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Best California Marathons

Are you looking to sign up for a new challenge? There’s nothing like crossing the finish line at a marathon. There are a number of races all year long, some fast and flat, some with challenging uphill courses and difficult terrain. Here is a list of some of the best California marathons, some with amazing routes and scenery along the way, and some ideal for the traditional marathon experience.

Best Marathons In California

The Best California Marathons

Avenue of the Giants Marathon

Date: May 5, 2024
Distance: Full Marathon, Half Marathon, 10K
Location: Humboldt Redwoods State Park, CA
Starting Point: Underpass where Bull Creek Flats Road meets HWY 101 and the Avenue of the Giants

The Avenue of the Giants Marathon, also known as The Ave, began in 1972. It is a certified course and a Boston Qualifier. The course is set in and around Humboldt Redwoods State Park‘s Avenue of the Giants among the majestic redwoods making it one of the most beautiful courses in California.

Bay To Breakers

Date: May 19, 2024
Distance: 12K, 15K (7.5, 9.3 miles)
Location: San Francisco, CA
Starting Point: The Embarcadero

The Historic Bay To Breakers Race has been a regular event since 1912. The family-friendly event is focused on fun and everyone is invited to participate (costumes are optional!). This race is chip-timed and there is a post race festival. Racers will follow a route through nine of the city’s notable neighborhoods to the Great Highway and Ocean Beach. This is a good race for beginners with a mostly flat course.

Big Sur International Marathon

Date: April 28, 2024
Distance: 26.2 miles, 21 miles, 11 miles, 12K, 5K, and Relay
Location: Big Sur, CA
Starting Point: Big Sur Station

The Big Sur International Marathon route runs along scenic Highway 1 from Big Sur to Carmel. It is USATF certified and an official Boston Qualifier. Big Sur is the largest rural marathon in the world with a course running along one of the most beautiful sections of Pacific coastline and redwood trees in the west. It is rated moderate in difficulty and has a six hour time limit, with entertainment at various points along the course.

California International Marathon

Date: December 8, 2024
Distance: 26 miles, 385 yards
Location: Sacramento, CA
Starting Point: Folsom-Auburn Rd. & Oak Ave. Parkway

California International Marathon has been going since 1983. Known as the fastest course in the west, this course is great for all levels of runners. CIM is USATF certified, a Boston Qualifier, and a US Olympic Trials Marathon qualifier. The downhill to downhill course runs through rural countryside and the towns if Orangevale, Citrus Heights, Fair Oaks, and Carmichael, to finish at the State Capitol.

Carlsbad Marathon

Date: January 14, 2024
Distance: 26.2 miles, 13.1 miles, 16.2 miles, 3.1 miles, 1 mile (kids)
Location: Carlsbad, CA
Starting Point: The Shoppes at Carlsbad

18 miles of the Carlsbad Marathon full course are along the Pacific Ocean. There is only minimal elevation gain and loss on this course at 775 feet. This is known as the best and most scenic winter race in the west and features course support and entertainment. Carlsbad Marathon is a Boston Qualifier and USATF certified course.

Catalina Island Marathon

Date: March 9, 2024
Distance: Full marathon, 10K, 5K, Kids Run,
Location: Catalina Island, CA
Starting Point: Two Harbors

The Catalina Island Marathon is one of the best races in the world, traversing the Island from Two Harbors to Avalon with a net elevation gain of over 4300 feet. The terrain is primarily dirt roads with some paved. You’ll get panoramic ocean views and occasional sightings of American Buffalo. Catalina Island Marathon is USATF sanctioned, but it is not a Boston Qualifier.

Death Valley Trail Marathon

Date: December 7, 2024
Distance: Full and Half Marathons
Location: Death Valley National Park
Starting Point: Beatty, NV

The Death Valley Trail Marathon is an unforgettable experience, run entirely in Death Valley National Park along a wide, gravel jeep road traveling through towering red rocks. This race is limited to 250 participants. This race is held in winter for more comfortable temperatures and exceptional scenery. There is over 2000 feet in elevation gain in the Death Valley Trail Race. This is a challenging but rewarding race.

The Dipsea Race

Date: June 9, 2024
Distance: 7.4 miles
Location: Mill Valley/Muir Woods
Starting Point: Depot Bookstore, Thockmorton Road, Mill Valley

Dipsea was first run in 1905 and is the oldest trail race in America. While it’s not necessarily considered a marathon in terms of length, coming in at only 7.4 miles, this is a race worth running. The course is a strenuous one, with a significant portion of it running steep uphills and traversing stairways. But the payoff is the extraordinary redwood forest landscape and the finish at gorgeous Stinson Beach. This race is limited to 1500 entrants. Fun fact: Jack Kirk is known as the Dipsea Demon for running 68 consecutive Dipsea races, the last time at the age of 96 years old, and won twice. Kudos, Mr. Kirk.

Disneyland Half Marathon Weekend

Date: January 11-14, 2024
Distance: 5K, 10K, Half Marathon, Kids Race
Location: Disneyland Resort, Anaheim
Starting Point: N/A

Mickey & Minnie Mouse host this exciting event that takes runners through the magical Disneyland Resort. Experience character sightings and entertainment with runners from all over the world. The course is mostly flat and great for runners of all levels. In addition to the full marathon, there is a 5K, 10K, and kids races. This event sells out fast.

Golden Gate Headlands Marathon

Date: April 6, 2024
Distance: Full Marathon, Half Marathon, 10K
Location: Sausalito, CA
Starting Point: Historic Gunnery Range in Rodeo Valley

The Golden Gate Headlands Marathon offers stunning views of the Pacific Ocean, San Francisco Bay, Golden Gate Bridge, and Marin Headlands. There are several sections with significant elevation gain, but the payoff is the exceptional views throughout the race. The start and finish is at the historic Gunnery Range in Rodeo Valley. The course is primarily fire roads and single track hiking trails and is limited to 400 entrants. This event often sells out.

Lake Sonoma Marathon

Date: April 13, 2024
Distance: Full Marathon
Location: Geyserville, CA
Starting Point: Lake Sonoma Visitor Center

The Lake Sonoma Marathon is a scenic race on rolling single track trails past South Lake, Island View, Warm Springs Creek, Wulfow, and more with an elevation gain of over 5000 feet. The Lake Sonoma Marathon is part of a series of races over the course of the weekend including the Trail Sisters Half Marathon, and the Lake Sonoma 50Mile. The Marathon course makes a complete loop around Lake Sonoma. There are pre- and post-race events to enjoy as well.

Lake Tahoe Marathon

Date: October 18, 2024
Distance: Full Marathon
Location: Lake Tahoe, CA/Homewood, CA
Starting Point: H89 at Meadow Road

The Lake Tahoe Marathon is one of several race events hosted in the area over the weekend. Participants can also experience the Lakeside Marathon, Nevada Half Marathon, Cal Neva Marathon, Carnelian Bay Half Marathon, 72 Mile Midnight Express Ultra, and the Emerald Bay Half Marathon. The Lake Tahoe Marathon is one of the most scenic races in the west with shorelines and forests with amazing views.

Long Beach Marathon

Date: October 5, 2024
Distance: Full Marathon, Half Marathon, 5K
Location: Long Beach, CA
Starting Point: Downtown Long Beach

The Long Beach Marathon is a fun and flat course for runners of all levels. The course takes runners through the streets of Long Beach past the Queen Mary, Shoreline Village, Belmont Shore, Marine Stadium, Cal State Long Beach, and along Ocean Blvd. There is a fun Finish Line Festival for participants to enjoy post-race. The Long Beach Marathon is USATF certified and is a Boston Qualifier.

Los Angeles Marathon

Date: March 17, 2024
Distance: Full Marathon, Half Marathon, LA Big 5K, Kids Run
Location: Los Angeles, CA
Starting Point: Dodger Stadium

The LA Marathon is one of the biggest race events in the west. The course begins at Dodger Stadium and finishes at the Avenue of the Stars in Century City, passing through downtown LA, Little Tokyo, Hollywood, and more. Racers will enjoy a Finish Festival with concerts and activations, plus there is a two-day health and fitness expo at Dodger Stadium during race weekend. The LA Marathon is a Boston Qualifier Race.

Muir Woods Marathon

Date: May 11, 2024
Distance: Full Marathon, Half Marathon, 7Miler
Location: Stinson Beach, CA
Starting Point: Stinson Beach

If you’re ready for a challenge and the Dipsea Race isn’t enough for you, check out the Muir Woods Marathon. The course begins and ends at Stinson Beach, and racers will head uphill into the redwood forests of majestic Muir Woods, follow the Dipsea Trail, climb ladders and stone staircases, and race past waterfalls and streams. This event is limited to 300 racers.

Napa Valley Marathon

Date: March 3, 2024
Distance: Full Marathon, Half Marathon, 5K
Location: Napa, CA
Starting Point: Silverado Trail at Brannan Street

The Napa Valley Marathon is USATF certified and a Boston Qualifier. This race has been a regular event since 1979 and the course travels from Calistoga to Napa along the famed Silverado Trail past vineyards and world-renowned wineries. There are also paved roads during the race and some challenging inclines. About 3000 racers participate in this event annually.

Oakland Marathon & Running Festival

Date: March 17, 2024
Distance: Full Marathon, Half Marathon, 10K, 5K, Kids Fun Run
Location: Oakland, CA
Starting Point: Snow Park

The Oakland Marathon is one of the best in the Bay Area, and takes up to 5000 participants. There are several race lengths. After the main event, let loose at the after party. There is entertainment along the course during the race as well. The Oakland Marathon has a 7 hour time limit and is a Boston Qualifier.

OC Marathon

Date: May 5, 2024
Distance: Full Marathon, Half Marathon, 5K, Kids Run
Location: Orange County, CA
Starting Point: Newport Beach Marriott Hotel & Spa

The OC Marathon is one of the most popular races in Southern California, traveling from Newport Beach and Corona Del Mar, through Santa Ana and Costa Mesa and finishing at the Orange County Fair and Event Center. The course is mostly flat with three significant hills along the way. The OC Marathon is USATF Certified and is a Boston Qualifier.

Rock N Roll San Diego Marathon

Date: June 2, 2024
Distance: Full Marathon, Half Marathon, 5K
Location: San Diego, CA
Starting Point: Balboa Park

The San Diego Rock N Roll Marathon has been a regular event since 1998. The course takes runners through eight well known San Diego area neighborhoods from Balboa Park to Downtown San Diego. The event features concerts, course entertainment, and a Finish Line Festival at Waterfront Park. Rock N Roll San Diego is USATF certified and a Boston Qualifier.

San Francisco Marathon

Date: July 21, 2024
Distance: Full Marathon, Half Marathon, 10K, 5K, Ultra
Location: San Francisco, CA
Starting Point: Embarcadero At Mission Street

The San Francisco Marathon course takes races through Fisherman’s Wharf, Marina Green, and Crissy Field, then over the iconic Golden Gate Bridge. You’ll also pass through Cavallo Point, The Presidio, Golden Gate Park, and more. There’s no better way to experience San Francisco. The San Francisco Marathon includes several other races over the course of the weekend. This race is USATF Certified and a Boston Qualifier.

Shoreline Marathon

Date: July 14, 2024
Distance: Full Marathon, Half Marathon, 10K, 5K
Location: Ventura, CA
Starting Point: Emma Wood State Beach Group Campground

The annual Shoreline Marathon in Ventura is a great race for beginners with a mostly flat course and a seven hour time limit. The course travels along the Highway 1 beachfront bike path for ocean views and breezes the entire way. Shoreline Marathon is USATF certified, is open to walkers, and has an early start option.

Silicon Valley Turkey Trot

Date: November 28, 2024
Distance: 10K, 5K, Fun Run
Location: San Jose, CA
Starting Point: Downtown San Jose at Santa Clara and 1st Street

The Silicon Valley Turkey Trot is not a full marathon, but it is the biggest Thanksgiving Day race in the United States, so if you’re looking for experience rather than distance, this is one you’ll want to do. So put on your costume and take to the streets of Downtown San Jose. The event features additional activities including a festival area and a kids fun zone.

Surf City Marathon

Date: February 4, 2024
Distance: Full Marathon, Half Marathon, 5K, Beach Mile
Location: Huntington Beach, CA
Starting Point: PCH and Huntington Street

The Surf City Marathon is known as one of the best marathon courses in the country thanks to the flat scenic route along Pacific Coast Highway and past the Huntington Beach Pier, through Huntington Beach Central Park, and along Bolsa Chica State Beach. The Boston Qualifier has a 6.5 hour time limit.

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Heidi Deal
Heidi Deal is the author of the Newcomers Handbook to Living In Los Angeles & Orange County, and a children’s book author specializing in history and human rights. When she's not writing you can find her solo hiking and going on new adventures with her kids and pup.