Dawson City's downtown core comprises eight avenues and about a dozen streets set up in a grid pattern so it's very easy to walk around town and discover its historic buildings on your own. There are information pannels in front of most historic buildings, and you can also print the South Dawson Walking Tour (see link below) produced by the Yukon Tourism Department to further explore the town and discover some of its hidden gems, several of which have been restored by Parks Canada while others have been left to their own fate, which produces a remarkable contrast. Don't forget to bring your camera!
The Dawson City Museum is not a bad place to go if you wish to find out more about the Klondike Gold Rush and the quick rise and fall of Dawson. It's not very big, but it gives you all the basic information you need to appreciate your stay in Dawson. There are special activities taking place throughout the day, and the guides will walk through the museum to let visitors know when one is bout to start. If you're planning on visiting the Dawson City Museum, I highly recommend you do so at the beginning of your trip rather than at the end. We went after spending 3 days in Dawson and I'm afraid at that point there wasn't much for us left to learn... However, I did see one of the Klondike Big Inch Land Giveaway certificates issued by Quaker Oats in the 1950s, which was part of a hugely successful marketing scam and for which Yukon officials still need to answer people's letters, calls and e-mails asking how much their inch of land is worth (!).
The Dempster Highway goes straight through the Tombstone Territorial Park (the information centre is located about 1.5h from Dawson). In total, the park covers over 2000 square kilometers of land that has belonged to the Tr'ondëk Hwëch First Nation for several centuries. It received its distinctive name based on the fact that seen from the distance, the mountains look like old graveyard markers, but that's about the only part that's gloomy about this place - everything else is stunningly beautiful! There are several hiking possibilities, though for the most part the park has been left in its natural state so the trails are not all clearly marked. We chose to hike up the Goldensides trail, which is rather steep but not too long and it leads to some amazing viewing spots. Never had my country seemed so endlessly wide and wild before!
The Dempster Highway is usually described as the northernmost highway in the world. There are some highways located futher north, but these are only open to commercial transportation. The highway begins about 40 km from Dawson, and it stretches over 736 km all the way into the Northwest Territories. Construction began in 1958 with the initial goal of connecting Dawson City to Inuvik. Work stopped on several occasions, but finally the highway was officially completed in 1979. The gravel road crosses three mountain ranges and offers breathtaking views of the surrounding landscape. Even if you don't have time to drive all the way to Inuvik (it takes at least 12h to make the trip if road conditions are good), it's worth going for a drive at least through the Tombstone Mountains. Just make sure you have a reliable car and a full tank of gas!
The Top of the World Highway starts in Dawson West, on the other side of the Yukon River. The 127 km long highway was completed in 1955. It got its distinctive name because it runs on top of the mountains, offering spectacular views of the valleys down below. From the moment you leave the ferry terminal in West Dawson, the road starts to climb, and it practically keeps going up until you reach Alaska (so don't forget you passport if you wish to cross the border). The highway is closed during winter for reasons that become quite obvious when you drive on it, one of them being that most of the road isn't paved. Even if you don't plan on driving all the way to Alaska, it's still worth going for a quick ride on the highway. There's a great lookout point near the Top of the World golfcourse from where you get a really nice view of the city that is often featured on postcards.
If you're planning on visiting Dredge No. 4, it's worth making the quick detour to see Discovery Claim, the place where it all started. In August 1896, a group of three men, George Carmack, Skookum Jim and Tagish Charlie, began looking for gold in the Bonanza Creek area of the Klondike River following a tip received by a fellow prospector. At that time, some traces of gold had already been found in the river, but nothing of significance. On August 16, the three men found gold nuggets larger than any people had seen coming out of the river thus far. And this is how the Klondike Gold Rush started! There now is a short walking trail leading to Discovery Claim with some pannels giving historical information. The short trail summarizes the history of gold panning in the Klondike, with examples of the tools used (I finally got so see my first sluicebox after having read all about them!). The trail can be accessed free of charge.
You get to learn a lot about the Klondike Gold Rush while visiting Dawson, but it's also interesting to find out more about the actual techniques used to find gold. Gold panning in the Klondike River was the first technique used, but once they figured out that the river wasn't flowing with gold despite what the newspapers said, early gold miners moved on to sluicing and, eventually, dredging. The first dredge was built in 1899, and a few dozens more were built over the years. Dredge No. 4 was the biggest of them all. Built in 1912, it was in operation from Spring 1913 to Fall 1960. For years, its giant buckets plowed the bottom of the Klondike River, producing up to 800 ounces of gold in a single day. Dredge mining was eventually abandoned in the 1960s and when Dredge No. 4 was declared a National Historic Site, Parks Canada made important investments to restore it and make it accessible to the public. Visits are available by guided tours only, and there are different companies in Dawson offering these tours. We went with Goldbottom Mining Tours and bought our tickets at their booth on Front Avenue. Our guide was from a Dawson family of gold miners and therefore had lots of information to share on the topic, which made for a very interesting tour.
The Midnight Dome is the name give to the top of the mountain that lies just behind Dawson City. It stands 887 m above sea level and it's called the Midnight Dome because from the start of the Gold Rush, it became a popular place to go watch the midnight sunset. A group of ladies even had the idea of organizing a party on top of the mountain on June 21, the longest day of the year, to which the whole town was invited to watch the sunset at midnight. Unfortunately, the sun hid behind the mountains on the other side of the valley at 11:30 pm, but the party was still going strong when it rose up again two hours later. You can hike your way up to the Midnight Dome or drive up to the top. Either way you'll be rewarded with fantastic 360º views of the Yukon River, Klondike Valley and Ogilvie Mountains.
I do believe there are more people buried in Dawson than there are currently living in it! Of course, this is mostly due to how large the population was at the time of the Gold Rush, and how poor living conditions happened to be at that time. Many of the thousands of stampeders who would make it to Dawson unfortunately never got the chance to leave it. Several small cemeteries were created on the hill that lies right next to the city. There's a walking trail that goes up to the cemeteries, but it's also possible to drive. Once you get there, you can explore them on your own - to do so, I'd suggest printing the walking tour created by the tourism office (see link below). It gives some historical information and points the way to several of Dawson's most important or most interestig citizens. The new public cemetery was my favourite one - take plenty of time to walk around and spot the most unique graves. As they do in life, people from Dawson find a way to express their originality even after they're gone :o)
For a first-hand experience of what nightlife was like back when Dawson City was called "The Paris of the North", don't miss the opportunity to spend an evening at Diamond Tooth Gertie's. Named after one of the town's legendary dance hall leading ladies, this gambling hall entertains visitors the way dance halls once entertained placer miners. There's a small but fun casino section, as well as a cabaret section that presents three can-can shows every night. The dancers and singers are very talented and but on quite a show - it's only about 30 min long, but it's fun and highly entertaining - especially when one of your party ends up on stage!! There's a cover charge to get in ($10) but they give you a pass that you can use as often as you want while you're in Dawson.
I doubt that Jack London needs a very long introduction. His novel "The Call of the Wild", inspired by his Gold Rush experience, has been published in 47 languages and is still widely read in schools throughout the world. Like so many others, Jack London travelled to Dawson in 1897 in search of gold. He didn't find any and ended up going back to San Francisco the next year, after having spent a harsh winter by the Klondike River. The log cabin in which he lived was found in 1965. It was dismantled, and the wood was used to build two replicas, one of which can be seen at the Jack London Museum in Dawson (the other sits on Jack London Square in Oakland, California).
It costs $5 to visit the musem ($2.50 if you have a Diamond Tooth Gertie's pass), but if you really want to get your money's worth, you need to go at noon, which is when the daily lectures are held. When we were there, our guide Dawn did a really great job of summarizing London's life and works. You can also visit the museum on your own, but to be honest, there isn't that much to see...
Robert Service's rhymes (he refused to think of himself as a poet) earned him the nickname of "Bard of the Yukon". He was born in England but traveled to America at the age of 21 with the idea of becoming a cowboy. He spent some time working at a ranch but the job description didn't quite match what he had in mind so he eventually became a banker like his father. He was transferred to the Dawson City branch in 1908 so he didn't get to experience the Gold Rush, but he did hear many stories, which he eventually turned into humourous poems. He left Dawson in 1912 and never returned because he wanted to remember it just the way it was when he lived in his little log cabin.
Visits of the Robert Service Cabin are offered daily at 1:00 pm by Parks Canada. Although the cabin itself is very small, what makes this tour so interesting is the fantastic introduction to Robert Service given by the tour guides - ours was Alexander, and he was amazing! He had a great sense of humour and could recite many of Service's poems by heart. He kept us absolutely spellbound, feeding us one funny story after the other to give us a better idea of who this rather unique man was.
From 1898 to 1952, Dawson City was the capital of the Yukon Territory. The Commissioner was appointed by the federal government of Canada as its official representative. Although the position still exists today, the Commissioner's role resembles that of the lieutenant governor in other provinces, except that he doesn't represent the Queen of England. But in the absence of a premier in the Territory's pre-election days, the Commissioner had a very important role to play and from 1900 to 1916, he lived in this stately residence, which now belongs to Parks Canada. There is a guide available to give you some information, but visitors are free to walk around the house on their own. The first floor has been extensively restored - don't miss the chance to sit on the antlers chair! - to give visitors a good idea of what it looked like at the time George Black and his wife Martha, the second woman elected to the Canadian House of Commons, lived there.
This is another fascinating guided tour offered by Parks Canada. The Palace Grand Theatre was originally built in 1899 at great costs by Charlie Meadows who entertained high hopes of making a fortune in Dawson City without having to worry about gold panning. He hosted Vaudeville productions, featuring famous leading ladies such as Klondike Kate, to a male audience who literally threw gold on stage. The theatre's rise to fame was short lived since it was pretty much deserted once the Gold Rush was over, but still there's no lack of stories to tell, and that's exactly what your Parks Canada guide will do. For about 45 minutes, you get to walk all around the theatre while hearing fascinating tales of Dawson City's early days. Tours are offered daily at 2:30 pm, and you can buy your tickets at the visitor information centre.
Who knows what would be left of Dawson City today if it wasn't for all the care and money invested by Parks Canada? This federal government agency has bought and restored several historic buildings throughout the town, which might otherwise have been destroyed or fallen down on their own. To discover these along with their glorious - and sometimes not so glorious - past, Parks Canada offers guided walking tours of Dawson City.These start at the visitors centre and I would rank them as the #1 thing to do in Dawson. Our guide was a fantastic story teller - and there is no lack of good stories when it comes to Dawson City- and I very much enjoyed how the tour gave us access to several of the buildings that are otherwise closed to the public. The cost is only $6.30 for the 2-hour tour.