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Penasquitos Long a Favored Spot

May 03, 1990|NANCY RAY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It has always been a favored spot for travelers pausing to rest, for defeated armies halting to reorganize and for land speculators with dreams of profits.

Prehistoric Indian tribes chose this spot for their encampments and their ceremonies. Carbon-dating techniques show that there were visitors in the shady valley as long as 5,000 years ago.

Perhaps the beauty of the spot is what has drawn people for more than 50 centuries: the ancient oaks, the waterfall, the deer and other wildlife, the thick-walled adobes, the creek that bubbles up from artesian springs.

Los Penasquitos Canyon is now a city-county open space preserve almost swallowed up by the San Diego suburbs of Mira Mesa to the south and Rancho Penasquitos to the north. It is hard to find and worth the search.

Los Penasquitos Canyon was the heart of the first Spanish land grant awarded in San Diego County, when, in 1823, after Mexico had thrown off the Spanish domination, Rancho de los Penasquitos was given to Capt. Francisco Maria Ruiz by the first Mexican governor of California.

Ruiz received the land grant in lieu of salary for his long service with the Mexican government but he visited the canyon rarely, according to Martin Kelly of Friends of Los Penasquitos Canyon. Ruiz was a bachelor and commandant of the Presidio, the Mexican garrison in San Diego, Kelly explained, and spent most of his retirement years in what is now Old Town.

Even so, Ruiz built a grand estancia at the western end of the canyon and ran cattle on the 8,486-acre spread. Eventually, Ruiz deeded the entire rancho to his friend, Francisco Maria Alvarado, who took care of him in his declining years.

The Alvarado family lived in the ranch house and continued Ruiz's cattle ranching after the officer died at the age of 85 in 1839. Neither Ruiz nor Alvarado apparently was successful at cattle-raising because Pio Pico, twice governor of California, bought Los Penasquitos Ranch at a tax sale for $420, then promptly returned it to Alvarado, to whom he was related by marriage.

In 1846, during the Mexican-American War, Gen. Steven W. Kearny stopped in at the Penasquitos Ranch as he and the tattered remnants of his army were retreating from a battle with the Mexican Californios in San Pasqual Valley.

According to history books, Kearny and his men were treated hospitably by the Alvarado family and continued on their way to San Diego the next day, but Kelly said that stories persist that Kearny ordered the estancia destroyed because his Mexican hosts were believed to be sympathizers of the Mexican troops who had decimated Kearny's U.S. contingent only a few days earlier at the Battle of San Pasqual.

Only two partial adobe walls of the Ruiz-Alvarado ranch house remain today, but historians blame the weather and vandals for the destruction, not Kearny's troops.

By 1857, when Alvarado's title to Los Penasquitos Ranch was finally recognized by the U.S. government, an Englishman already had taken over the ranch. Capt. George Alonzo Johnson, a former river-boat pilot on the Colorado River, had met and married Alvarado's daughter, Tomasa.

Johnson, an opportunist, tended more toward politics than ranching, serving in the state Legislature and living mainly in San Diego. And the sprawling cattle ranch continued to decline. In 1883, a land speculator named Jacob Taylor bought the ranch and attempted to improve the stock by importing Durham cattle from Colorado.

Taylor, who platted and sold the seaside community of Del Mar in the 1880s, also built a ranch house at the eastern end of Penasquitos Canyon and planted lemon trees in an attempt to diversify. The lemon trees promptly died in an unusual winter freeze.

Taylor turned briefly to hostelry, converting the large, U-shaped ranch house into a hotel and running regular stagecoach trips to it from the railroad station in Del Mar. He also installed a private telephone line from the Penasquitos ranch house-hotel to his home in Del Mar.

The Johnson-Taylor adobe still stands, two-thirds of it restored. The building now houses offices of the county rangers who patrol the canyon, the San Diego County Archeological Society and other historical and environmental groups' headquarters.

Tours of the old Johnson-Taylor rancho are given on the first and third Saturdays of the month at 11 a.m. and noon by docents of the Archeological Society. Nature tours of Penasquitos Canyon are conducted by Friends of Los Penasquitos Canyon and several other groups.

To reach the Johnson-Taylor Adobe, take Interstate 15 to the Mercy Road off-ramp and go west on Mercy to Black Mountain Road. Turn north on Black Mountain to the first left-turn lane (at Park Village Road) and make a U-turn to go south on Black Mountain to the Canyonside Park and Recreation Center turnoff. Drive past the recreation center and continue on into the canyon to the adobe.

IF YOU GO

To reach the Johnson-Taylor Adobe, take Interstate 15 to the Mercy Road off-ramp and go west on Mercy to Black Mountain Road. Turn north on Black Mountain to the first left-turn lane (at Park Village Road) and make a U-turn to go south on Black Mountain to the Canyonside Park and Recreation Center turnoff. Drive past the recreation center and continue on into the canyon to the adobe.

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