Top California Running Races VC_TopTenCaliforniaRunningRaces_Supplied_BigSurMarathon_SharonGarber_Bixby-Bridge-8x10_1280x640_1
Sharon Garber

Top California Running Races

Top California Running Races
Plan your next vacation around one of these popular destination races

It’s no secret that California is a state focused on living an active lifestyle. From detox retreats to fitness vacations to indulgent spas, the Golden State is a hub for athletic and wellness-minded travelers—especially runners. 

“California is a runner’s paradise,” says Jessie Sebor, who oversees Competitor and Women’s Running magazines as Vice President of Media at Competitor Group, Inc. “You are nearly guaranteed to enjoy perfect weather—an advantage that can’t be overstated—as well as beautiful surroundings. Lush, hilly trail races; flat and fast oceanside marathons; themed events where runners dress like their favorite characters—there’s really something here for every sort of aspiring athlete.”

We picked 10 of the best California running races below, listed in order of date.

1. Carlsbad 5000

March, Carlsbad

Distances: 5K, kids race, “All Day 5K”

World records have been broken on this flat, coastal course, which features a separate elite wave worth watching for inspiration after you’ve finished your race. If you’re eager to break your 5K time—and want to enjoy a beautiful beach vacation afterwards—this northern San Diego County event is the place to do it. Runners up for a bigger challenge can try the “All Day 5K,” where you run four back-to-back 5Ks with breaks in between. Good news for all: You’ll be rewarded with some of San Diego’s best craft beer at the post-race Pizza Port Beer Garden.

2. Big Sur International Marathon

April, Big Sur

Distances: 3K, 5K, 12K, 11 miles, half marathon, 21 miles, marathon 

Runner’s World has called this the “most scenic race on the continent” and it’s hard to disagree. Rugged cliffs, majestic sequoias, and the turquoise Pacific Ocean line this point-to-point course from Big Sur to Monterey, and the biggest pack of spectators you’ll see are the cows noshing on grass on the hillside. One of the best things about this iconic race is that you have distance options ranging from 3K to the marathon, so there’s something for every level of runner. However, if you run the shorter distances, you’ll miss one of the course highlights—a tuxedo-clad grand piano player at mile 13. Note: Although mudslides have caused temporary road closures on Highway One, the race course was unaffected and is accessible from the north.

3. Bay to Breakers

May, San Francisco

Distance: 12K

More than 50,000 costumed runners gallivanting around San Francisco makes for quite the spectacle. Although this annual event—which has been going on for more than 100 years—might appear to be more “organized costume party” than serious road race, it appeals to fun-loving casual runners, elite racers, and a competitive “centipede” category (13 or more people attached by a cord of some sort). Bad costume choices make running a 12K slightly more difficult in places like the infamous Hayes Hill at mile 2, which boasts pitches that rise to 11 percent. The race finishes in Golden Gate Park, where the festivities continue. 

4. Avenue of the Giants

May, Weott

Distances: 10K, half marathon, marathon

If a peaceful run under a canopy of giant redwoods sounds like a dream race, make your way to Southern Humboldt County (45 miles south of Eureka) for Avenue of the Giants. You have your choice of distances to explore one of the largest groves of old-growth coast redwoods on foot, and less than 3,000 runners compete total, so you won’t be fighting for space as you meander through the forest. The average temperatures in May—45 to 62 degrees F—are perfect for running. 

5. Rock ‘n’ Roll San Diego

June, San Diego

Distances: 5K, half marathon, marathon relay, marathon, dog walk

The Rock ‘n’ Roll series debuted with this race in 1998, and the downtown event continues to be a favorite for runners who want to pay a visit to this popular coastal city. The courses weave through some of San Diego’s hip neighborhoods and the museum-filled Balboa Park before finishing downtown. And, because it’s Rock ‘n’ Roll, you can expect live music along the course and a headliner at the elaborate finish line party. Insider’s Tip: Runners who take part in three out of four Rock ‘n’ Roll races (including San Francisco, San Jose, Los Angeles, and San Diego) in one calendar year earn a special “Cali Combo” medal.

6. The Dipsea Race

June, Mill Valley

Distance: 7.5 miles 

Few race entries are as coveted as the Dipsea, the country’s oldest trail race, in Marin County. Because the trails can only accommodate a certain number of runners, only 1,500 participants can compete on the grueling 7.4 miles of stairs and steep single track. The application process—which involves physically mailing in paperwork—is part of what makes this race one of a kind. The oldest and youngest runners start first, followed by the rest of the field in one-minute increments, and the first person to reach the top wins (as opposed to fastest time). Even if you don’t get in, you should add this stretch from Muir Woods to Stinson Beach to your must-run list.

7. Napa to Sonoma Wine Country Half Marathon

July, Napa and Sonoma

Distance: 5K, half marathon

Wine drinkers who love to run—this race is for you. With a point-to-point course through some of Napa and Sonoma’s most beautiful vineyards, you’ll have plenty of scenery to gawk at before you end in historic Sonoma Plaza. The best part: Every finisher gets a wine glass to taste the offerings from more than two dozen wineries.

8. Disneyland Super Heroes Half Marathon Weekend

November, Anaheim

Distances: Spider-Man 5K, Thor 10K, Half Marathon 

You can’t go wrong with one of Disneyland Resort’s themed runs, which will give you an entirely new view of the park in the early hours before it opens. In addition to the Super Heroes weekend, Disney also offers the Star Wars Half Marathon in January, Tinkerbell Half Marathon Weekend in May, and the Disneyland Half Marathon Weekend in September.

9. Silicon Valley Turkey Trot

November, San Jose

Distance: 5K, 10K, kids race 

This San Jose event isn’t your normal hometown Turkey Trot—it’s the largest timed Thanksgiving weekend race in the United States. More than 25,000 people run in the annual event, and proceeds benefit five different charities. The race features a few different competitions, including a “Can Do” food drive, a costume contest, and a “Mayor’s Cup” for local civic leaders.

10. California International Marathon

December, Sacramento

Distance: 5K, marathon relay, marathon

As one of the fastest marathons in the U.S.—the course is net downhill—this popular race appeals to the competitive crowd looking to best their previous times or qualify for the Boston Marathon. Sacramento provides a small-town, welcoming feel, with finish line food that goes beyond your average race fare, like oatmeal with fruit and trendy-healthy bone broth.

…And if you’re a super endurance junkie

California is also known for two of the most famous ultra-distance events: the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run, starting in Squaw Valley, and the 135-mile Death Valley to Mount Whitney Portal Badwater Ultramarathon. Both are epic, incredibly difficult, and require qualification to enter.

Top California Running Races Pillars_Outdoor_OR_RD_50003619_1280x640
Rachid Dahnoun

California: Outdoor

ALL DREAMS WELCOME

What's Hot Now
Top California Running Races VC_SkiRunViews_MammothMtn_Stock_RM_9482500002_1280x640
California: Outdoor

Go ahead and gawk. With wraparound views of lakes, mountains, and winter wonderlands, the Golden State’s alpine resorts offer not just great places to ski and enjoy other...

Top California Running Races VCW_SI_T6_WhaleWatching_MicheleW_1280x642
Discover Orange County

Join guided cruises out of Newport Harbor and Dana Point to explore remarkable marine habitat that’s home to huge numbers of whales, dolphins, and sea lions. The...

Top California Running Races OceanfrontHotels_VentanaInn_AdamBaker_Flickr_1280x642
Adam Baker/Flickr

Ventana Big Sur

Top California Running Races vca_maps_centralcoast
Soulful elegance in Big Sur

Edge-of-the-earth views across the Pacific, wood and stone details bringing nature right into your room—...

Top California Running Races VC_LonePine_ST_RF_722224619_1280x640
Room/Getty Images

Lone Pine

Discover the natural beauty and another side of California in a historic Owens Valley small town

Head to Lone Pine to see a different side of California—one that is less connected to...

Top California Running Races VC_8GreatCaliforniaDogBeaches_Rosies_PascalShirley_C0A0231_1280x640
Pascal Shirley

11 Great Dog Beaches

Whether your pup wants to ride the waves or lounge in the sand, there’s a Golden State beach calling

Few places in the U.S. are as dog-friendly as California. With its comfortable climate, open spaces, and welcoming cities, the Golden...

It [Pinnacles] represents what nature often does, all the great conflicts and tensions are there, of volcanic activity and fault lines, and the sort of geology of it is just spectacular to see on display.
Ken Burns
Top California Running Races VC_CaliforniasEpicWaterfalls_Stock_RM_EBPEKT_1280x640
Picture Lake/Alamy

California’s Epic Waterfalls

Record precipitation means water is flowing better than ever—go see these waterfalls while they’re still at their peak

Winter 2017’s epic rain and snow may be old news, but its stormy consequences keep unfolding in wet-and-wild ways across...

Top California Running Races VC_Questionnaire_AlexHonnold_ED_29790110_1280x640
John Dickey/TandemStock.com

THE CALIFORNIA QUESTIONNAIRE: Alex Honnold

The El Capitan free-solo rock climber explains his love for Yosemite and more California favorites

On June 3, 2017, Honnold became the first person to ever ascend El Capitan, the 3,000-foot granite wall in...

SPECIAL FEATURE
Find whitewater rafting fun for all—from newbies to nerves-of-steel experts

Think of a river, and chances are you’ve got your own daydream. Maybe you want to float on inner tubes, or maybe your style is to careen through raucous rapids in an eight-person inflatable raft....

Top California Running Races VC_RiverRafting_Preview_Stock_RM_172652806_686x885
Groveb/Getty Images
Top California Running Races VC_California101_ChannelIslands_Stock_RM_152836733_1280x640
Cody Duncan/Getty Images

How to Explore the Channel Islands

Spend a day—or a week—in this idyllic national park off the Central Coast

This chain of five islands—Santa Cruz, Anacapa, Santa Rosa, Santa Barbara, and San Miguel—is rich with untouched natural beauty and a California...

Top California Running Races VCW_D_Yosemite_Hero_20140503_Yosemite_hero_1280x642

Trip 6-7 days 10 stops

Sierra Adventure

Granite peaks, alpine valleys, towering trees-the High Sierra is nature's playground all year-round
Top California Running Races VCW_D_HS_T3_Tahoe_Swim_Farnum_0

Blue as a topaz and circled by majestic peaks, this High Sierra gem straddling the California-Nevada border is a bucket-list staple, a place where the air is “very pure and fine...it is the same the angels breathe,” according to author Mark Twain. Lakefront towns dot the shoreline, each with...

Top California Running Races CalaverasBTSP_sized

On your way to this park, save time to visit the charming Gold Country town of Murphys (a great place for wine tasting and innovative dining along the town’s main street). Then continue north and east to discover peaceful groves of giant sequoias at this under-the-radar park. Established in 1931...

Top California Running Races VCW_D_Jtree_heroDE_JoshuaTrees_1280x642_downsized
Alex Farnum

Spotlight: Joshua Tree National Park

Top California Running Races vca_maps_deserts_0
Rugged mountains, vibrant sunsets & uncountable stars

Boulders and buttresses, rugged mountains, gold mining ruins, desert plains dotted with the oddball trees—this is one weird place. Joshua Tree,...

Top California Running Races VCW_SI_Hero_HS_Yosemite_UpperFalls_KG_preview_686x885
California is blessed to have the most designated National Parks in the United States.
Top California Running Races VC_PismoBeach_ST_RF_579831770_1280x640
Harri Jarvelainen/Getty Images

Pismo Beach

Top California Running Races vca_maps_centralcoast
Wine and waves meet at the vintage Central Coast town of Pismo Beach

Whether you’re driving from the north or south on U.S. Highway 101, there’s an unforgettable moment as you reach...

SPECIAL FEATURE
Hands-on fun for all at farms, ranches, and fields statewide

From almonds and olives up north to avocados, oranges, and dates in South, the Golden State has a crop (or 10) for nearly every stretch of terrain. After all,...

Top California Running Races SC_Chaffin_Eliaschickens_TPS_preview_686x885
Tai Power Seeff
Top California Running Races CarlsbadFlowerFields_ynnil_1280x642-1_downsized
ynnil/Flickr

Farm Tours & Drives

Gorgeous scenery, tasty bounty

Country roads, shady orchards, gnarled wine vines—these trails, drives, and unique farm tours provide close-up looks at...

California’s Best-Kept Secrets

Discover 8 of California’s Best-Kept Secrets

These remote and surprising spots fly under the radar for even the most well-versed California travelers

Think you’ve seen all of California? Think again. We traveled to eight different remote locations to showcase some of California’s lesser-...

10 Super-Scenic California Road Trips
Jeffrey Murray/Getty Images

10 Super-Scenic California Road Trips

Follow these classic routes for magical scenery and worthy stops

The Highway 1 road trip that passes through Big Sur on California’s Central Coast is perhaps the most famous scenic drive in the...

The mountains are calling and I must go.
John Muir
Top California Running Races VCW_D_DeathValley_T6_Chao Yen_9068899095_b6a2bbfd4f_o_1280x642
Death Valley National Park is the largest national park in the continental U.S., at 3.3 million acres.
There is science, logic, reason; there is thought verified by experience. And then there is California.
Edward Abbey