Visiting the Yukon – especially in the long winter months – is for the hearty, the daring and the curious. It’s for those willing to work a bit toward rich rewards. And the payoffs return dividends, from dog sledding adventures to visual explosions of dancing green lights.
In the pub and at casual restaurants, you’ll cozy up next to gruff locals (who tend to soften, once you gain their trust) and European tourists perhaps here for the third, fourth, or even fifth time. This place seems to have an addictive pull – a mysterious bent that challenges and lures simultaneously, sifting out those who can hack it and those who can’t.
After starting your trip in Whitehorse – and perhaps exploring Carcross, Haines Junction and sensational Kluane National Park – travel to Dawson City via the Klondike Highway, completed in 1955. To break up the drive, stop for a bite (think smokies and BLTs) at the quirky Coal Mine Campground, which also rents out cabins and canoes.
Thanks to the Klondike Gold Rush, Dawson City grew to be the largest city north of Seattle and west of Winnipeg in 1898 and 1899. The population swelled to somewhere between 30,000 and 40,000; in contrast, the current population of the entire Yukon totals 38,000. (Of course, the stampede of prospectors also marked the beginning of upheaval for the First Nations’ traditional way of life.)
In 1904, the Klondike was the largest gold producer in Canada and the fourth largest in the world. Modern-day visitors still love panning for treasures – an oddly meditative practice.
Every summer, Discovery Days take over town during a week of festivities honoring the territory’s proud history with family-friendly activities, a colorful parade, walking tours, an arts festival, sporting matches, Yukon River cruises (aboard a Klondike Spirit sternwheeler) and a sampling of the Diamond Tooth Gerties’ can-can dancers show – a memorable cultural experience in its own right.
Although Dawson City was the first western Canadian city to have electricity, today it remains a refreshing throwback town. Its eight main streets offer scenes of dated storefronts and raised boardwalk sidewalks, reminiscent of a Hollywood movie set.
On a sun-streaked, summer day here, creaky cars kick up dust, music blaring from open windows, while hunters roll back into town with their findings (a massive moose head, for example) resting in the bed of their truck. During these months, when Dawson’s light is endless and the tourist traffic steady, most residents tirelessly work multiple jobs to store up for the long winter ahead (said to arrive as early as mid-October).
You may see the male lead in the Gerties can-can show later working the till at a Front Street gift shop, and you’ll recognize your morning walking tour guide out at a lively pub that evening. Here, everyone knows everyone.
Upon arrival, get your bearings at the Visitor Information Centre. There is much to be learned at the Dänojà Zho Cultural Centre and the Jack London Museum, which honors the prolific author and journalist who spent a year in the Klondike (1897).
At mealtime, share Greek platters at The Drunken Goat Taverna, seafood dishes at casual Sourdough Joe’s (fish and chips, seafood chowder), and local delicacies at hoppin’ Klondike Kate’s (try the elk and bison sausages, Arctic char tacos and spruce tip cocktails).
Chat with locals over strong drinks at Bombay Peggy’s, and don’t miss the once-in-a-lifetime “Sourtoe Cocktail” experience at the Downtown Hotel’s Sourdough Saloon. (Just trust us on this one, and perhaps don’t study up too much in advance.)
From Dawson City, depending on the season and weather conditions, many choose to cruise up the 458-mile-long Dempster Highway, once they’ve loaded up on gas and a couple spare tires. Outdoor enthusiasts love exploring Yukon’s Tombstone Territorial Park, which protects a unique swath of rugged, wild peaks, permafrost landforms and amazing, abundant wildlife.
The park is a legacy of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in land claim agreement and lies entirely within the First Nations’ traditional territory, too.
The Tombstone Interpretive Centre is located a 1.5-hour drive from Dawson City, 7 hours from Whitehorse and 12 hours from Inuvik, should you choose to keep sailing north. And as of 2017, the Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk Highway also opened, which allows intrepid road warriors to venture all the way to the edge of the Arctic Ocean.
Many adventure travelers find winter the preferred time to visit, thanks to draws ranging from dog sledding, ice fishing, snowshoeing, skiing and snowmobiling to chances for amazing wildlife viewing, attending winter festivals, hopping on fat-tire bikes and sinking into steaming hot springs. Another highlight of the season? Of course, those often elusive, always exquisite Northern Lights.
No matter what season lures you North, we bet you’ll quickly fall under the Yukon’s spell, too.