson.
Back before this was a town, a 53-kilometre grind up the Chilkoot Trail from Skagway, Alaska, led travellers to Bennett, British Columbia. From there, it was another 885 kilometres across Bennett and Marsh Lakes and up the Yukon River on raft, boat, or sternwheeler to the legendary Klondike gold fields. These days, there are two ways to get to Dawson City and you don’t need to start in Alaska: take an Air North flight up, or drive up the historic North Klondike Highway, parallel to the route gold-seekers took from Bennett to the Klondike.
The route connects Whitehorse to Dawson City, guiding travellers past farms south of Lake Laberge, the charred remains of historic forest fires, and opportunities to see a grazing moose. It also parallels the Dawson Overland Trail, historically used by prospectors in the winter when the river froze over and the steamboats couldn’t get through.
Dawson City actually served as the capital of the Yukon until 1953, when the Gold Rush had long dwindled and that honour was moved to Whitehorse. A lot of people stuck around Dawson, though. Quite a few families are now fourth or fifth-generation gold-mining descendants.
The self-governing Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in began moving to Dawson from Moosehide, five kilometres up-river, in the 1950s, too. They had lived on the flats at the confluence of the Klondike and Yukon rivers long before the Gold Rush. When the first gold claim was staked on August 16, 1896, on what was then known as Rabbit Creek (Bonanza Creek today) word spread and the people arrived fast.
The Klondike is actually a misnomer of the word Tr’ondëk: ‘tr’o’ meaning the hammer rock used to drive the stakes of salmon traps, and ‘ndëk’ meaning ‘river.’ The gold-seekers’ foreign tongues couldn’t wrap around the word Tr’ondëk and it became anglicized as ‘Klondyke.’
“There’s a super powerful First Nation here [who have] overcome the most horrendous shock from the Gold Rush. Which is just astonishing there’s anybody here after that,” says Sebastion Jones, who lives in West Dawson, located across the Yukon River.
By the end of 1898, Dawson City was a thriving city of 40,000 people and the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in were forced to move five kilometres upriver, leaving the heart of their homeland behind.
Nowadays, it’s hard to imagine tens of thousands living in Dawson while seeing the town’s panoramic view from the Top of the World Highway’s lookout. Where did all those people fit?
The town also has a vibrant arts community. The satellite Yukon College campus hosts the Yukon School of Visual Arts, and the Klondike Institute of Art and Culture is housed in the Dënäkär Zho build- ing (Hän for ‘the colour house’).
The best place to stay is Bombay Peggy’s. If camping, the Gold Rush Campground is right downtown. Otherwise, note when the last ferry of the night leaves so you don’t miss a trip back to the Yukon River Campground.
If you’re visiting for the Dawson City Music Festival in July or Discovery Days in August, book accommodations well in advance. Every hotel and campsite gets booked up fast. During those summer times, Dawson is still very much a boomtown.
Walk around downtown’s main drag. Front Street will be busy with townsfolk and tourists alike eating brunch, shopping at the farmer’s market and popping into the Trading Post general store. Stop for lunch at Billy Goats Pub (aka The Drunken Goat Taverna). A few doors down, get ridiculously large scoops of ice cream for dessert at Klondyke Cream & Candy. Travel across the Yukon River and check out the panoramic view from a lookout on the Top of the World Highway, just before the Dawson City Golf Course. (A superior vantage point to the more well-known Midnight Dome lookout.) Or head to the Yukon River Campground and take a walk down the beach to the sternwheeler graveyard. End the day with a show at Diamond Tooth Gerties casino or meander over to the Downtown Hotel Saloon for a world-famous sourtoe cocktail.
Even if you aren’t staying at the Triple J’s hotel, go there for the best breakfast in town. Drive down a strip of the Dempster Highway for a trek into Tombstone National Park. There are six different day hikes varying from one- to six-hour round trips. When you get back in town, check out the Dänojà Zho Cultural Centre and learn about whose territory you’re visiting. Maybe you’ll luck out and get to watch the Trondëk Hwëchin Singers and Drummers perform. Have your dinner while chugging along down the Yukon River on an evening sternwheeler river cruise. Then, end your night at the Snake Pit (inside the Westminister Hotel) dancing in what locals call ‘the spaceship.’