What You Need to Know About San Diego's Freeways

Helpful tips for commuting and navigating San Diego traffic

San Diego Freeway
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As much as the sun, sand and perfect weather are a part of the San Diego way of life, so is another element, and it's not as pleasant: San Diego freeways. It's as if the cost of living in paradise must be balanced out with our having to put up with clogged highways. And although the California freeway system is one of the best in the country (trust me, I've driven in other states), it's still the cause for many a headache in the land of the automobile.

Here's the lowdown on San Diego county's major highways and byways.

Interstate 5: The San Diego Freeway You Probably Can't Avoid

I-5. The 5. Whatever you call it, Interstate 5 is the granddaddy of the San Diego freeways, and it will take you from the Mexican border up the coast, all the way to Canada if you don't pay attention. These days, it's pretty busy all hours of the day, but rush hour can try one's patience (roughly 7:30 a.m. to 10 a.m. going southbound on weekdays and 3:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. going northbound), especially at major junctions of other freeways, and especially at the notorious 5 and 805 split in Sorrento Mesa.

Interstate 805: Connecting North County to Mission Valley and Beyond

Speaking of the 5 and 805 split, the I-5's little brother is Interstate 805. The 805 is the inland counterpart to the 5. Bisecting San Diego's bedroom communities, the 805 has become more and more busy in the past decade as commuters flock to more affordable housing in the South Bay area.

The scenic bridge across Mission Valley breaks up the driving monotony, but beware its terminus up north at the notorious I-5 and 805 split which can get extremely back up during rush hour.

Interstate 15: The Inland San Diego Mega Freeway

Interstate 15 is a massively wide freeway that starts at Interstate 5 in the South Bay and heads north to the inland San Diego suburbs of Mira Mesa, Rancho Bernardo, Escondido and Riverside County.

For several miles, it has a reversible High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) carpool lane. You can also pay a toll to use the carpool lane if you don't have a carpool buddy. 

State Route 163: A Scenic Freeway to Downtown San Diego

This San Diego freeway stretch, which connects I-5 downtown with I-15, is mostly notable for its scenic stretch through Balboa Park. It almost makes it worth putting up with the traffic that can often be found along this freeway during rush hour (going southbound in the morning and northbound in the evenings).

Interstate 8: Connecting the East and West of San Diego

The 8 runs from Point Loma east to El Cajon and all points east. It's the main east/west freeway, traversing through commercial Mission Valley, up the grade past San Diego State University, through the suburbs of La Mesa and El Cajon and east to the San Diego County backcountry and mountains. All the major north/south freeways junction with I-8, so commutes are often at those points.

State Route 78: North County San Diego Inland to the Coast

The major east/west freeway serving North County, this freeway is almost always a mess during commutes, trying to get drivers to and from their homes in the Escondido, Oceanside, Vista, and San Marcos areas.

The worst traffic bottleneck typically happen at the on-ramp for I-15 going in both directions. 

State Route 56: Lining the Southern Edge of North County to Poway

The 56 freeway breaks off from the I-5 just as the 5 begins its journey through North County San Diego. The 56 runs through Carmel Valley and connects with the 15 just after Rancho Penasquitos and right before hitting Poway.  

State Route 52: From the Urban Neighborhoods to East County

This freeway is a northern alternate to I-8, taking commuters from Clairemont in the west to Santee in the east and runs along the southern edge of Mira Mar. It gets pretty backed up going west in the morning and east in the afternoon. 

State Route 94: An I-8 Alternate for La Mesa

Also known as the Martin Luther King Freeway, this is the eastern route out of downtown.

Though busy, Highway 94 isn't as bad as the 8, and is often a good southern alternate route. It junctures with State Route 125 in La Mesa.