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There are strange things done in the midnight sunRobert Service
By the men who moil for gold…
Among the many things that have drawn visitors to the northwestern reaches of North America – Alaska and the Yukon – over the years, the prospect of gold still ranks high on the list. While you’re not likely to find a large nugget lying in a creek or vein running through an exposed mountain, the idea that you might – or that someone once did – is enticing. It still draws thousands of visitors to Skagway, Alaska each year. But relatively few people visit Dawson City, Skagway’s sister city in the tale of the Klondike Gold Rush.
I’ve been to Dawson City twice in my travels: once as a young person on a tour of the Yukon, and again in June 2023 as part of my Kluane-Klondike road trip to rediscover these places which informed my experiences two decades ago. On this latter trip, I came with a travel writer’s eyes, keen to seek out what makes Dawson unique, and to learn which things to do in Dawson City are worth recommending.
Below you’ll find my list; it’s not comprehensive and exhaustive, but rather a sampling of those activities I think are most essential to get the “flavor” (at times literally) of this remote community that so critically preserves a chapter of Yukon and Gold Rush history. Whether you’re visiting Dawson City as part of a guided cruise-tour or heading there on your own – adventurous you! –, let me and this list of the best things to do in Dawson City be your guide.
In this post, I promote travel to a destination that is the traditional lands of the Hän and Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in peoples. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.
1. Take a Historic Walking Tour
As you’ll see as soon as you arrive in Dawson City, the whole city is historic – and you can easily explore it on foot to see the cool, old buildings. But the better way to make the most of that time on your feet is by booking a historic walking tour with Parks Canada (click “Interpretive Programs” to see the many options!).
I took the “Historic Town Walking Tour” with a Parks Canada employee named Jess; she took us all over including past the SS Keno (more on that below) and into several buildings that are not open to the public (unless on a tour) – my favorite was the historic post office.
If the timing doesn’t work to do a guided tour, you can – of course – just walk around on your own, but you’ll get a lot more out of it if you do it with a knowledgeable guide.
Pro-tip: Show up at least 30 minutes before the start of your tour, as they are popular and do sell out during the summer months. Also, Parks Canada guides cannot accept tips, so you don’t need to worry about that.
2. Visit Gold Dredge No. 4
While we’re early on this list, you’ll soon see that most of the best things to do in Dawson City have to do with history. In addition to the historic town center, the other main historic attraction is Gold Dredge No. 4, one of the best-preserved examples of dredge mining in the world.
Gold Dredge No. 4 is located about 10 miles outside of town (a 20-minute drive) and is also managed by Parks Canada. Tours are offered all day long and teach you the ins and outs – literally – of mining history in the Dawson City area, dating back to 1896.
What makes Gold Dredge No. 4 particularly special is that it is so well-preserved: the dredge was in operation from 1913 to 1959 and was left pretty much where it stands today – and hasn’t really changed since. Its remoteness means it managed to avoid vandalism or burglary, and much of the original machinery is still in place.
3. Discover Discovery Claim National Historic Site
While you’re out at Gold Dredge No. 4, be sure to drive the extra few miles out to Discover Claim, where gold was first found by three Yukon Sourdoughs, George Carmack, Dawson Charlie, and Skookum Jim, on Bonanza Creek.
The Discovery Claim site is located just 1.5 miles further along Upper Bonanza Creek Road and there’s a self-guided interpretive trail that’s about 1 kilometer long (so 0.6-ish miles); along the way, there are signs to help you understand the history (and historic importance) of this site for Klondike history. You even visit the claim site on Bonanza Creek itself – if you bring your own gold pan, you are allowed to use it!
4. Admire the View from Midnight Dome
During my first trip to Dawson City so many years ago, I don’t remember ever hearing about Midnight Dome, but it’s become one of those essential things to do in Dawson City – such that I decided to book a tour to visit instead of driving up there myself (though you can absolutely drive yourself if you are visiting Dawson with a car!)
Midnight Dome is a large hill that looms over Dawson City, and a road leads up to the top to provide 360-degree panoramic views of both Dawson and the surrounding countryside – including Tombstone Territorial Park on a clear day (more on that below!).
If you do want to book a tour, you’ll get a little extra beyond visiting on your own; I booked with Klondike Experience and our guide gave us a good history of Dawson City on the way up the hill. He also helped us get oriented to the natural landscape around us once we reached the top of the Midnight Dome, and took a different route back down that pointed out some other historic sights in town (like the Masonic Cemetery and YOOP (Yukon Order of Pioneers) Cemetery).
If you’re super ambitious, you can also do a great point-to-point hike up and over Midnight Dome.
5. Walk Along the Yukon & Klondike Rivers
As you can see in my photos from the top of the Midnight Dome, Dawson City sits on the banks of a river – but it’s actually two rivers, and they’re both really important from a geographic and geologic perspective.
The larger of the two is the Yukon River, which runs 1,980 miles from its source in British Columbia through the Yukon and into Alaska to end at the Bering Sea – it’s one of the longest rivers in the world (#25 on the list) and critical to the ecosystems of Interior and Southwest Alaska.
At Dawson City, the Yukon River meets the Klondike River, which takes its name from the Hän word “Tr’ondëk.” It originates in the Ogilvie Mountains (which comprise part of Tombstone Territorial Park) and ends here; along its banks are some of the most productive goldfields on the North American continent.
Within town, there’s a nice embankment that protects the town from seasonal flooding and a path along the top where you can admire the power of the rivers beside you. Keep an eye out for eagles in trees, and moose on the banks if you’re really lucky.
6. Visit the S.S. Keno
Another experience along the Yukon River, the SS Keno is a beautifully preserved relic of the importance of the river itself – you might also visit the SS Klondike in Whitehorse as a companion to this experience.
The SS Keno is an old sternwheeler that used to transport silver, zinc, and lead ore down the Stewart River from mines in the Mayo district to the confluence of the Yukon and Stewart Rivers at Mayo (formerly Stewart City); it never made its way as far downstream as Dawson City, but that’s it’s home today.
Now a part of Parks Canada, you can take a guided tour of the SS Keno. In addition to the ship’s specific history, you’ll learn more about how all boats – and especially sternwheelers – were critical to survival and success on the Yukon. If you aren’t able to book a guided tour, you can walk around the outside of the ship and there are a few signs that teach the basics.
7. Watch the Cancan at Diamond Tooth Gerties
For a small town, Dawson City has a few critical cultural experiences you won’t find in many other places in the world – one of which is a nightly cancan show in the style that prospectors would have enjoyed over a century ago. It’s hard to miss as it’s one of the biggest buildings in town, but Diamond Tooth Gerties is the place to see it all.
Diamond Tooth Gerties offers multiple shows nightly throughout the summer months (usually early to mid-May through the second half of September); they range from traditional to racier as the night goes on – but you’ve got to see at least one of them during your visit to Dawson!
In addition to cancan shows, Diamond Tooth Gerties is the spot to try your hand at a bit of gambling – you might be able to turn that gold nugget into two if fortune’s on your side. They have traditional table games like Black Jack, Poker, and Roulette, as well as slot machines.
8. Join the Sourtoe Cocktail Club
Yes, it’s true – and yes, it’s disgusting: Dawson City is the one place on earth where you can drink a shot with a real human toe in it. Yes, I said toe.
The basic story is now nearly myth and entirely unconfirmed, but legend has it that two rum-running brothers got caught in a blizzard in the 1920s. Affected by a bad case of frostbite, one of the brothers – Otto – used his axe to cut off the toe of the other brother – Louie. He placed the toe in alcohol to preserve it, and that jar was found in 1973 by Captain Dick Stevenson – a true Yukoner – who decided to create the Sourtoe Cocktail Club. It’s a rite of passage for Dawson City visitors, one of those weird things that you find in this part of the world and just have to do.
The long and short of it is that you pay for a shot of Yukon Jack whiskey; the current toe captain will drop a toe into your glass, say a few words, and then you shoot the shot – letting the toe touch your lips but NOT enter your mouth. Then everyone around cheers and you feel a warm sensation as well as a squiggly one in your tummy.
On my trip, I did it. I’ll probably do it again someday if it’s still offered the next time I visit. It’s gross, but essential.
9. Learn at the Dänojà Zho Cultural Centre
For more refined travelers – or those like me who just want to sample it all, a trip to the Dänojà Zho Cultural Centre is also essential.
The Dänojà Zho Cultural Centre is the place to learn about the traditional peoples of the Klondike region, the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in. It’s open from late June to late September each year and includes displays, exhibits, and demonstrations about the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in people, their traditions, and their land.
On certain days, you might even see locals working in different arts and crafts – many of those items will be available in the gift shop too, if you want the perfect souvenir.
10. See the Robert Service Cabin
I’ll be honest: I totally missed this part of Dawson City on both of my visits. It’s not like Dawson is big, but there are enough things to do in Dawson City that you do need a few days to enjoy them all; this part of town – Author’s Row – is on my list for my next visit.
Alaska and the Yukon drew many famous and influential people through the decades, including names you surely know like environmental advocate John Muir (who visited Glacier Bay in Southeast Alaska), writer Jack London (more on him below), and the poet Robert Service. Service’s cabin in Dawson City has been preserved for visitors today, and gives you a chance to step back in time and get a sense of what lifestyle might have inspired a man to write things like The Shooting of Dan McGrew and The Cremation of Sam McGee.
The Robert Service Cabin is administered by Parks Canada; you can admire the outside at any time but will need to book a tour if you want to step inside (click “Interpretive Programs” then “Robert Service Cabin”).
11. Visit the Jack London Museum
The Jack London Cabin and Museum are also located on Dawson City’s Author’s Row but are privately owned. This provides more flexibility for visitors, which is nice since many of the Parks Canada tours overlap and it’s hard to see them all even if you are interested in them.
In any case, the Jack London Cabin and Museum is open daily from roughly May 20 to September 15 each year. You can step into the Museum to learn more about London’s life and works including his best-known, White Fang and The Call of the Wild, which are both clearly influenced by the time he spent here. You can then visit the Jack London Cabin which – though it did not originally stand here – is built using half the logs of his original cabin. (Trivia: the other half of those logs were sent to London’s hometown of Oakland to build a cabin in Jack London Square.)
12. Visit the Camera Obscura
If you’re looking for a truly unique thing to do in Dawson City, you might want to pay special attention to the details: there’s a small red building located along the Yukon waterfront that you probably didn’t notice when walking along the river, but there’s more to it than meets the eye: this is the Dawson City Camera Obscura – and it’s truly delightful.
A camera obscura is a darkened room with a small hole or lens at one side through which an image is projected onto a wall or table opposite the hole – flipped and reversed. It’s a unique way to experience the world, and I’ve never stepped inside one, so it was quite a surprise to find this camera obscura in Dawson.
I don’t want to spoil the experience, but trust me and step into that little red building and you’ll see Dawson City in a whole new way.
13. Explore Tombstone Territorial Park
While it’s not in Dawson City, I felt remiss to not mention Tombstone Territorial Park, a natural playground nearby that draws the adventurous travelers who think even Dawson’s “crowds” are too much to handle.
Tombstone Territorial Park is 2,200 square kilometers (543,631 acres) of protected land including rugged peaks, alpine wilderness, and all the wildlife it holds – you can think of it much like a sister to Denali National Park in Alaska as they have almost the same latitude and climate. Unlike Denali which is relatively accessible by bus, Tombstone Territorial Park is extremely remote; there is no road, only one campground, and no amenities for hours and literally a hundred miles in any direction. The primary activity is backcountry hiking, though you’ll need to be very well-prepared as there are no trails and you’re walking in the home of wild animals.
A better way for most visitors to admire Tombstone Territorial Park is by flightseeing; Peel Wilderness Adventures offers 45-minute and 90-minute flights that are definitely on my list for my next visit to the area.
What About the Dawson City Museum?
Great question, dear reader! I actually haven’t visited the Dawson City Museum, so I can’t speak as to whether it’s worth it and adds anything extra beyond the interpretive programs offered by Parks Canada and other experiences I’ve recommended.
Have you visited Dawson City and the Dawson City Museum? Was it worth it? Share in the comments below so other travelers can know, and I’ll add it to my list for my next visit too.
If you have other questions about things to do in Dawson City and how to plan your time there, let me know in the comments too!