When someone mentions the Yukon, it tends to conjure images of a vast, untamed wilderness; with miles and miles of vast forests, barren tundra and jagged mountain peaks. On the surface, it sounds like a paradise for thrill seekers, adventurers and battle hardened hikers, and it hardly sounds like the place to go for a relaxing vacation. But I’d also heard of another side to the Yukon that intrigued me; a side that spoke of escape from technology, friendly locals, peace and quiet and a taste of life as it was in the old gold rush days.
Last week, Louise and I finally had a chance to check out the Yukon and cross a place that had been on both our bucket lists for a very long time. In total, we spent about a week in the Yukon, first spending a couple of days adjusting in Whitehorse, followed by a couple of days in Dawson City and 3 days hiking in Tombstone Territorial Park (click here to hear about how badly we packed and a guide to packing for backcountry hiking). It promised to be an exhausting week of driving, hiking and outdoor adventures, but at the same time we expected it to be a beautiful retreat away from the relatively far more crowded Alberta.
Whitehorse has very recently become more accessible to Calgarians as direct flights between Calgary and Whitehorse have opened up. It’s also very easy to access from Edmonton directly, and of course, British Columbia. We flew there on the Yukon’s most treasured airline, Air North. Serving warm cookies and locally produced coffee; it didn’t take long for us to be sold on them too.
Whitehorse is a town of about 25,000 people, with a vibrant community thriving on the tourism and natural resources industries. It lies along the stunning Yukon River, and used to serve as a transport hub between the railway line and the mining communities further north in Dawson City. It’s a quiet town but it has plenty of great restaurants, coffee shops and tourist attractions to keep you occupied for a few days.
My favourite part of Whitehorse was probably Miles Canyon, a beautiful rock canyon carved into the hillside by the powerful Yukon river. For those looking for a bit of a walk, you can walk across the suspension bridge and along the river for as long as you feel like. Watch as speedboats full of teenagers tear along the river enjoying the evening summer warmth.
One of the most popular things to see in Whitehorse is the large paddle steamer, the S.S. Klondike. The S.S. Klondike was used to transport supplies and products between Whitehorse and Dawson City along the Yukon River. You can do a self guided walk around the boat which has been dry-docked, and learn about the trade route and life aboard the ship. It makes for some great photos and really helps paint a better picture of what life was life back in the 1800’s.
We recommend “The Claim” for their fantastic coffee and carrot cake. They’re also a great place to pick up a sandwich or two if you’re planning to drive a little further afield to Dawson.
For dinner, we had a fantastic meal at Golden Sakura Sushi in Whitehorse one night, and a unique meal at Giorgios Cuccina; Huge bowls of food as you might expect from a town with so many active inhabitants. Don’t miss the flaming Halloumi cheese dish!
For accommodation, we spent two nights in a beautiful cabin at the Yukon Pines Cabins. Our cabin, the Midnight Sun Cabin, was full of every amenity you could need, was beautifully decorated and had some of the best water pressure in I’ve experienced in any hotel in a long time, let alone in a cabin. That might not be important to you, but if you’ve been out hiking for a few days, I can tell you there’s nothing better for your aching muscles than a ‘power shower’.
We had planned to take a flightseeing tour through Kluane, but we had some bad luck with the weather and had to cancel. It’s something we’re looking forward to doing next time we’re back though. There are even flightseeing tours that can land on top of glaciers.
The drive between Whitehorse and Dawson City is around 6 hours, and passes through some of the most untouched and rugged wilderness I’ve ever seen. As soon as you leave Whitehorse, it becomes apparent just how little development the province has seen. In fact the Yukon is 3.7x bigger than England, or 1.14x bigger than California and only has a population of around 35k people. That’s a whole lot of space with nobody in it.
Prepare yourself for hours and hours of beautiful winding roads through the vast forests with very few stopping points. Our advice is to bring a few audiobooks or podcasts to keep your brain busy. There’s no cell signal for 99% of the drive so they’ll definitely come in handy.
There are a few good places to stop along the way and stretch your legs though, so make sure you don’t just blow through without making a couple of stops!
The first place you can’t miss is the gas station by Braeburn Airport. Why? Because of their famous cinnamon rolls. It’s not because they taste great though (although they’re pretty delicious); no it’s because they’re as big as a dinner plate. Grab one for the road and you won’t need anything else for 6 hours.
After that there are several lakes to stop in at along the way, but our recommendation is to put your head down and get some miles under your belt.
One place worth stopping along the way is the Five finger Rapids view point/hike. Incredibly, the rapids used to be travelled by the large steam paddleboats that carried supplies along the river. It must have been quite the feat. We didn’t do the hike, but took some time to admire the view from the top of the stairs.
Along the way you can also stop for gas at the various communities (Carmacks, Pelly Crossing and a couple of other stops). When I first looked at the map, I assumed these would be big towns, but there’s often little more than a gas station and the homes of the few people that live there. It really helps put in perspective just how few people live out here!
Eventually, after a long drive, you’ll have finally made it to the infamous Dawson City; home of the Klondike Gold Rush of 1896. You’ll know you’ve arrived when the sides of the road start to pile high with hundreds of curious mounds of rubble and dirt. Any guesses what they’re from? Yup you guessed it, gold mining.
Dawson City is easily one of the most fascinating places I’ve ever been. Truly a unique relic from the gold rush era. Most of the buildings are built with western false front architecture and walking around you feel like you’ve suddenly been transported back to an 1800’s western movie. All of the roads are dirt with raised wooden sidewalks. The buildings are brightly coloured and inviting, and there’s even an old saloon style door at the Downtown Hotel.
Digging a little deeper (no pun intended), it turns out that at the height of the gold rush there were over 40,000 people living here, which since has fallen to just over a thousand. It was a boom town throughout the mining era, with scores of people descending on the town to stake a claim and make their fortune. It must have been an incredible sight and I would highly encourage anyone that’s interested to visit the Dawson City museum and learn a little more about the unusual history. Indeed, up until 1961, it even had a thriving brothel with a bawdy madam, and perhaps unexpectedly, it still has a casino with regular can-can girl cabaret shows.
Everything about this town is unique, and each street has its own interesting personality. Louise and I loved walking around, reading the different shop names and seeing what was around each corner. Aside from being a fantastic base for our hike around Tombstone National Park, it was a great place to relax for a couple of days and learn about.
Our first night in Dawson was at Bombay Peggy’s, an infamous Madam from the goldrush era. With the ladies of the night long since gone, the hotel now boasts a wonderful collection of themed rooms (and creepy old photos). As we’d recently been married, we were given the “Lipstick room”, a room decked out with leopard print bedding and red walls. It wasn’t hard to imagine how this room might have been used in the past for other reasons. But for us it all added to the experience and we had a fantastic experience there. There was even free port and sherry for all the guests (which gets a big thumbs up from me).
The next night, after our lengthy adventure in Tombstone Territorial Park, Louise and I checked in to the Downtown Hotel. A hotel made infamous for it’s gruesome “Sourtoe Cocktail” (more on that later). The hotel is bright red and beautifully western looking and our room was basic but comfortable (I’m told it was fantastic by Dawson standards). The room was incredibly warm, but it was perfect for our needs.
Once we’d recovered a little from our hike, I decided that I really should give the Sourtoe cocktail a try. I bought a shot of Yukon whiskey (has to be over 40%) and headed over to the Toemaster’s table where there was an ominous looking appendage lying on a plate covered in salt. I paid my $5 and before I knew it, there was a large frostbitten toe bobbing around in my drink. With a little shake, the toe touched my lips and I was inducted into the exclusive sourtoe club. Would you give it a try?
The other place worth checking out is Diamond Tooth Gerties, the famous Dawson City Casino with nightly can-can girl shows. It really is a functioning casino with plenty of slots, tables and gamblers. The first thing we noticed was the sea of grey hair when we walked in. We hadn’t seen anyone older at all until then, and apparently they were all hiding out in Diamond Tooth Gerties, snagging their seats for the show!
Before leaving, we decided to drive up to the midnight dome viewpoint for a panoramic view of the Klondike valley. It’s almost like a painting, and it’s easy to understand why some people come and never leave. We certainly fell in love with the area and plan to come back again in the winter as soon as we can.
As we mentioned, Dawson is the perfect base for a trip to Tombstone Territorial Park. We’ll cover this soon in another post but even if you were stop here on a drive up to Alaska it would be worth it. We saw a great deal of American RV’s travelling through and it’s understandable that this route is so popular.
Overall, our trip to the Yukon was an absolute pleasure and far more relaxing than we anticipated (especially as we travelled so much). We plan to spend a great deal more time here in the future and thanks must go to Travel Yukon for sponsoring this fantastic trip. All thoughts and opinions are our own!
Read more about packing for the backcountry in Tombstone Territorial Park here