Gold Rush history, streets of clapboard shacks and a quirky character fuelled by friendly locals make this dirt road Yukon charmer – once called the Paris of the North – a bucket list must-do. But when it comes to activities, let's get the dead digit out of the way first.
The near-legendary Sourtoe Cocktail, served in the Downtown Hotel's saloon bar, is a glass of Yukon Jack whisky with a preserved human toe bobbling at the bottom. Bragging rights (and faint regret) ensue – but only if the leathery skin brushes your quivering lips.
It's a while since I was touched by the toe, so I tapped some locals for the visitor low-down on this tiny town – starting with Emily Pohl-Weary, current writer-in-residence at the preserved Pierre Berton House. Berton is one of several Dawson-affiliated authors celebrated here.
"I love the Robert Service Walking Tour. It's a great introduction to his poetry and it teaches you all about the lure of the region," Pohl-Weary says. The Bard of the Yukon's modest one-time home is on the same street as Berton's – while the cabin-centred Jack London Museum is also just steps away.
Sites such as these – many run by Parks Canada – often shutter or reduce their hours from mid-September. Which means planning a last-minute trip this year or waiting for a full immersion next summer when July's Dawson City Music Festival is also a major lure.
But there's plenty to see outside summer, including the photogenic time capsule streets. Start at the Dawson City Museum – open to late September and then by appointment – for the stories behind the façades. Or hit the Klondike Institute of Art's ODD Gallery, where Pohl-Weary says "there's always something happening."
The call of the wild is also a multiseason cry here. "Find a local to take you blueberry picking in Tombstone Territorial Park. I've seen moose, bear, lynx and porcupines up there," she says, suggesting gearing up at downtown's Raven's Nook store, one of many shops that ensure Dawson's remoteness – it's a six-hour drive or 45-minute plane hop from Yukon capital Whitehorse – isn't a downside.
"Dawson has everything you need," she adds.
And that goes for the dining scene. "Klondike Kate's serves local food and the menu changes frequently. The Alchemy Café also serves healthy produce – mostly organic and mostly vegetarian – plus great coffee."
Stronger libations are offered in Dawson's gritty-but-great bars, according to local resident Peter Menzies. And there's no need to rush your Whitehorse-brewed Yukon Gold Pale Ale: Dawson's wood-slatted sidewalks are eerily illuminated long into the summer nights due to its Land of the Midnight Sun location.
"The Westminster Hotel Tavern is over 100 years old and it's a great storytelling bar," Menzies says. "But The Eldorado Hotel is my preferred bar for a beer and supper – and the martini menu at Bombay Peggy's is an attraction unto itself."
There's even an old-school casino evoking 19th-century nights out. "Diamond Tooth Gerties is a must. Gambling is one thing, but the shows here are very good with high-calibre musicians and dancers," he says, recommending Dawson's online events calendar for additional happenings.
It's not all about the nightlife, though. "At the Danoja Zho Cultural Centre, you'll learn about aboriginal people, land claims and residential school reconciliation. It's very welcoming," Menzies says, adding view-hugging hikes to the Dome vantage point plus Parks Canada Gold Rush sites Dredge No. 4 and the SS Keno sternwheeler to his to-do list.
For Pohl-Weary, the bottom line for potential visitors is Dawson's uniqueness. "I'd definitely recommend it. As someone who [previously] lived her whole life in downtown Toronto, it's constantly surprised me – from the welcoming locals to the all-night sunsets and the endless stream of festivals."
OUR READERS WRITE
- Drink all the Yukon Brewing beer you can get your hands on – delicious stuff. @agboudre
- Dinner at the Drunken Goat Taverna. Also, you can pay for your room at the Eldorado Hotel with gold – the spot price is posted at the desk. @CooperQuinn_WY
- Hang out at the Pit at the Westminster Hotel – the best characters are there. @lorihenry
- Go to the Dawson Music Festival; drive to the top of the Dome for the view; and if you must, try the Sourtoe Cocktail. @karan_smith
- I played with the Dawson City ukulele club when I was there three winters back. Highlight of my trip, but a bit obscure. @nerdseyeview
- Diamond Tooth Gerties has the full Yukon Brewing range on tap or in bottles! Bring Advil. Seriously, bring layers of clothing because the temperature fluctuates a lot depending on the season and the sun – sunglasses in summer and long johns in winter. Oh and a good camera – Dawson is an awesome place for photographers! One more thing: gum boots – Dawson is very pedestrian friendly but the gravel streets can get pretty muddy, and you can wear them out to dinner or panning for gold – you’ll look just like a local! @DawsonCityYukon
"Can you suggest some U.S. cities to visit where our horrible exchange rate won't derail our budget? Hotel rooms are especially expensive now."
Send your travel questions to email@example.com.
Follow me on Twitter: @johnleewriter