Good Sam RV Travel Guide & Campground Directory
By Charles Shugart Jr.
Dawson City and the nearby Klondike Goldfields should be on your must-see list if you’ll be driving up the Alaska Highway.
They were the destinations for what was perhaps the most exciting adventure in all of human history. Certainly it was in terms of how many people experienced the adventure. I refer, of course, to the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897/98. More than 100,000 men (and some women) headed north to find the riches that were ready for the taking. It was said that gold nuggets were lying around everywhere just waiting for someone to bend over and pick them up. It wasn’t quite that easy (not by a long shot).
Among the 40,000-plus “stampeders” that eventually made it all the way, few got rich. That’s because they were about two years late!
Here’s how it went down. The summer of 1896, George Carmack, Skookum Jim and Tagish Charlie made the discovery on Rabbit Creek—later renamed Bonanza. The first stampede soon followed, but it was only among those prospectors who were already in the far north. During the winter of 1896/97, the miners worked in the frozen ground but were unable to find out whether their pay-dirt had gold or not. When the summer of 1897 arrived, the creeks thawed and the men sluiced their pay-dirt. By the end of summer the lucky ones returned home as rich men. That was when the rest of the world first heard about all that gold in the far north. Newspaper headlines screamed, “A Ton Of Gold!”
By the autumn and winter of 1897/98, tens of thousands of men from around the world rushed for the Klondike. Northern trading posts couldn’t provide for so many people through winter, so they had to bring enough food to last a year. The rivers were frozen by then, and the Argonauts carried their one ton of supplies over the mountains on their backs, 50 pounds at a time—40 round trips and a total distance of 3000 miles. It took them three months to move all their food and survival gear. Making camp on the edges of frozen mountain lakes, they built boats and rafts—9000 of them! Living in tents at 30 below Zero—there were 30,000 men waiting for the spring thaw.
The ice broke and the Stampede began in the summer of 1898—500 miles down the Yukon River to Dawson City. But they were two years too late. All the claims had been staked.
Most of the Argonauts soon determined the futility of their search for an unclaimed section of stream. They were tired, discouraged, and homesick. Almost all of them were normal people who had left normal lives. They weren’t prospectors, but plain folks who had been away from their families for a year—and they wanted to go home. These were special people, however, and although few found gold, most discovered strengths of character within themselves that might never have otherwise been discovered.
But that was then...and this is now. Getting to Dawson and the Klondike nowadays is easy. Drive northwest up the paved Alaska Highway to Whitehorse. Then follow the (also paved) Klondike Highway north to Dawson.
Dawson City is an absolute delight! For years it was falling apart and quickly becoming a ghost town. By the 1960s and 1970s the winter population was down to six or seven hundred. Then the tourists noticed it. Returning to the land of the living, Dawsonites have even begun painting some of the false-fronted historic buildings. Looking less like a ghost town, it now resembles its former glory, when it was touted as the "Paris of the North." Well, just a little bit. In 1899, Dawson had a population of more than 30,000. Now, there are about 1600 living there through winter. But, ah, in summer, when tens of thousands of travelers come to town, things get much livelier.
After settling in, get the city map and walking guide from the Visitor Center, and wander around. The whole town is an historic park.
Go to the museum. Learn about the Gold Rush history and the Tr’ondek Native People who lived in the area. It’s from these earliest people that the Klondike got its name. The prospectors and Argonauts couldn’t pronounce the name Tr’ondek; it came out “Klondike.”
Take the tour through Arizona Charlie Meadows Palace Grand Theatre. See the Gaslight Follies in the Palace Grand the same evening. Walk along the waterfront and contemplate the mighty Yukon River. Take a tour through the old Riverboat S.S. Keno, one of hundreds of sternwheelers that plied these northern rivers during the Yukon’s early history. Go into Imperial Bank and see the gold display.
Visit Jack London’s cabin. Yes, the writer was part of the Klondike Gold Rush, but he didn’t live in Dawson City; he lived out on Henderson Creek. His cabin was moved years later. Poet Robert Service lived in Dawson, but he missed the Gold Rush by a few years. His cabin is down the street from London’s.
But most of all, while in Dawson, spend at least one evening at Diamond Tooth Gerties. It’s a gambling hall, but you don’t have to gamble (although the profits do go to the local historical society). It’s a drinking place, but you don’t have to drink. Circulate; enjoy the atmosphere. Sit at a table, indulge in your favorite beverage, and watch the floor show. Diamond Tooth Gertie will sing. Can-can dancers will high-kick to the music. The pianist will tickle the ivories. However, don’t go to Diamond Tooth Gerties before 9 p.m. If you do, all you’ll see are other tourists staring at you. Wait ‘til 9, when the locals mix cheerfully with the visitors. Stay for at least two of the floorshows. Then go again the next night.
The next morning, drive to the top of Midnight Dome to photograph Dawson and the Yukon River from above. Notice how the much smaller Klondike River flows in from the left.
Dawson City is the town. Klondike is the region. Drive back down the highway along the Klondike River for a few miles to the Bonanza Creek turnoff on your right. This is where much of the Klondike gold was discovered. Mining operations began in 1896, and they are still going on today. Go at least as far as the Discovery Marker and the giant Gold Dredge No. 4. If the Canadian Park Service is offering tours through the dredge, take one. It’s educational and fun. You’ll find stuff to photograph that you’ve never seen except in a gold dredge. This thing is huge! From the outside, make sure you take some photographs with people in the picture, to illustrate the wooden dredge’s size.
As long as you’re in the Klondike, why not pan for gold? But not just anywhere! All of Bonanza Creek is staked, and locals are still serious about their gold. There are two legal places to pan. One is a commercial venture. You pay your money, they tell you how to use the gold pan and then fill it with pay-dirt, you step up to one of the panning troughs, and go to it. Sure, the pay-dirt is “salted” so that everyone gets a few gold flakes, but so what? It’s a lot of fun. They put the gold into a vial and you get to keep it. The other place to try your luck is at Claim No. 6 above Discovery. Owned by the local visitor association, the panning is free here. Bring your own pan and keep whatever gold you find!
BEFORE YOU GO
About the weather: the Klondike is surprisingly warm in summer, but be prepared for anything—rain, especially.
Photography: take everything from wide-angle lenses to long lenses for wildlife (serendipity plays a strong role here, so be ready to set up and photograph quickly).
Driving to Dawson City from Whitehorse is easy. Follow the Alcan Highway towards Alaska for a few miles and take the Dawson turnoff. If you’re going to continue on into Alaska after visiting Dawson, inquire about the status of the Top of the World Highway. It’s a spectacular drive, but the road isn’t an all-season route. For those driving big RVs, you’ll need the highway to be in good condition. The Mounties will advise you. But don’t expect them to be wearing their bright red coats; those are only for ceremonial occasions nowadays (drat).
There are several basic RV parks and campgrounds in the area. You’ll definitely want to be driving around as you sightsee, so disconnect soon after settling in.
Although there is camping on the west side of the Yukon River and the free government ferry operates during summer, waiting to catch the boat can be a time waster, so I suggest camping on the Dawson side of the river.