What's in a name? How to navigate the Houston highway system

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Here's why some of Houston's highways have different names. (KTRK)

According to the Greater Houston Partnership, the Houston metro area has more than 4,000 lane miles of freeways and expressways.

That's a lot of road to try to figure out, especially if you're not used to it.

Many locals call the highways by their nicknames rather than their proper names or their numbers. So, let's start with the basics.

Some highways change names depending on the direction. For example, the Gulf Freeway will take you to the Gulf of Mexico, while the Eastex Freeway is named for the fact it will take you to east Texas.

Here's what else you need to know.

I-10 - Interstate Highway, runs from east to west

Also known as: the Katy Freeway or the Baytown East Freeway.

Where it takes you: If you head east, it will take you to Baytown. But it also runs through Houston, out west to Katy, Brookshire and Sealy, and beyond that to San Antonio. If you really want to go on a road trip, you can take I-10 out to California. Head east, and you're on the way to New Orleans.

Story behind its name: I-10 is called the Katy Freeway for the segments that are in Katy. Similarly, it changes to the East Freeway (once you're east of downtown) or the aforementioned, Baytown East Freeway. Some people even shorten that to the Beast.

I-45 - Interstate Highway, located only within Texas

Also known as: The Gulf Freeway (I-45 South) or the North Freeway (I-45 North)

Where it takes you: I-45 South is south of downtown and will lead you to Pasadena, League City and Galveston, to name a few.

There's also an elevated portion of I-45 South through downtown Houston called the Pierce Elevated because it runs next to Pierce Street.

I-45 North, which is north of downtown, will take you through places like Spring, The Woodlands and Conroe. This freeway also takes you to Dallas.

Story behind its name: In 1951, the Gulf Freeway, a 50-mile stretch at the time between Galveston and Houston, became the state's first freeway. It didn't become I-45 until almost 10 years later. It initially became the Gulf Freeway thanks to a naming contest entry.

Likewise, the North Freeway will take you to the north of town.

U.S. 59 - Highway, runs from the U.S. Mexico-Border in Laredo to Texarkana, Arkansas

Also known as: The Southwest Freeway (U.S. 59 South, when going south) or Highway 59 and the Eastex Freeway (U.S. 59 North, when going north). Highway 59 is becoming Interstate 69.

Where it takes you: When it's the Southwest Freeway, you'll use it to get to southwest Houston, Sugar Land, Missouri City, Stafford, Richmond, the Galleria or even River Oaks.


To the north past downtown, you'll use the Eastex Freeway if you need to get to areas like Humble, Kingwood, New Caney, Splendora and Cleveland. You can also hop on the Eastex Freeway to stop by Lake Houston.

Highway 59 is being upgraded to an interstate (I-69) but in sections. Right now, it has dual freeway designations.

Story behind its name: U.S. 59 is also known as the Lloyd Bentsen Highway in honor of the late Texas native and former U.S. Senator Lloyd Bentsen. Colloquially, you won't hear Houstonians using this name.

The Eastex Freeway will take you to East Texas and the Southwest Freeway is southwest of downtown.

U.S. 290 - Highway, runs east to west, entirely within Texas

Also known as: The Northwest Freeway, but it's more common to say 290.

Where it takes you: Ride this out to reach areas such as Jersey Village, Cypress and Tomball. 290 is also how you'll get to Hempstead, Prairie View and Brenham, home of Blue Bell Ice Cream. Keep trucking, and you'll end up in Austin.

Story behind its name: Directional, on the northwest side of Houston.

The Loop Systems

I - 610 - Interstate highway, the 610 loop circles downtown

Also known as: The Loop, Loop 610, Inner Loop, or simply, 610. 610 also has segments called the North Loop, the South Loop, the East Loop and the West Loop.

Where it takes you: The North Loop - from U.S. Highway 290 to U.S. Highway 90 (runs east and west)
The South Loop - from S. Post Oak Road to State Highway 225 (runs east and west)
The East Loop - from U.S. Highway 90 to State Highway 225 (runs north and south)
The West Loop - from U.S. Highway 290 to the S. Post Oak Road spur (runs north and south)

Story behind its name: This highway was a "Defense Loop" to move troops and supplies around Houston in the 1940s during World War II. It's also loops around the city.

Beltway 8 - state highway, a second-most outer loop that's entirely within Harris County

Also known as: Sam Houston Parkway, Sam Houston Tollway, but most often, the Beltway

Where it takes you: The tolled portion (The Sam Houston Tollway) will take you between 59 North and Highway 225, the Westpark Tollway, Katy Managed Lanes and Tomball Tollway

You can ride frontage roads (also referred to as feeders in the Houston area) along most of the Tollway and certain portions of Beltway 8.

Non-tolled freeways are between U.S. 59 and U.S. 90. The tollway also crosses the Houston Ship Channel.

Texas 99 - State Highway, the Houston area's third outer loop (once it's complete)

Also known as: The Grand Parkway, 99

Where it takes you: This highway is divided into 11 segments, but in short, you can travel through the northwest side of Houston from I-10 to I-69/U.S.59 north of Houston. Check here for the exact routes.

Other highways you may come across:


U.S. 90 - Highway alternate, also called the Beaumont Highway or Crosby Freeway
Texas 146 - State highway, Baytown freeway
Texas 225 - State highway, La Porte Freeway
Texas 249 - State highway, Tomball Parkway
Texas 288 - State highway, South Freeway
Related Topics:
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