Cedro Peak is a prominent landmark in the northern Manzanita Mountains, and often is visible from the southern Sandias as well. Until a decade or so ago, you could visit a fire watcher in the lookout. The Forest Service now monitors wilderness fires via satellite, mostly, and the lookout is locked up and forlorn. You’re not even allowed to take the stairway to the balcony around the lookout room. Moreover, the access road is gated shut, with signs intended to make you feel unwelcome. Here I’ll explain how to visit Cedro Peak anyway (see disclaimer at end). But first, some context (based on a study I did in 1996).
The Manzanita Mountain area, and in particular Tijeras Canyon, forms a dip in the otherwise lofty Sandia-Manzano mountain system. Within that dip, Cedro Peak rises about 300 feet (90 meters) above the surrounding terrain, with a commanding view of the area. Not surprising that by 1922, a wood fire lookout tower (with a roofless platform) was present on the peak.
The hill would soon have a second use. As cross-country aviation emerged, the federal government built beacons to help guide airplanes around the country. The piston-powered, unpressurized planes of the time struggled to get over mountains, and one route then in use passed through the roughly 3,000 foot (915 meter) deep, 5 mile (8 km) wide “notch” between the Sandias and the Manzanos. In 1929, the feds granted a permit for construction of a 40 foot (12 meter) steel tower, topped with a beacon light, to help airplanes find their way through the notch. The light was powered by an on-site generator. The tower also incorporated a fire lookout for use by the Forest Service. In 1935, a CCC crew based at Tijeras Ranger Station built a new lookout tower, along with a cabin and outhouse. As before, the tower was topped with a beacon light.
For most of its history, the Cedro Peak lookout was connected to the outside world via a telephone line. If you’ve ever noticed the break in the trees extending up and down the northwest side of the hill, that’s the old phone line. You can hike up the break but it’s steep and, in places, a bit of a scramble.
In the 1950s, AT&T established a nationwide telecom system based on microwave radio frequencies. One repeater station was built on Cedro Peak. In 1969, AT&T completed a large replacement building for this facility, along with a new tower. As part of its rebuild, AT&T built a fire lookout room on top of its new building. This is the lookout I visited in years past, including with my grandchildren. By then the telephone line was gone (leaving stumps of poles, sawed flush with the ground), and the fire watcher communicated via radio.
If, after reading my disclaimer, you decide to see Cedro Peak for yourself, here’s a way to do it. From Tijeras, head south on NM 337. Once mostly out of the canyon, at 35 deg. 1.978 min. N, 106 deg. 21.343 min. W, turn left onto Forest Road 252 (Juan Tomás Road). It’ll help to notice the sign announcing the turnoff to the Cedro Peak Group Campground. Roughly half a mile in, the road forks; take FR 252 to the left as the Juan Tomás Road continues right. Roughly a mile after that, FR 252 leaves the local valley and passes the group campground. (If you’re not in a high clearance vehicle, that’s a good place to park.) At a T intersection, FR 542 heads left and FR 252 heads right. Take the latter, and soon you’ll be at the locked gate and unfriendly signs. Pull off to the left and park, at 35 deg. 3.045 min. N, 106 deg. 21.271 min. W.
An obvious path leads north from the parking spot. After about 100 meters, it ends at a spectacular view of ... the Tijeras cement plant, but of other things too. A little before there—about 70 meters from the parking area—the route to the hilltop doubles back to the right. You’ll approach the locked-off portion of FR 252, then turn north again. Gaia GPS labels this route Trail 5240, not that it’s signed or maintained; to me it looks like an old horse trail. In any case, follow it as it trends north and east, to the top of Cedro Peak. Close to the top you’ll pass what look like an old cistern and the foundations of an old outhouse.
Once on top you can walk around to enjoy views in all directions, while leaving the telecom building and yard alone. The slowly disintegrating cabin on the east side of the telecom building is the one built by the CCC. When you’re done, retrace your steps down the old horse path and back to your car. The distance is only 0.4 mile (650 meters) each way, with an ascent of 240 feet (70 m).
Disclaimer. Is it legal to visit Cedro Peak? You're asking me? Before proceeding, check with the local ranger district. Check with your lawyer, your dentist, and your pet sitter, for that matter. The main thing is, if you get into trouble and you didn’t check first, don’t come whining to me.
The distant photo that follows shows why Cedro Peak was chosen for an airplane beacon, and why it remains useful as a microwave relay station. The hill is widely visible from Albuquerque, once you're above the bottom of the valley. You can see how pilots heading east from Albuquerque would easily find the first beacon in the series they'd follow. Or for pilots heading west, it would be just as easy to find Albuquerque after passing the beacon.