I stood scouring the banks of Bonanza Creek, hopeful to set eyes on just a little nugget of gold left over from the 1896 Klondike Gold Rush. I was at the exact spot where gold was first discovered, but over 130 years of insatiable mining quashed any prospects I had.
I was on a gold panning tour with Claim 33, just outside Dawson City in the Yukon, Canada. A ‘must-see’ activity here to really understand the most important moment in history for the area. Following the gold discovery Dawson City very quickly became a bustling gold mining town filled with hopeful prospectors. It only lasted around 3 years but set the area on its path.
Flanked by mountains, and the last city north before the Arctic Circle 240km away, Dawson City is now a peaceful sanctuary, popular with artists thanks to the stunning scenery all around.
I’d flown from London to Vancouver, then north to Whitehorse, and even further north to Dawson City to make it for the Dawson City Music Festival – ’Canada’s tiny, perfect festival’. It was a wonderful time to be so far north, with local music and bands playing to the small crowd of 1000 in the Midnight Sun – but I was also in the Yukon for an adventure.
Stopping in Whitehorse on the way up – the adventure capital of the Yukon – I was answering my Call of the Wild, as local Yukon-adopted hero author Jack London had done in 1903 before me.
Adventures in Whitehorse
Arriving into Whitehorse at 10am after 24 hours of travel, the welcome fresh air pulled me in off the plane. This was northern Canada, it didn’t get much fresher. You don’t realise how dense the air you’re so used to breathing is until you fill your lungs, nostrils and soul up with clean, mountain air. The novelty of being able to walk the 45-minute path into Whitehorse from the plane was enticing, but having travelled over 4000 miles, I got a taxi.
Instead of waiting for my room to be ready at the Edgewater Hotel, I walked the Millennium Trail along the Yukon River. Looking down to the river I was eager to see a run of salmon, so indigenous this area, but no luck. Just flowing water, circling birds and the gravel banks. It felt glorious after the restrictions of the plane.
A few hours later and I was at the most photographed spot in Whitehorse, Miles Canyon. Travelling solo I knew the best way for me to see as much as possible in a short space of time was a tour.
My tour guide, Toni, used to work as a director at the First Nations Centre, helping create policy. She was a fantastic source of knowledge to introduce me to the First Nations culture here, and the issues and benefits of having so many cultures and beliefs working together in the present day. There are 14 First Nations groups in and around Whitehorse, who are consulted with every change in the city.
The treacherous stretch of water we were now admiring had foiled many a prospectors’ dream of reaching Dawson City back in the Gold Rush. According to TravelYukon.com “Almost nine million years ago, a rush of basaltic lava spread over a pre-glacial landscape a few kilometres from what is now downtown Whitehorse, A ribbon of fast-moving turquoise water runs between the cliffs that remain.”
And that wonderfully hued ribbon is Miles Canyon.
I hiked a few km of it, envious of anyone who had the time to explore the full 15km loop. In winter this is the place to be for enigmatic photos of the Northern Lights.
Back in Whitehorse centre the colourful buildings and lively main street are surrounded by mountains – this is the point where the three big Yukon mountains meet. Grey Mountain to the east (with its impressive cliff walls and sheer drop to hike to), Mount Sumanik to the northwest and Golden Horn Mountain to the south. Whitehorse is the biggest city in the Yukon, home to over 27,000 people (¾ of the population of the Yukon). And with 416km², Whitehorse is a city with SPACE.
Naturally, these beautiful surroundings draw an adventurous crowd as I was to discover the next day with a group ‘Bucket List Adventure’ trip down the Yukon. One of the best things to do in Whitehorse.
Canoeing down the Yukon River
Easily up early thanks to jet lag I headed to the canoe office and our group of six strangers set up for a day on the river. Intriguing cool boxes were loaded, a paddle each, and a lifejacket too. We were all set for 28km over six hours, with a BBQ stop for lunch.
A guesstimate of 5km in and my upper arms were tired. I was so desperate to ask if ‘we were nearly there yet’, but as a fully fledged adult completing a dream trip to canoe down the Yukon River, I knew it wouldn’t be cool.
I looked up for energy from the sun and saw a bird circling, landing on a branch nearby. A bald eagle!
(Look at the branch on the second pic!)
With the rhythmic paddling enforced by my co-canoeist I fell into a beautiful trance captivated by azure flowing water highlighted by the sun, unidentified bird sounds and the slowly changing landscape. It was possible to paddle all the way to my next destination Dawson City from here, but as enthused as I was by this fact when we started, I was equally glad we weren’t anywhere near the 460 miles required. With no gold at the end there just wasn’t the incentive the prospectors of 1896 had, plus we had planes and cars now.
We pulled over to an island and foraged for wood to make the fire for our BBQ. With the flames licking the Yukon air we indulged in hot dogs and warm cookies looking out over the river. Lunch is so much more satisfying when you’ve earned it.
Back in Whitehorse
In Whitehorse you’re only ever 20 minutes away from wilderness. Winters here are dog sledding, snowmobiling, snowshoeing, ice fishing and skiing. Glacier flightseeing tours to the Kluane icefield and the massive Kaskawulsh Glacier are there for anyone who can afford it. Summer is mountain biking, hiking and fishing – and canoeing.
After just three days here it was time to head to Dawson City. I’d already booked into my window seat. Over 80% of the Yukon is untouched, pristine territory, and the views of pine trees and rivers are legendary. Even in Whitehorse nothing over four storeys is allowed, so its natural beauty is open for all to see.
Plus, the Yukon has 10 times more moose, bears, wolves, caribou, goats and sheep than people. I wanted to spy them from the sky!
Arrival into Dawson City
Landing at the tiny Dawson City Airport, where baggage claim was a hole in the wall from the outside in, I knew I was truly on the verge of the wilderness like never before.
As a National Historic Site, Dawson City is all old colourful buildings and unpaved roads. At the height of the Gold Rush over 40,000 people lived in Dawson, now it’s just over 1,000 who brave the ‘below 40’ winters.
READ MORE: Travel Guide to Dawson City
What I imagined to be the adventure highlight of my few days here was the Tombstone Territorial Park – rugged mountains with permafrost landforms and rare wildlife. Unfortunately they cancelled the trips that week due to the festival so I missed the untouched forest and incredible mountains, but I did get to see Inuit throat singing and to experience the Yukon through its culture at a festival.
I was disappointed, but I got a smaller scale adventure fix 5 miles up at the Midnight Dome. The 1700ft mountain has amazing 360 views over the entire Dawson area and beyond.
Apparently this is the place to be for New Year’s Eve, and for the summer solstice, when locals come to celebrate the most important sunsets of the year.
Back in Dawson City and I saw the queue to try the famous Sourtoe Cocktail at Downtown Hotel. Ever since 1973 you get a certificate and kudos if you knock back a drink with a real life amputated toe rotting at the bottom of the glass. “You can drink it fast, you can drink it slow – but the lips have gotta touch the toe,” so the saying goes. I declined. There’s a whole bunch of things you could get from that besides a certificate and I didn’t want any of them!
Instead, I watched the cancan dancers at Diamond Tooth Gerties Gambling Hall, a favourite haunt for the wannabe prospectors back in the day. Set up as a way for them to gamble away their money.
I took photos of the forever dry docked SS Klondike on Front Street. A few desperate prospectors had apparently once timed their trip to Dawson wrong, and were stuck on the boat in the ice of the Yukon River until it thawed in spring. I never quite found out why they didn’t brave walking the ice to get to the other side, as people do now come winter. I suppose it ruins the story.
READ MORE: Interesting Facts About Canada
Leaving the Yukon
After a week of learning about the Gold Rush the plight of the prospectors cut deep, and the uprooting of their families based on a hope and a dream. As I flew out on the small plane I used the images I’d seen in the Dawson City Museum and Whitehorse’s MacBride Museum to imagine the ill-equipped gold hunters desperately hiking over the mountains below.
But now the Yukon is home to a different kind of gold. One that is so valuable in today’s fast paced world – the precious remoteness. The treasure here is the wilderness, the picture perfect rivers, the solace and the simplicity.
Gold prospectors may not be as interested in the Yukon anymore, but that leaves it all the more open for us adventure seekers to mine.
5 Things to Know Before You Go on a Solo Adventure in the Yukon
1. Be bear aware
If you’re doing anything outside in the Yukon you need to be able to protect yourself from bears. This is even more important if you’re cycling, hiking or camping, especially by yourself.
Chances are you won’t meet a bear, especially if you stick in the centre of Whitehorse and Dawson City, but you need to know what to do if you do.
The official guidance from Parks Canada states that bears don’t actually like people – our activity stresses them out. So, the best way to defend yourself from a bear is not to see one in the first place. Make noise as you wander around, clap or sing or talk loudly if you fear there could be one about. Also notice fresh bear droppings if you see them, and go the other way. Only ever use official marked paths to walk and if you see any sort of large dead animal, don’t go near it. It could be a bear’s dinner, and they might not be finished yet!
Always have bear spray on you and know how to use it before you venture into the wilderness in the Yukon.
If you do see a bear, you need to stay calm, speak to the bear, back away very slowly (don’t run!) and make yourself appear big. You can find out more on how to react if you see a bear on the Parks Canada website.
2. Book budget accommodation well in advance
If you’re travelling the Yukon on a budget you’re going to need to account for every cent as it can get expensive. There is a backpackers hotel in Dawson City, but just the one and it can get busy and booked up during festival times. It’s the same in Whitehorse, there’s only one hostel in town. Book early to get in and get the best prices.
If you have a tent there are plenty of campsites around Dawson and Whitehorse – if you’re on a budget and want an adventure camping is a great option!
3. Women travelling solo in the Yukon
I am a woman and travelled solo in the Yukon – it was great! The area does tend to attract an older international crowd, mainly thanks to the cost of getting there, but there are lots of younger domestic travellers around too.
I didn’t feel vulnerable or in danger on any of the activities I did, or around the centres of the cities. The only time I felt nervous was because of bears on the way up the Midnight Dome.
The Yukon is known for being super safe.
Do stay street smart around Whitehorse at night though. There is a comparatively minor problem with drug use, but it’s still there.
4. Read and research before you go
The history of the Yukon really is fascinating. It was great to learn about the Gold Rush while I was there, but I think it would’ve been even better to have done more research before I left. The Gold Rush left such a story to the area, and one that’s referred to in every experience you do. Watch or read Call of the Wild, read Yukon Gold Rush and The Floor of Heaven too.
5. Costs of solo travel in the Yukon
As I’ve alluded to, the Yukon isn’t cheap!
The Yukon River canoe trip was around £70, a boutique hotel room is around £100 per night, restaurant meals are around £25 a head and a flight from Dawson City to Whitehorse is around £250.
Of course there are ways to cut down on costs.
It’s fun to pick up a few bits in supermarkets when you’re abroad, and the village shop in Dawson City was great. You can camp, or stay in a hostel. You might even meet people there who you can share petrol and car costs with to go between Dawson and Whitehorse. Of course the activities should be where you splurge, especially one as unique and iconic as canoeing up the Yukon River. There are definitely cheap ways to enjoy the Yukon though – hiking is one of the best. Just remember to invest in some bear spray!