Penasquitos, or “PQ” as it’s often referred to, translates to “little cliffs” in Spanish and is named for the first Mexican land grant awarded in the region, the Rancho Santa Maria de los Penasquitos, in 1823, to Captain Francisco Maria Ruiz. He built an adobe house that is the oldest known residence in San Diego.
In the mid-19th century, the U.S. Army used the area as a route to transport supplies from the Port of San Diego to Yuma, Ariz. It also served as a way station on the wagon route to Warner’s Ranch from San Diego.
The parcel of land changed hands several times, became a cattle ranch, and had expanded to 14,000 acres by 1962 when developer Irvin Kahn acquired it with the idea of creating a golf course and a master-planned community.
“It used to be mostly tomato fields in the 1970s,” said Michelle O’Connor Ratcliff, a town council member who was born and raised in Rancho Penasquitos, after her parents moved here while it was still being developed.
Early home buyers like the O’Connors found that the area was quite out of the way and surrounded by dirt roads, so they had to drive to Poway for shopping and amenities.
O’Connor Ratcliff, who moved back here like many of her childhood friends when she began her own family, recalls Black Mountain Road as being a winding, two-lane road.
“We used to call it “Dead Man’s Curve” because it was dark, super curvy, you had to drive very slowly. There were a lot of accidents back then,” she said.
Change happened slowly.
The northeastern end of Penasquitos was developed first and as homes and schools were built, neighborhoods began taking shape. The Penasquitos Town Centre on Black Mountain Road and Twin Trails was the first retail presence in the community and it came about only during the 1980s.
Black Mountain Road was widened and extended and became the major artery that it is today, running from north to south through the community. The library and Rancho YMCA were built close to the shopping center, after several other streets were paved. The YMCA has a swimming pool and other activities that draw locals and families from neighboring suburbs.
Fieldstone was one of the major developers to build homes in several neighborhoods and by the 1980s, Rancho Penasquitos had become a popular suburb, bounded by Mira Mesa and Scripps Ranch to the south, Black Mountain Ranch to the north, Carmel Mountain Ranch and I-15 to the east.
When the second wave of development happened in the late ‘80s, propelled by reputable schools and affordable homes, there was a virtual stampede for new homes.
“People were camping out in tents, motorhomes and their cars for days in order to get first pick of new homes. Developers would announce their opening sales day and people would start camping out,” O’Connor Ratcliff recalled. “My parents camped for nine days in August 1987 along Salmon River Road, outside the developer's office for their new home.”
Her parents moved homes three times over the last 40 years, but always stayed within the community, since they liked the small-town feel.
Change happened at a rapid pace once SR 56, which had been in planning for years, was finally built in 1993. The highway, which cuts through Rancho Penasquitos and runs east to west from I-15 through Carmel Valley, was built in stages and completed in 2004.
It serves as an important corridor that connects I-15 with I-5, offering residents easy access to work in North County or westward in La Jolla, the beach in Del Mar and shopping in Carmel Mountain.
A skate park built on the sidelines of the SR 56 corridor after overcoming community objections now serves as an outlet for teens and young adults -- another difference for children growing up in the area today as compared to those who found few venues for entertainment back in the ‘70s and early ‘80s.
PQ backs up on the south to the Los Penasquitos Canyon Preserve, a 7-mile, 4,000-acre preserve with hiking, biking and equestrian trails, waterfalls cascading through volcanic rock, a stream beside a forest of California live oaks, groves of sycamore trees, sightings of mule deer, coyotes, bobcats and raccoons, and a fresh water marsh that is home to a variety of aquatic birds.
The preserve separates PQ from Mira Mesa and the Canyonside Recreational Center was built at its entrance. The rec center is a hub for the PQ soccer, softball and baseball leagues. It also has indoor basketball courts, tennis courts, play areas and picnic areas. Further inside the canyon, the historic adobe ranch house has been restored and often hosts weddings and celebrations.
On the north side of PQ is another major community park, the Hilltop Recreation Center off Oviedo Street, with sweeping views of the city, an amphitheater, community hall, play and exercise areas.
The PQ town council organizes the annual Fiesta de los Penasquitos street fair in May to showcase local businesses and nonprofits, which draws 15,000 people. In past years, the council has promoted community spirit with slogans like “Rancho Penasquitos -- the Jewel of Black Mountain.”
Christmas Card Lane is unique to PQ -- so called because every year in December, homeowners on and near Oviedo Street go all out with holiday lights and elaborate, often giant-sized displays, drawing huge crowds of visitors. About 200 families on these streets join in, following a tradition begun by a home owner in 1982. Displays vary from standard to spectacular, with some requiring weeks of efforts and complex support systems.