U.S. Highway 281 North - Downtown San Antonio to Comal County


U.S. Highway 281 North
US 281's freeway begins here as IH 37 ends, on the northeast side of San Antonio. The 14 mile freeway section of US 281 through here is called the McAllister Freeway, and was named after Walter McAllister. He was San Antonio's mayor in the 1950s when the freeway was first proposed. In local conversation, however, it is usually referred to simply as "281". Photo taken 08/31/08.
281 starts out headed northbound with a viaduct that runs over commercial areas north of downtown. Johnson City is the unlikely control point for northbound drivers, and sits 63 miles north of here. St Mary's Street and Stadium Drive form the first exit. Note the original button copy signs that were replaced. Photos taken 08/31/08 & 12/31/02.
Immediately after the viaduct, the 281 freeway runs over the tiny San Antonio River. At downtown, the river forms the basis for the city's famous Riverwalk but north it is barely a creek. Large weirs and channels keep the river from flooding the lucrative tourist areas downstream. The sign in this photo points motorists to the adjacent parks. The city's largest and most popular park, Brackenridge, is adjacent to the freeway on the east side through here. Photo taken 08/31/08.
This sign points to the next exit at St. Mary's/Stadium, which is coming up next. The freeway is 8 lanes here, and very curvy with a lot of near-hairpin turns. Photos taken 08/31/08 & 12/31/02.
US 281 northbound at St. Mary's/Stadium. San Antonio's wealthiest, oldest, and most leafy suburbs are located in this area. One of the original routes for this expressway had it running through the suburb of Olmos Park, just to the west. Olmos Park successfully blocked the road, however, and its route was moved eastward into the parkland. In January of 1961, voters approved a city bond issue to buy new parkland that could replace that which the freeway was to pave over. That did not appease conservationists, however, who mounted a fight against the US 281 freeway that would become one of the most famous in US history. Photos taken 08/31/08 & 12/31/02.
Two university signs here point to schools that are reached from the next exit along the freeway. The school buses on the left are on the grounds of the local school district's stadium, which Stadium Drive runs toward. The stadium is just along the western edge of the road here. Due to the legal fight of the freeway's route through parkland, work was delayed on its construction until 1969, when the undisputed northern section of the road was started. Photo taken 08/31/08.
Alamo Stadium, on the left, sits partially on an overhanging ledge. A similar structure on the right hand side of the road here accommodates several park structures. These two ledges form part of a compromise on the routing of the freeway through important city parkland. Photo taken 08/31/08.

Along the north end of Brackenridge Park is the east-west street of Hilderbrand Avenue. A diamond interchange is situated between U.S. 281 and the highway, one-quarter mile to the north of this sign bridge. The exit also serves the Alamo Heights, Olmos Park, and Terrell Hills intracities of San Antonio. Photo taken 12/31/02.
Hildebrand Avenue is the next exit and forms an important link between the US 281 freeway and some of the city's important cultural and recreational institutions. In 1990, the state spent $23,000 to add grooves to the pavement in this area to improve traction on the road's curves. In this photo, large condos are under construction in the background. This area of the city is one of the denser sections with a lot of urban infill construction. Photos taken 08/31/08 & 12/31/02.
US 281 then traverses the Olmos basin floodplain with a long exitless stretch. The floodplain assists downtown during periods of heavy rain by storing water that would otherwise bog down downtown. The few exits are also indicative of a road that had a lot of compromises built into it due to local opposition. Construction was halted from 1970-1974 as lawsuits about the route were handled in court. The state stepped in and eschewed all federal money to get the project out of the courts once and for all. The freeway opened in September of 1978, about 10 years late. Photos taken 08/31/08 & 12/31/02.
The 8 lane freeway going over the floodplain has a US 281 reassurance marker here, amongst the trees. San Antonio has more dense forest growth than one would think, given its position in an arid part of the nation. Photo taken 08/31/08.
Sound walls protect houses nearby, and the first mention of IH 410 comes ahead. As with most Texas loops, there are no control points for the interstate exits here. Note the sign replacement of the one-half mile Basse Road panel for that of Interstate 410. Photos taken 08/31/08 & 12/31/02.
Basse Road (pron. BASS-ey) forms the gateway to the exclusive suburban enclaves of Alamo Heights and Terrell Hills. It also connects the freeway with the Alamo Quarry Market, a large shopping center that was originally a quarry and cement plant. The exit configuration here does not allow for Basse traffic to exit to US 281 northbound, or for southbound 281 traffic to exit to Basse. This is likely a consideration for area conservation Photos taken 08/31/08 & 12/31/02.
The exit to Basse Road westbound is a small, substandard 20 mph loop ramp. Basse was extended east to Broadway in 1992, and the exit became much busier at that time. Photos taken 08/31/08 & 12/31/02.
This VMS just north of Basse normally indicates traffic conditions on busy days. US 281 is one of the busiest freeways in San Antonio and is the main route for traffic headed from downtown to the sprawling northern suburban area. Photo taken 08/31/08.
This view looks northbound along the US 281 freeway at the Jones-Maltsberger exit. The road, named for early pioneer families, parallels the freeway for a while through here, and has another exit from southbound US 281 as well as one along IH 410. This is the last exit in the residential area of north San Antonio, and from here the industrialized area around the airport begins. Photos taken 08/31/08 & 12/31/02.
IH 410 is occasionally signed as the Connally Loop, to differentiate it from the city's other Loop 1604 (the Anderson Loop). However, locals normally refer to it simply as 410, or Loop 410. The US 281 freeway was upgraded through here from 2004 to 2008, and the upgrade included adding a collector-distributor lane on the far right side of the road, north of the Jones-Maltsberger onramp. Photo taken 08/31/08.
San Antonio's airport sits at the northeastern intersection of US 281 and IH 410. Access to the airport is provided directly with a ramp from US 281 to the terminal area. That exit sits amongst the upcoming IH 410 interchange. Photo taken 08/31/08.
Also called Airport Boulevard, the International Airport exit comes just after IH 410. As is indicated in the sign above, the right two lanes exit to the loop interstate. US 281 keeps 4 lanes as it heads north out of the city. The newer signs do not show the historic "Connally Loop" designation. Photo taken 08/31/08.
Newer gantries, shown here with maroon accents, signal the beginning of the new US 281 stack with IH 410. The stack was fully open in the summer of 2008, but in this photo work was not totally complete. This can be seen in the fact that the right side of the gantry here is not yet painted. Photo taken 08/31/08.
Before the 2008 completion of the new stack interchange with Interstate 410, drivers were required to travel Airport Boulevard north to the Loop 410 frontage road system to access the San Antonio beltway. The lack of a direct interchange created a serious congestion problem with both Airport Boulevard and nearby San Pedro Avenue (which connected the southbound direction of U.S. 281 with Interstate 410). These three photos display the original guide signage and off-ramp (since replaced with a new ramp further north) and connection between Airport Boulevard and Interstate 410. Incidentally Airport Boulevard to the frontage road system may still be used to access the beltway, but its far faster to take the high-speed flyovers now. Photos taken 12/31/02.
Airport Boulevard's exit comes just after 410 traffic leaves 281, and the airport's control tower can be seen in the background. The city has sought a new location for its airport because the current location does not allow for any expansion. This is similar to the moving of Austin's airport in the late 90s to a location further outside the city. Johnson City still counts as the control point for US 281, an important road through central Texas but one that does not go through many major towns. Photo taken 08/31/08.
US 281 northbound at Airport Boulevard. When both freeways were completed, there was no direct connection because of the delays in the construction of 281 due to community opposition. Planning for the stack began in the 90s and work started in 2004 to reconfigure the interchange and build a series of direct connections. The result is impressive. Photo taken 08/31/08.
US 281 northbound at the airport ramp, which opened well before the stack here did. The interchange cost over $120 million and opened in June, 2008. The four level stack provides great views for those who enjoy civil engineering, with the best vantage point being from eastbound IH 410, which makes up the lowest level. Photo taken 08/31/08.
Jones-Maltsberger Road, which has paralleled the freeway for some time now, has another exit amongst the 410 ramps. This time, the road connects with industrial airport land and commercial areas. Photo taken 08/31/08.
This view looks northbound at the US 281 ramps from IH 410. The stack had to fit every traffic movement between the two roads but fit into a small area as the land had been built up since its opening in 1978. The ramps to northbound US 281 continue for quite a long way north of the actual IH 410 overpass. Photo taken 08/31/08.
Mid-rise office blocks line the road north of 410, as can be seen here. There is none of the usual pull through signage here as Nakoma Drive approaches as the next exit. Photo taken 08/31/08.
Nakoma Drive is the first exit north of the merge from 410, and the small road runs along the north side of the airport. Photo taken 08/31/08. Photo taken 08/31/08.
Airport traffic runs into 281 here, north of Nakoma, and the northbound side adds two lanes. Photo taken 09/01/08.
Bitters Road, once a main route, has since been broken into several pieces by the airport. However, the exit area is still very busy around here as Bitters runs northwest into fast developing land and has an interchange at Loop 1604. Photo taken 09/01/08.
Here, US 281 runs under the San Antonio airport's runway guidance system. This is one of several places in America where a freeway comes into contact with an airport's necessary surrounding structures. At night, the system here is lit up to aid pilots. Photo taken 09/01/08.
Leaving the airport for good, US 281 prepares to have a junction with Bitters Road. Photo taken 09/01/08.
US 281 northbound at Bitters. This is a busy intersection with a lot of airport hotels, chain restaurants, and other businesses. This is also the exit to reach Wurzbach Parkway, which is a limited access road to the east of here. Wurzbach does not connect directly to any other freeways, but provides an important east/west link between the two loops. Photo taken 09/01/08.
The next exit north of Bitters is at Oak Shadows Drive, and Winding Way Drive. The side of the freeway through here is littered with businesses and mid-rise office blocks. Photo taken 09/01/08.
Oak Shadows and Winding Way are two relatively tiny streets. The suburb of Hill Country Village is located adjacent to the freeway here on the west side. It is likely this exit is here primarily to connect the freeway with businesses that front the roads to each side. Photo taken 09/01/08.
The road through here gets between 160,000 and 200,000 cars on an average day, making it the busiest section of 281 north of IH 410. Many San Antonio businesses relocated from the downtown to the northern side of the city, reserving the city center for tourism and historic preservation activities. The freeway through here was upgraded from a divided highway between 1987 and 1989. Photo taken 09/01/08.
Brook Hollow Boulevard is another nondescript residential street that runs east into the northern suburbs. Traffic from the onramp adds a lane to the freeway here, making it 8 lanes. Photo taken 09/01/08.
Now 8 lanes, US 281's next exit is at Thousand Oaks Dr. Photo taken 09/01/08.
Hollywood Park is a small enclave of San Antonio, and has about 3,000 inhabitants. The town was originally developed as a rural escape in the 1940s and was incorporated in 1955. The town is known locally for having a huge deer population. Photo taken 09/01/08.
US 281 northbound at Thousand Oaks. The street name may give the motorist the idea that it is an unimportant residential street, like the previous two exits, but in reality Thousand Oaks is a very important arterial on the north side of the urban area. The road runs east of here and has grade separated junctions at Wurzbach Parkway and IH 35. A large office town can be seen under construction on the horizon here, just another part of San Antonio's explosive northern sprawl. Photo taken 09/01/08.
The next exit, at Donella Dr and Henderson Pass is yet another connecting to short streets that don't really go anywhere. Henderson Pass is a road the connects with large shopping centers at Loop 1604. The fast expanding urban area meant that the county and city governments were late in getting arterial plans written up. Thus, there are fewer major streets on the north side of San Antonio than in many other major suburban areas. Photo taken 09/01/08.
Another view of the US 281 freeway just south of Loop 1604. Photo taken 09/01/08.
Still 8 lanes, US 281 prepares to meet Loop 1604. Photos taken 09/01/08.
The freeway loses its right lane here, and goes down to 6 lanes. The control point is still Johnson City, and will remain as such for the remainder of the freeway section. Photo taken 09/01/08.
Loop 1604, also known as the Anderson Loop, completely encircles the metro area - but is only a freeway on the northern side. The freeway section was built in the late 80s but there is no direct connection with US 281 here. Drivers must exit and navigate a frontage road system to get on 1604. Currently, plans call for upgrading the loop's northern side to a toll road, with free lanes on the outer edges. Photo taken 09/01/08.
US 281 is depressed in a trench as it runs under Loop 1604. Photo taken 09/01/08.
The last exit along the freeway portion of the road here is at Sonterra Boulevard. The bridge was built in 1987 but the actual road, Sonterra Boulevard, did not connect to it until the mid 90s. Photo taken 09/01/08.
The exit at Sonterra spells the current end of the US 281 freeway. At this point, the road becomes a four-lane divided highway with traffic lights. The state is planning to turn the main lanes of the road into a tollway through here, with the old US 281 lanes becoming frontage roads. Work began on the project in 2005, but was delayed after workers accidentally severed a sewer pipe. Work was halted at that time for a another environmental assessment. When this photo was taken in 2008, visible work had not yet begun on the upgrade. Photo taken 09/01/08.
US 281 traverses a series of traffic lights through land that is currently being paved over with nearly identical houses. Several large shopping centers line the road through here. The author is very glad he is not on this road at a busy period. Photos taken 09/01/08.
The land known as the Texas Hill Country begins here, north of San Antonio. This US 281 shield is in a northbound view near the Comal County line. Photo taken 09/01/08.
The reason San Antonio has sprawled north is that many nice views are to be had in this rolling part of Texas. However, the metro area is now adjacent to protected areas and can not sprawl much more to the north. Thus, the main thrust of development is now concentrating on the western end of the urban area. Photo taken 09/01/08.
Comal County is a semi-rural county between San Antonio and Austin, US 281 passes through the far western reaches. The county name is Spanish for "flat dish" and it is thought that the name comes from the many small islands in the local rivers. Settlement in the area began with a Spanish mission founded in 1756. European settlement in southern Texas generally dates from about the same time as the early English settlement of the Atlantic coastline, something often overlooked in history books about the USA. Photo taken 09/01/08.

Page Updated February 13, 2009.

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