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Inside the Icon: State Route 163

San Diego's first freeway has a surprisingly storied history—and JFK's seal of approval.
The 163 | Photo by Lee Sie Photography/Getty Images

By Archana Ram

Power to the People

Though the north-south freeway was the dream of San Diegans for nearly 15 years, a city charter provision mandates that citizens vote anytime Balboa Park land is developed for non-park purposes. The March 1941 vote resulted in an 8-1 win, allowing for a 200-foot-wide course through Cabrillo Canyon to be used for the freeway.

Name Change

Construction began in 1942, when the state route was just a dirt road and the section through Balboa Park was a lily pond. On February 28, 1948, the route debuted as U.S. 395/Cabrillo Freeway. It wasn’t until the late ’60s that it was renamed State Route 163.

Going the Distance

The freeway stretches 7.1 miles. Arguably the most eye-catching segment runs under the Cabrillo Bridge. As luck would have it during construction, the four highway lanes were a perfect fit for the bridge’s 56-foot-wide archways.

Historic Highway

The route is one of only two designated historic parkways in California. The other is the 110 in L.A., otherwise known as the Arroyo Seco Parkway or the Pasadena Freeway.

Extreme Makeover

In April 2014, Caltrans launched a landscape renovation project for the 163, costing an estimated $6.7 million funded by the State Transportation Improvement Program. The initiative included soil treatment, pruning, more efficient irrigation, and the replacement of dead trees and grasses with sustainable, drought-resistant plants.


During then-President John F. Kennedy’s 1963 visit to deliver San Diego State’s commencement speech, he is said to have called the 163 “the most beautiful highway I’ve ever seen.”

Inside the Icon: State Route 163

The 163 | Photo by Lee Sie Photography/Getty Images

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