I have such a special place in my heart for off-the-beaten-path, rustic travel destinations. There’s a reason Mongolia is at the top of my must-visit list! So when Janelle offered to write a travel guide to Canada’s Yukon territory I was alllll over it.
If you, too, love wide open spaces, towns with wooden boardwalks and dirt roads, or foraging for berries and mushrooms, you’ll want to book a ticket ASAP.
The Yukon Territory is in the northwest corner of Canada, above British Columbia and beside Alaska. It’s got a stark feral wildness to it, with very few people (35,000) and a lot of land.
My name is Janelle and I grew up in the same home my mother did, on the banks of the Yukon River in downtown Whitehorse, the capital city of the Yukon. I love this summery sun-drenched and wintery cold darkness wildly, and my heart always feels right when I’m surrounded by the landscape of the north, among the resourceful and creative residents.
Must Do in Yukon
Whitehorse is my hometown and the capital city of the Yukon. It rests in a river valley on either side of the mighty Yukon River and sprawls upwards and away from that valley into extended country residential suburbs.
The name Whitehorse comes from a description of the rapids running through Miles Canyon, just upriver of Whitehorse, where many foolish goldrushers died as they attempted their desperate journey north to the Klondike.
The whitecaps from the rapids were said to resemble galloping white horses, hence, Whitehorse. However, after the Yukon put in a hydroelectric dam just south of the canyon, the rapids disappeared.
Whitehorse is filled with artistic and cultural productions and communities, as well as a world-class cross-country skiing centre, and a wild community of cyclists that bike all year round.
It’s a wonderful jumping off point for adventures and exploration. People viewing the northern lights (aurora borealis) in the winter and experiencing the unending midnight sun in the summer, as well as trying out dog sledding and other classically northern adventures.
Dawson City is home to the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898, which caused the Yukon’s population to transform from the 14 First Nations, missionaries and fur traders, to an additional 30,000 fortune hunters from all over the world in less than one year.
When you visit Dawson City you step into a town of 2,000 people that has preserved it’s historical character. Wooden boardwalks, dirt roads and managed to also establish a visual arts school. There’s thriving contemporary arts community with the contrasting values of the Trondek Hwech’in First Nations, gold miners, artists, hippies, transients and starry-eyed southerners determined to live a rustic northern life.
Old Crow is just south of the Arctic Circle on the banks of the Porcupine River. It is a fly-in village of 200 people, mostly from the Vuntut Gwichin First Nations. It’s really far north, above the tree line, and is famous, among other things, for it’s square dances and fiddle music. Vuntut Gwichin means People of the Lakes, and derives from their annual muskrat trapping season.
Keno City, named after a popular gambling game, was once a booming frontier mining town, and is now a tiny rustic cluster of buildings. Home to fewer than 20 full-time residents, a mix of artists, miners, old-timers an alpine interpretive centre and mining museum.
Things To Do In The Yukon
The Yukon is so full of things to do it’s hard to even take it all in. There is something for the sporty, for the adventurer, for the culture vulture, for the artist, and for the hobo.
Especially music festivals, are the thing to do in the Yukon. For music, there is the Dawson City Music Festival, Atlin Arts and Music Festival, and the Frostbite Music Festival. For the arts, you can experience the Adaka Cultural Festival, Yukon Riverside Arts Festival, the Available Light Film Festival, the Dawson City International Short Film Festival and more.
Activities include wilderness adventures, camping, bike races, softball tournaments and more. The 24 Hours of Light Mountain Bike Festival happens on summer solstice (when it never gets dark, all night long) and then there is the Yukon Quest, a 1,000 mile long international dog sled race .
Most outrageous of all is the Yukon Sourdough Rendezvous and, of course, the truly disgusting visitor rite of passage, the Sour Toe Cocktail. Dawson City’s Diamond Tooth Gerties, Canada’s first casino, where you can watch flashy can-can dancers and lose all of your money in style.
And finally, I recommend going to the Moosehide Gathering, located 3km downriver from Dawson City, it’s a celebration of Trondek Hwechin First Nations culture, a celebration inclusive to all. I was lucky enough to have worked there one summer when I was 16 years old, restoring the spirit house picket fences by painting them, and cutting down trees that were encroaching on the graveyard.
And, if you fall in love with the Yukon (which I predict), go to art school. Dawson City has a fully accredited visual arts college, the smallest most northerly one in all of Canada, in the quirkiest wildest little town of all.
Must Eat in Yukon
Bannock is a classic First Nations fry bread. Deliciously hot, greasy and crispy, you’ll get different versions depending on whose recipe it is, but at it’s simplest, it is just flour, water, baking soda and salt, fried up in a cast iron pan in lard. Easy to cook at home as well as on the land, tasty and filling.
If you get a chance to eat wild meat, don’t hesitate. Some of the best most organic meat I’ve ever had comes from hunter friends, and favourites are moose, caribou, as well as various kinds of salmon, and, from the nearby ocean, halibut. Smoked salmon in particular is a delicious First Nations specialty, and worth seeking out.
Midnight sun coffee roaster in Whitehorse roasts it’s own coffee and serves it up in house. You’ll find yourself tucked into a sweet quirky little café/roastery run by a local family, which is itself tucked into a local cycling shop.
One of the biggest tourist attractions in Whitehorse, The Woodcutters Blanket, is a tiny little wood cabin downtown. It is one of the most photographed buildings, due to the life-sized moose on the roof, horns locked in battle. All food and drink treats and beautiful woodwork dreamed up by one of my own brothers.
Tucked away in Dawson City is a fantastic greek restaurant called The Drunken Goat, and a few blocks away is a utopian café called the Alchemy Café. It’s family and traveler friendly, organically healthy, with stellar coffee and a community focus.
Berries and Mushrooms (especially Morels)
One of the biggest cultural pastimes and pleasures of being a northerner is berry-picking and mushroom harvesting. Cranberries are especially popular, and everyone has their own secret picking grounds.
If you’re there in the autumn, make friends with a local and ask if you can help them pick berries. Wild cranberries, blueberries, raspberries and more will ruin your taste for store-bought. If you’re especially lucky, you’ll find a local who also bakes and cans, and you’ll get to taste jams and pies made of your hard efforts.
Then, there are the mushrooms. So many mushrooms. Again, go with someone who knows what is what (not all mushrooms are edible or safe). Morels are shockingly delicious, and hard to find (you have to go where there were fires in previous years). Closer to home, shaggy manes are tasty, but you’ve got to time it so you pick them before they turn to slime! It’s worth the effort.
Cultural Tips for the Yukon
Everyone speaks English, but, because Canada’s official language is French, and there is a dynamic Francophone population in the North, a surprising number of people also speak French.
Additionally, the Yukon is home to 14 original First Nations groups and almost every community has it’s own cultural and heritage centre, open to the public.
Stick gambling is a traditional First Nations game, and ‘massi cho’ is a commonly used Vuntut Gwichin phrase meaning ‘thank you.’
The Dene Games and Arctic Winter Games (a roving international showcase of northern sport and cultural talent) showcase First Nations as well as non-First Nations games, but you really want to see the First Nations Games. Watching such intense physical endurance games such as the finger pull, the knuckle hop and more will humble you.
‘Outside’ refers to someone from outside of the Yukon, or for when you are leaving the Territory. ‘Cheechako’ and ‘sourdough’ are terms originating back to the Goldrush, and they signify belonging. If you’re a cheechako, you’re a newcomer who has yet to spend a winter in the north. You become a sourdough when you’ve spent a full four seasons in the Yukon.
Cheap Travel in the Yukon
If you want to travel on the cheap in the Yukon people still hitchhike! Of course, use caution. Bulletin boards will be your best friend; you can post travel needs and rideshares and other desires to the traveling community. Hostels, Couchsurfing, Wwoofing and Helpx websites will also help you find lodging in exchange for labour.
Like most places, Airbnb is cheaper and more authentic than a similar hotel experience. Here’s a riverfront guesthouse for $62 a night and here’s a private room + sauna for $47! If you’ve never used Airbnb before, here’s a $40 credit towards your first booking.
Thanks so much for sharing your insights, Janelle! Canadian readers, do you have anything to add?
P.S. Did you know I have a whole Pinterest board devoted to North American travel? And one for budget travel?!
Everyone speaks English, but, because Canada’s OTHER official language is French, and there is a dynamic Francophone population in the North, a surprising number of people also speak French.
You need to add the word “other” as Canada’s a bilingual country!! Many of us proudly speak both official languages 😀
I was going to comment this as well hehe. I’m from Québec and our province’s official language is indeed French, but Canada as a whole has both English and French as official languagues! 🙂
That’s exactly what I was going to write about! I was like, hold on, have I not been taught the Official Languages Act right? Has public school in Ontario been lying to me to push an Anglophone agenda? 😀 Innocent mistake, but seeing I’ve met people south of our border that genuinely believe that igloos are a common sight across all of Canada and that we live in a perma-frost, just want to make sure there’s one less misconception out there 🙂
Carcross (about 1 hr south of Whitehorse) is another great town to check out! Also so many lakes and mountains to explore! Definitely go hiking. And if you’re already in the area, check out Skagway, AK. An adorable Gold Rush town.
I’ve heard that the Yukon & NWT are REALLY expensive (like, milk at $18/gallon, etc.) because everything has to be shipped in. People might want to know that everything food-wise is insanely high!
I was there in 2011 and I didn’t find the grocery prices super high. It depends where you are really. In Whitehorse they might be a little more expensive than a more southern Canadian city but it’s very accessible, (daily flights, roads, etc) so it’s not that bad. Groceries in the fly-in communities are going to start to get more crazy.
I wanted to add canoeing to the list of activities to check out! Canoeing the Yukon River to Dawson City is a great way to get to the music festival 🙂 And it’s fine for beginners, (only one wee rapid), just do your planning (it’s 715 km so it’ll take you 9 days or so, more if you want time to really check out the history along the way, which is plentiful). I hadn’t been canoeing since I was a kid and I did it with 7 other friends and we had the BEST TIME.
Also worth checking out is https://www.yukonriverquest.com/. These crazy people do that journey in 2 days!
One more tiny thing – Atlin’s music festival is supposed to be AMAZING but it it technically not in the Yukon – it’s actually in very Northern British Columbia (as a native BCer I had to lay claim to that one) 🙂
Thanks so much for this awesome post about Northern Canada! I’m from Quebec and have always been intrigued by the north, I would love to go one day. And it’s so cool to know that people speak French there too! Will be pinning this for a future trip!