Arriving in Dawson City, Yukon is a little like walking onto the set of a spaghetti western. The dirt streets, wooden sidewalks and flat clapboard facades on the town’s buildings all scream the Wild West, and even the hardware store still sells equipment for gold panning. If it weren’t for the 4X4s parked all along main street and the occasional tour bus spitting out its cargo of tourists, you’d think you had been transported back in time, which in some ways, you have been. Dawson City remains one of Canada’s – and North America’s – most storied towns, all thanks to a discovery in 1896 that sparked the biggest gold rush in history. And even though it’s been more than a century since Klondike gold fever has passed, there’s still plenty to discover in Dawson today. And there’s no better time than during Dawson’s Discovery Days Festival long weekend in August.
Dawson City Discovery Days Festival
After the first nugget of gold was found in Rabbit Creek just outside of what is now Dawson City, tens of thousands of people raced to stake a claim in this wild, untamed wilderness, all in the hopes that they too would strike it rich. Dawson City grew out of that madness, and within a few short years, Rabbit Creek became known as Bonanza Creek and Dawson had become the Yukon’s largest, rowdiest and most prosperous town with upwards of 40,000 people living in the area.
Today Dawson City may only boast 1500 residents, but the discovery of gold is celebrated every year here with the city’s Discovery Days Festival in mid-August. It’s a great excuse for the town to come alive with Yukoners and visitors alike and celebrate this gold rush heritage, with all kinds of events and attractions to fill the long weekend (and with daylight hours that stretch to almost 11pm, there are LOTS of hours to fill!) Here’s your guide for what to see and do during Discovery Days.
Start Your Discovery Days Weekend at the Visitor Centre
Whether you want to find out who’s playing at the Palace Theatre, visit the homes of famous literary figures like Robert Service, Jack London or Pierre Burton, or just find directions to the oldest casino in Canada (Diamond Tooth Gerties), your first stop in Dawson should be the Visitor Information Centre. Here, Parks Canada and the Klondike Visitors Association work together to provide everything you need to get the most out of your visit to Dawson. Discovery Days Festival weekend means even more activities and special events are on the calendar, starting with one of the best ways to get into the spirit: joining an historic walking tour.
Discover Dawson’s Past on an Historic Walking Tour
Like every place in the Yukon, Dawson City is a town filled with stories and characters, and Parks Canada offers free tours that give you a snapshot of what life was like here during gold rush madness. Not only do the tours give you access to buildings that are not open to the general public, but they also bring the town’s characters to life – literally – with actors who play the role of prominent citizens.
Henk and I joined a walking tour hosted by Faith Fenton, the first female Northern correspondent for the Toronto Globe (played by an enthusiastic young Parks Canada employee). Like so many other women who came to the Yukon, Fenton was strong, independent and a bit of a rebel who wasn’t afraid to ruffle a few feathers. You had to be that kind of woman to hold your own in a rough and rowdy male-dominated mining town like Dawson.
Hear Stories You’ll Only Find in Dawson
Faith recounted stories about how in Dawson, you were either mining for gold yourself, or you learned how to ‘mine the miners’ – like the girls at the Red Feather Saloon who charged for dances, and could net more than $200/night from these men (or upwards of $6000 in today’s dollars!)
If the girls weren’t milking the miners for their money, the bartenders might be: patrons often paid for their drinks with actual gold, and bartenders would keep their fingernails long so that when weighing the gold, their fingernails would pick up small particles of the precious metal. They would then run their fingers through their pomaded hair, and ‘collect’ the gold from their hair when they went home later. Ingenious, really.
Pan for Gold at Dawson’s Claim 33
If you prefer to come by your gold honestly, you can always try your hand at panning for gold. I can guarantee you that the experience will demonstrate pretty quickly just how incredibly hard these early prospectors had to work at finding gold in order to be successful.
You can try your luck at a government claim (Claim 6) where the finders-keepers rule applies to any gold you might discover, but you’ll need to bring your own pan and know what you’re doing. Or you can visit Claim 33, which is admittedly a tourist attraction, but where for $13 they will provide everything you need and actually teach you the proper technique for how to pan.
Successful newbies usually leave with a few bits of gold, and a newfound respect for the skill of early miners.
Try Your Luck at Diamond Tooth Gerties
Just like during the gold rush days, there are plenty of places where you can spend some of your hard-earned money in Dawson City today. If you like to gamble that money in the hopes of hitting the ‘mother lode’, head on over to Diamond Tooth Gerties, Canada’s oldest casino that has been operating here since 1971.
Named after Gertie Lovejoy, one of the most famous Dancehall Queens of the Klondike (known for the diamond inserted between her two front teeth), Diamond Tooth Gerties has a long history dating back to 1901. It was originally built as a meeting place for a ‘secret lodge’ known as the Arctic Brotherhood, whose membership was restricted to men who lived north of the 54th parallel. The Brotherhood’s original hall burned down in 1929, and the new building that replaced it was eventually taken over and converted into the casino and entertainment venue now known as Diamond Tooth Gerties.
Today the stage is used for vaudeville-style shows that range from Klondike-era musicals to popular song and dance numbers. Like the old dance halls of the Klondike, Gertie’s is filled with a loud crowd that’s looking for a fun night, whether you want to try your luck at gaming tables or slot machines, or just enjoy a few drinks and sing along with some old rock and roll favourites.
TIP: Don’t feel too bad about leaving some money behind at Gerties: The Klondike Visitors Association who runs it is a non-profit organization and their profits go back into the community.
Catch the Discovery Days Parade
If you find small town parades charming, you’ll get a kick out of Dawson’s Discovery Days parade. With everything from marching Mounties and Scottish pipers to firetrucks and homemade floats, this is the kind of thing where everyone in town is either watching the parade or in it. Local kids love it because the participants throw candies and treats to the crowd (like Halloween come early) and as for grownups, well, who doesn’t love a parade where you can always get a front-row spot?
Take in a Concert at the Palace Grand Theatre
The Palace Grand Theatre is one of the North’s iconic venues, the original dating back to 1899 when it was THE place to catch acts during the Klondike Gold Rush, and ‘one of the prettiest theatres north of San Francisco’. Rebuilt in the 1960s and upgraded most recently in 2018, the Palace hosts everything from film fests to gala orchestral events, and during Discovery Days this is where you can catch a live music concert.
TIP: If you aren’t lucky enough to score tickets to a concert (The Sadies quickly sold out this year), or just want to see the theatre, you can also take a Parks Canada guided tour of this National Historic Site.
Dawson City Delivers More than History
it’s easy to slip into a strange time-and-space confusion in Dawson, what with the historic buildings and gold rush heritage everywhere, not to mention the twilight that never ends. But this town is definitely not trapped in its past. In fact, it’s very much in the present when it comes to catering to modern-day travellers. Boutique hotel? Check. Local ingredient-inspired menus? Check. Hipster cafes? Check. There’s even a Yukon Riverside Arts Festival that coincides with the Discovery Days Festival that includes a mini film fest, arts and crafts demonstrations and of course, live music acts.
Whether you’re looking to explore Dawson’s past or present, Discovery Days Festival is a great way to do exactly that while enjoying the juxtaposition of old and new. And although no one can predict exactly what the future may hold for this tenacious town, one thing is certain: there’s always something for visitors to discover in Dawson.
Dawson City Trip Planning: Where to Sleep
If you love boutique hotels, definitely check into Bombay Peggy’s, a restored Victorian brothel that is one of the most interesting and characteristic places to stay in town. Rescued from ruin, relocated by its current owners and painstakingly returned to its former beauty, Bombay Peggy’s offers rooms that are decorated in period style but with modern amenities. Added perks like complimentary sherry and baked treats in the parlour and fresh croissants delivered to your door in the morning make it a decidedly grownup option.
TIP: Discovery Days weekend is a hugely popular one, so book your room early as there are limited hotel rooms available.
Where to Eat:
The Red Mammoth Bistro is a great option for coffee and casual lunches. The French owners offer delicious sandwiches, panini, soups and salads, and homemade baked goods to eat in or take out.
For dinner, as incongruous as it may seem to find a Greek restaurant in a northern town this small, the Drunken Goat Taverna is a great option for abundant, tasty greek food.
Our favourite place was Klondike Kate’s which takes their menu to a more elevated level offering unique Yukon ingredients like Birch maple syrup, fresh fish and other local produce.
Where to Drink:
There’s no shortage of bars in Dawson, including “The Pit” at the infamous Westminster Hotel which boasts the oldest bar licence in the Yukon. It also holds one of only two licences to operate what is affectionately known as the ‘Breakfast Club’, a bar (the Snake Pit) that opens at 9 in the morning. The licence was granted back in the day to accommodate miners coming off the graveyard shift who wanted to enjoy a drink after work, and the licence remains in place today. Next door to the Snake Pit is the main bar, the ‘Arm Pit’, that picks up where the other leaves off, operating later into the evening after the Breakfast Club closes. With its sloped floors, crooked walls, low ceilings and thankfully-dim lighting, the ambiance of the Pit lives up to its glamorous name, but it’s still the best place in Dawson to dance.
For a more grownup option, Bombay Peggy’s is the best gin joint in town – or vodka, for that matter, or any other spirit – as this bar serves up a very tasty adult cocktail. Their drinks also come with equally adult names, too, like the cheeky Spank My Naughty Ass or the Bloomer Remover (this DID used to be a brothel, remember!).
TIP: Bombay Peggy’s doesn’t have a kitchen but offers an amazing order-in charcuterie board. Just text your table number and the number of diners and BonTon Butcherie & Charcuterie will deliver right to your table.
Special thanks to Travel Yukon who hosted our visit to the Yukon and introduced us to Dawson’s Discovery Days Festival.