The Best California Marathons

By Alicia Rudnicki , last updated December 29, 2011

Names of cities and areas that are popular with tourists are particularly likely to pop up when gathering opinions about the best California marathons. In particular, coastal locales known for moderate temperatures lead the pack. These include places such as the Big Sur coastline of Monterey County, Catalina Island, and the cities of San Francisco and San Diego. Inland, the rolling wine country of the Napa Valley also is a favorite in lists of top marathons.

The categorization of which 26.2 mile race is best depends on the legs, lungs, training and preferences of the individual runner. If you have only run on pavement, the trail running of the Catalina Marathon may not be the best choice for you. Or if you lack hill training, the relatively flat course of the San Diego Rock N Roll Marathon may be a good choice. Nevertheless, runner websites, including and, include the following races among top choices. The list starts north of San Francisco and heads south to San Diego.

Napa Valley Marathon

Hilly and pastoral, the Napa Valley Marathon winds along paved country roads, including the historic Silverado Trail. The race is held in early March when Napa Valley is verdant. It begins in Calistoga, a small city renowned for its hot springs. The website has called it the "best rural race" in North America and notes that the course doesn't enter Napa's city limits until the last mile. Thirteen aid stations along the 26.2 mile course offer medical supplies, water and sports drinks.

San Francisco Marathon

San Francisco is one of the hilliest, foggiest cities in the nation. This makes for a demanding marathon, especially on pounding, downhill stretches or when running across the Golden Gate Bridge through morning mist. Held at the end of July, the race begins on the Embarcadero waterfront and wanders through Fisherman's Wharf and the ritzy Marina District before crossing the Golden Gate to the Marin Headlands. The route loops back across the bridge and through the Presidio, a national park that was formerly a U.S. Army base. It ends in Golden Gate Park, but not before heading through the Haight Ashbury.

Big Sur Trail Marathon

Ninety miles long, Big Sur is one of the most rugged stretches of coastline in the United States. The Big Sur Trail Marathon, held in October, begins on Highway 1 and then follows a wide, dirt farm road, the Old Coast Road, which was the original thoroughfare from Monterey to Big Sur. The race winds through redwood groves and hardwood forests, past the Big Sur River and along bluffs high above the crashing waves of the Pacific. The outdoor website, Thoos, rates it as the sixth out of 100 best marathons in the nation.

Catalina Marathon

Here's another hilly marathon that mostly covers dirt trails and roads. Catalina Island offers tropical charm off the coast of San Diego. The Discover SD website notes that Runner's World gave the race, which occurs in mid-March, its rating of the "#1 off-road marathon in the world." Colorful wildlife are among the attractions.

San Diego's Rock 'n' Roll Marathon

The course for this June race may be mostly flat, but the entertainment along the way rocks and rolls. The course runs through the city and is interspersed with 30 stages for live entertainment.

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