For a town seemingly in the middle of Yukon’s endless wilderness with only about 2,000 year-round residents, Dawson City has a heck of a lot to offer visitors. History, landscape and people have a whole lot to do with this. Home of the 1896 Klondike Gold Rush, Dawson City was once the largest settlement north of Seattle and west of Winnipeg. Add to this a rich Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation heritage, turn of the (19th) century charm and an ever-present frontier spirit and Dawson City is one fascinating place.
How long to spend in Dawson City
On arrival in Dawson City, we expected to stay three or four days. We actually spent almost three weeks in the town as we just kept finding more awesome things to do in Dawson City! Something I especially loved about Dawson was that there are so many completely free or very low-cost things to do. This means Dawson is a great destination even for those on a budget. So do as many as you like and remember, if visiting in summer, the Midnight Sun is on your side!
Disclosure – this post includes affiliate links. If you buy a product through these links, I receive a small percentage at no extra cost to you. This helps me continue to write free content such as the article you are reading. I only ever recommend products I have personally used or see the need for.
Top tip – I’d highly recommend buying a copy of the Milepost. It is a comprehensive guide to every major road and attraction in Yukon Territory- with this, you won’t miss anything on your adventures in and around Dawson City!
historical things to do in dawson city
- Parks Canada Walking Tours: One of the most noticeable things on arrival in Dawson City is the Parks Canada costumed interpreters. Join one of the many themed tours to learn more about Dawson’s history and see inside some of the restored buildings. We loved the “Strange Things Done in the Midnight Sun” tour.
- Commissioner’s Residence: The discovery of gold just outside of Dawson City didn’t just bring gold prospectors, but the government as well. The Yukon Territory was created in 1898 and a commissioner sent in as the federal government’s representative shortly after. Restored to its early 20th-century look, the Residence is a National Historic Site of Canada.
- Take in a museum: The Dawson City Firefighting Museum commemorates over a century of service from the Yukon’s oldest fire department. Admission is by donation. For more, check out the Dawson City Museum on Fifth Avenue. Over the next few years, the museum is having its biggest overhaul in thirty years with new exhibits and artefacts.
- S.S. Keno: One of three remaining preserved sternwheelers in the territory, the S.S. Keno is a step back in time to the days when paddle steamers ruled the Yukon River. Take a self-guided tour and discover how both passengers and supplies were transported around Yukon before the highways took precedence.
- Sternwheeler Graveyard: To see what happened to the other 200+ sternwheelers after retirement, visit the Sternwheeler Graveyard. Travel across the river and walk through the Yukon River campground to the resting place for at least six of these huge boats. It’s a fascinating hodgepodge of wooden decks, huge paddle wheels, rusty chimneys and engine parts. Free activity.
Read next – River Ghosts: Sternwheeler Graveyard
Meet the people of Dawson City
- Jack London Interpretive Centre: Once upon a time, the writer Jack London lived in Dawson City as a gold prospector. While he may not have found gold, he found fame through his writing instead. There is a replica of his Dawson City cabin here alongside his restored food cache.
- Dänojà Zho Cultural Centre: Dawson City is located in the traditional territory of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation people. Learn about the history and culture of the area before the gold miners moved in at the Dänojà Zho Cultural Centre through displays and interpretive talks.
- Robert Service Cabin: Robert Service was a British-Canadian poet who lived in a small cabin in Dawson City from 1909-1912. His poems about the Gold Rush years earned him huge success and the nickname ‘Bard of the Yukon.’ Visit his cabin for a peek into his life and to hear poetry readings from Parks Canada staff.
- Cemeteries: The Gold Rush brought with it all sorts of characters and figures into the Dawson City area and a trip to one of Dawson City’s cemeteries may be more interesting than you’d initially think. The Dawson City Museum and Historical Society have produced a walking tour guide. Free activity.
Entertainment in Dawson City
- See a show at the Palace Grand Theatre: Dating back to the Gold Rush, the wonderfully restored Palace Grand Theatre is one of those places that lives up to its name. The building has been refurbished a few times but went through a major refit during 2016 and 2017. It is expected to re-open in the summer of 2018. Try and see some of the Dawson City Music Festival here if you can as it was one of our favourite experiences.
- Diamond Tooth Gertie’s Gambling Hall: Canada’s oldest casino features thrice nightly Cancan shows (which get a little wilder as the night progresses) alongside a range of traditional and modern games. Now I’m not ordinarily a fan of casinos but Gertie’s is a fun place to be.
- Join the Sourtoe Club: Ever felt that your life just isn’t complete until you’ve downed a shot of alcohol with a dehydrated human toe in it? Your chance to join the Sourtoe Club is finally here, at the Downtown Hotel. The spectator sport of it is admittedly quite fun even if you don’t take the plunge yourself.
- Bombay Peggy’s Pub: If drinking sourtoe cocktails aren’t your thing (me either), don’t worry, there are plenty of other places to drink in Dawson! A converted brothel, Bombay Peggy’s is a favourite for its cosy atmosphere and long drinks list.
dawson city and the gold rush
- Bonanza Creek: Dawson City wouldn’t be the place it is today without the Klondike Gold Rush. When gold was discovered on Rabbit Creek in 1896, it ignited a stampede of prospectors to the North. Now known as Bonanza Creek, the location of this legendary gold strike is now a historic site with outside displays and signage. Free activity.
- Pan for gold: Just a little further up from the Bonanza Creek is a free claim where anyone can try their luck and pan for gold in the river. You don’t necessarily need a gold pan to try, any kind of old pot or pan will do. If you have no luck, a little closer to town on the Bonanza Creek road is Claim 33 – a mining museum where gold is guaranteed for panners. Free activity (claim 6).
- Dredge no. 4: Also along the Bonanza Creek road is Dredge no.4, the largest wooden dredge in the world. Built in 1912, this huge machine was used to dig gravel at the rate of 22 buckets per minute. Just one of thirteen dredges used around Dawson City at this time, the trenches created by these behemoths are still starkly visible today. Free activity.
Read next: There’s still gold in Dawson City
outdoor adventure in dawson city
- Go fishing: In my (albeit amateur) experience, the Yukon has a whole lot of fish and not many people. Hence we had a great time fishing in the Yukon! Fishing licenses and equipment can be purchased at the Trading Post on Front Street – ask here for recommendations on where to go and what to fish for. Arctic grayling are very common and easy to catch.
- Day trip to Tombstone Territorial Park: Drive just two hours from Dawson City and enter spectacular wilderness complete with jagged mountain peaks, endless tundra and beautiful hidden lakes. Tombstone Territorial Park, on the legendary Dempster Highway, is a must see when in the Dawson City area. You won’t regret it, I promise. Free activity.
- Paddle the Yukon River: This is the most challenging of things to do in Dawson, but certainly one of the most rewarding if you have the time. We travelled over 700km by canoe from Whitehorse to Dawson City, recreating part of the gold prospectors’ pilgrimage over a century ago. Alternative starting points include Carmacks (415km to Dawson) and Minto (325km). Another way to get on the river is to take a ride on the Klondike Spirit, the Yukon’s only operating paddle steamer.
unique dawson experiences
- Solve a murder: The Commissioner’s Residence isn’t just a place to experience grandeur. It’s also home to an Escape Room based on a real life 1903 murder. If not familiar, an escape room is an adventure game where a small group of people need to solve a mystery or puzzle to unlock their way out.
- Midnight Dome: The towering hill (880m) behind Dawson City provides a stunning vantage point over the town and impressive Yukon River. Accessible via a short drive or challenging hike, the name comes from the tradition to watch the midnight sun from here. Free activity and one of my favourite things to do in Dawson City.
- Take the ferry: Dawson City sits on the edge of the mighty Yukon River. To cross this waterway and continue on driving to Alaska on the Top of the World Highway, a ferry runs continuously in summer. If you’re not planning to continue on to Alaska, make sure you take the ferry at least once as a pedestrian to see a different perspective of Dawson City and the river. Free activity.
As the locals do
- Farmers’ Market: The Dawson City Farmers’ Market takes place every Saturday from late July to early September. Stallholders selling arts, crafts, vegetables and other homemade products can be found on Front Street from 11am to 5pm. Free activity.
- Klondike Institute of Arts and Culture: The KIAC is a community-based arts centre. As well as offering courses, film screens and exhibitions, the complex also includes the contemporary ODD Gallery. Admission to the ODD gallery is by donation.
- Hike the Ninth Avenue Trail: For an insight into Dawson City’s gold rush heyday as the largest city north of Seattle and west of Winnipeg, try hiking this trail just north of town. Pushed for space downtown, prospectors started to move their dwellings up the hill to create a Ninth Avenue. The Klondike Transport and Trails Society have produced an excellent map of the Ninth Avenue Trail. Free activity.
Dawson City events
- Yukon Quest: The legendary 1,000-mile international sled dog race travels through Dawson City in February, with the town acting as an overnight checkpoint.
- Thaw di gras – Ring in Spring with Dawson City’s quirky Thaw di gras carnival. This mid-March event features dozens of different competitions ranging from lip syncing and arm wrestling to tea boiling and the delightfully named ‘bum darts.’
- International Short Film Festival – This four-day event celebrating short film takes place on Easter weekend. Not just limited to film screenings, there are also panel discussions, award ceremonies, workshops and meet-and-greets.
- Yukon River Quest: The world’s longest annual paddling race ends in Dawson City usually at the end of June. The Quest challenges canoeists, kayaks and paddleboarders to paddle the 715km from Whitehorse as fast as possible.
- Canada Day – Celebrate Canada’s birthday (July 1st) in Dawson City with a parade, cancan dancers, mounties, a slice of free cake and of course, the national anthem.
- Yukon Gold Panning Championships – Usually held the first week of July, this open competition highlights Dawson’s mining heritage. Free for anyone to join in, whether you’ve ever panned for gold or not.
- Dawson City Music Festival – Held annually in July, the Dawson City Music Festival is perhaps Canada’s most diverse music festival. Most of the artists play for free somewhere in town during the day during the festival weekend.
- Moosehide Festival – This bi-annual summer event brings together the local Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in with other First Nation groups in Moosehide Village. Probably one of the few festivals where guests arrive by speedboat (the village is a couple of kilometres downriver from DC), Moosehide celebrates First Nation culture with performances, dancing, workshops, storytelling, crafts and feasts.
- Discovery Days – A mid-August weekend celebration of the gold discovery in Bonanza Creek in 1896. Think arts, music, sports tournaments, live music, a parade plus monster trucks races in mud (known as the Dawson City Mud Bog)
Dawson City Highlights: what to do if short on time
Overwhelmed by the number of things to do in Dawson City but have little flexibility in your Yukon itinerary? No problem. With the sun being out around 20 hours of the day in summer, you’ve got plenty of daylight to pack activities in. Here’s what I would do during a limited time visit to Dawson City:
Day 1: Wander the streets of Dawson City on a self-guided tour (get a map at the Visitors Centre) or join one of the Parks Canada tours. Choose between visiting two of: the S.S. Keno, Commissioner’s Residence or Dänojà Zho Cultural Centre. Consider taking in a show at the Grand Theatre. Late afternoon, take the ferry over to the Sternwheeler Graveyard. After dinner, visit Bombay Peggy’s (or the Downtown Hotel if you’re really hankering for the Sourtoe experience) and finish the night at Gertie’s, in time for the last cancan show at midnight.
Day 2: Get out of town! No seriously. If you like hiking, head for Tombstone Territorial Park and try the first 4km (8km return) of the Grizzly Lake trail. It’s a challenging uphill start but at the top, the views towards the Tombstone Mountains are truly epic. An alternative day would be to explore Bonanza Creek road and the likes of Dredge no. 4, the Bonanza historic site and free gold panning at claim 6 before returning to town to visit Jack London’s cabin and whatever other museums take your fancy. Whatever you do, fit in a trip to Midnight Dome to enjoy the views of Dawson and the Yukon River. And maybe another visit to Gertie’s.
PIN or save this post for future reference with the above photo!