Skip to Content

Our Western Canada Road Trip: Dawson City

Since leaving Vancouver in June, we hadn’t stayed in one place very long. Heck, for most of this road trip we hadn’t stayed for more than a couple of nights in a row anywhere except for the Comox Valley and Vancouver while visiting friends.

By the time we finally left the tiny town of Dawson City (pop. 2000 in summer, 800ish in winter), we had been in the area for two weeks and JR had been offered a job.

I’m still not exactly sure how the former happened, but summer festivals and new friends definitely played a big part. That and the fact that Dawson City is a particularly special place. For such a small town, it holds such iconic history within its small borders, and not just purely Canadian history either.

The Klondike Gold rRsh

Dawson’s legacy began when George Carmacks, Tagish Charlie and Skookum Jim (and George’s wife Kate, but no-one ever mentions her) discovered gold in Rabbit Creek, just outside what was then a tiny farming settlement.

The 1898 Klondike Gold Rush was on. Thousands of men and women from all around the world set out for the Yukon, traversing mountain passes and paddling mighty rivers (such as the Yukon, as we did!) in the hopes of eventually reaching Dawson.

Huge swathes of people didn’t make, and most of those who did found that most of the land had already been claimed.

Dawson City Keno from dome
Dawson City from Midnight Dome
Arriving in Dawson City by canoe
Arriving in Dawson City by canoe
Downtown Dawson City
Downtown Dawson City
Dawson City house
Diamond Tooth Gerties
Diamond Tooth Gerties dancers (2)
Diamond Tooth Gerties dancers

Dawson City in the 21st century

Nonetheless, Dawson grew to be the Yukon’s capital, with 40,000 people (the population of the Yukon is just under 34,000 today) living there at the height of the Gold Rush.

Residents were either miners or making a living from the miners via the various service industries that had sprung up (think food and entertainment, of all varieties).

Nowadays, tourism is the thing, although there is still plenty of mining going on around Dawson and along the Yukon River.

The Dawson City Music Festival

We arrived in Dawson (the second time) via the aforementioned river, one Thursday morning at 9am. Why so early? We’d paddled late into the night and then got up at 5am to make sure we could secure a camping site for the Dawson City Music Festival.

By 6pm that day, all 98 campsites in the government campground had been taken, and we felt justified for rushing through the last part of our Yukon River paddle.

Although we didn’t have tickets ($130 for the weekend), we had been assured by many we’d met on the river that there would still be plenty for us to see. Thankfully, they were right.

A different atmosphere

With the festival in town, Dawson City felt different than our first visit around Canada Day. By the time we arrived after two weeks on the Yukon River, the atmosphere in the town had ramped up and it was busy.

Before, we had felt like the youngest people in town by around 30 years (RV and tour bus travellers do tend to be retired), but now? The summer season and the music festival had brought some younger blood to the town.

We met up with friends met on the Yukon River and met new ones…some of whom we continued to see around and ab0ut town for the next few weeks. We weren’t the only ones who were having trouble leaving Dawson!

JR was eventually offered a bus driving job for next summer the morning we left – mainly for the reason that we were ‘still’ in town.

View of Dawson from Dome 2
View of Dawson City Festival Grounds from Midnight Dome
Diyet Dawson City Music Festival
Palace Grand Theatre
The Palace Grand Theatre, a reconstruction of Dawson’s Gold Rush theatre
Palace Grand Theatre bar
Palace Grand Theatre bar
JR drinking the sour toe cocktail in Dawson City
JR drinking the sour toe cocktail in Dawson City
The sour toe itself
The sour toe itself

Things to do in Dawson City

With the music festival taking up so much of the weekend, by Monday we still had a long list of sights to see in and around Dawson City.

For me, this included visits to the Discovery Claim (to step in the footsteps of Carmacks et al), the sternwheeler graveyard on the banks of the Yukon River, the No. 4 Gold Mining Dredge, the 1920’s era steamer S.S. Keno and Jack London’s cabin. Oh, and see the views from the Midnight Dome hill above town (amazing!).

As well as the above, JR also wanted to down a drink with a petrified toe in it and pan for gold at Dawson’s free claim, No. 6.

I passed on the toe thing, choosing not to pay $10 to join the Sour Toe club, of which JR is the 55,604th member despite breaking the rules and putting the toe in his mouth. This is one of those occasions where the photos really do say it all…

A living museum

Dawson City really is like a living museum; there are costumed Parks Canada interpreters all over the place, restored Gold Rush-era businesses alongside more modern convenience stores as well as other builders that have fallen into disrepair.

Diamond Tooth Gertie’s Gambling Hall claims to be the oldest casino in Canada and has dance hall girls performing three times a night. We spent many a night there playing a bit of Blackjack, watching poker games, eating cheap pizza, waiting for happy hour and the final show at midnight.

Moosehide Gathering

By the time we had ticked off our list of Dawson City essential-sights-to-see, it was time for another festival called Moosehide Gathering. This really was one of the most interesting events I have ever been to.

Moosehide is a bi-annual First Nation cultural event on traditional land just 3km up-river of Dawson City, featuring native and Northern music, arts, food and atmosphere.

We intended just to visit for one day but stayed for three. More on this and the Dawson City Music Festival in another post soon.

Moosehide opening ceremony
Moosehide opening ceremony
Learning the fiddle at Moosehide
Learning the fiddle at Moosehide
Dredge no. 4
The No. 4 Dredge – basically a gigantic mining machine. Despite the size, it only took four men to operate.
At the old post office
Sternwheeler graveyard 4
he sternwheeler graveyard – up to twelve (we heard varying accounts) steamers lay abandoned alongside the Yukon River, close to the government campground
Sternwheeler graveyard
Sternwheeler graveyard
Panning for Gold Claim no 6 Dawson
Panning for Gold Claim no 6 Dawson

Tombstone Territorial Park

After Moosehide, we left Dawson. But we didn’t go far, returning to the Dempster Highway to re-visit Tombstone Territorial Park, a place we had left around a month before.

The weather was finally looking promising for a bit of hiking, and the snow was finally gone from the lower elevations. In Tombstone, you can hike and camp anywhere you like.

I’ve never been to any kind of protected area or park like this, so it was a more than little strange to just pick a mountain to climb and start hiking.

Four hours after leaving the van for our first overnight hike, we were on the top of Rake Mountain, with an incredible panorama surrounding us. An unbelievable payoff for such a short hike.

Our second overnight hike, to Grizzly Lake, was on a fairly challenging established trail and also had incredible views, although I think our trip up Rake Mountain a couple of days before overshadowed it a bit.

Finally leaving Dawson City

Back to Dawson City for showers, laundry and a final night at Gertie’s, we finally managed to pull ourselves away two weeks after we had initially arrived. Dawson City may be tiny, isolated and touristy, but we loved it.

Summiting mountains in Tombstone Territorial Park
At the peak of Rake Mountain
Tombstone Grizzly Lake
On the way to Grizzly Lake

Weeks 12 and 13: Dawson City and Tombstone Territorial Park

551km driven (!!)

0km paddled

30km hiked (2 overnight trips in Tombstone)

$ spent? Around $300….we did, however, manage to camp free half the time

Dawson City camping

Over the Music Festival weekend and during part of Moosehide we stayed at the pretty nice Yukon Government campground across the river for $12/night. In Tombstone, we stopped one night in the park’s campground and one at Grizzly Lake, both $12/night.

For free camping, we parked at the top of the Midnight Dome a few times (bottom left photo), at the free claim site next to Bonanza Creek in the Goldfields, alongside Blackstone River in Tombstone and at various places around Dawson City itself.

Adventure in your inbox

Subscribe to our monthly email newsletter and receive a round-up of our latest outdoor adventures plus other exciting beyond the beaten path destinations 

We never share your information with third parties and will protect it in accordance with our Privacy Policy

Check out these recently published posts:

Our Western Canada road trip: Week 19 | Off Track Travel

Friday 31st of October 2014

[…] We certainly know how to celebrate a reunion: explore a National Historic Site! Built in 1921, the Klondike sternwheeler sits in a dry dock next to the Yukon River. These boats were a vital part of Yukon transportation from the Gold Rush era until the construction of roads in the 1950s. The most impressive thing to me about sternwheelers is how they could carry a ridiculous amount of cargo (up to 225 tonnes) but could safely navigate in water depths as low as 1.21 metres. That is really nothing. Sternwheelers were therefore perfect for transporting people and goods up and down the Yukon River due to the variety of water depths, strange currents and the odd sandbar or two that comes out of nowhere….I absolutely love that I can say this from first hand experience.  […]


Wednesday 3rd of September 2014

You did the toe! Very impressed.


Monday 8th of September 2014

Something you'd be interested in doing Joe? It's a definite yuck from me, though I admit the folklore around it is pretty interesting! Definitely uniquely Yukon-y... - Gemma