IT'S ONLY 20 MILES FROM DOWNTOWN ALBUQUERQUE to the East Mountain communities of Tijeras and Cedar Crest, but as each mile falls away, as the altitude climbs, as the sidewalks and streetlights give way to boulders and chamisa, to piñon and juniper, to ponderosa and oak, the feeling of entering a different place and time becomes more real.
It is different up here—wind-whipped, wild, open, and raw. But beautiful, beckoning you to breathe its rarefied air, hike its trails, behold its otherness.
For thousands of years, people—from Ancestral Puebloans to tuberculosis patients—have tried to tame this side of the Sandía and Manzano mountains, with varying success. Little of those earliest settlements remains. The ones that have withstood the years show their age, giving the appearance of a place frozen in time.
In Cedar Crest, the 1970s-era Tom & Jerry Plaza, named for the builder Thomas Martinez and his wife, still sports the sassy san serif signage of that era. The iconic Burger Boy, perennially lauded as serving the best hamburger in New Mexico, still features the Brady Bunch–style rock facade and the remnants of once-ubiquitous artwork by Tinkertown artist Ross Ward from when it opened in 1982. It also still employs many of the same people.
Not since Triangle Grocery moved into its swanky alpine ski lodge-style digs in 2004 has the area seen much in the way of retail construction. Still, new life is being breathed into the old buildings, taken over by idealistic entrepreneurs who believe in promoting local goods, conscious consumerism, and community connections.
Roots Farm Café, in Tijeras, owned by partners Kendall Rattner and Daniel Puccini, specializes in serving organic, local produce and selling goods crafted by locals. In Cedar Crest, Cabra Coffee, owned by Hannah Johnson, and Rumor Brewing Co., owned by her brother, Patrick Johnson, also feature local and sustainable ingredients, dished out with plenty of friendliness.
Fresh angles on consumerism and mountain air prove to be an irresistible combination, particularly in the time of COVID-19. Visitors weary and wary because of the ongoing pandemic are seeking an escape into the great outdoors here, all while remaining close to Wi-Fi, restaurants, watering holes, and shops. Cedar Crest and Tijeras offer a close remoteness, a less wild wilderness. And a great day-trip destination.
“A lot of our new customers are people who’ve come up for a hike and then stumbled upon us,” says Pam Cherry, co-owner of BackRoads Home Decor, a not-to-be-missed emporium of vintage, antique, and farm-chic wares that shares Tom & Jerry Plaza with Cabra Coffee and Rumor Brewing. “It’s been a good thing.”
I am someone who stumbled upon the East Mountains 30 years ago, lucking into an acre of land abutting the Cibola National Forest outside Tijeras by way of marriage. The union didn’t last, but the luck of mountain living has. Yet, until Covid-19 forced many of us to work from home, I had never taken the time to relish all the area had to offer. The East Mountains was a zip code and a place I passed on my way to somewhere else, enjoyed in blurred views out car windows and all-too-brief weekend respites.
That had to change. I committed myself to explore these mountain communities with fresh eyes and limber (but not too limber) legs and set off into the otherness.
AT TOM & JERRY PLAZA—or rather, just behind it—a favorite day trip begins. Like most of the retail businesses in Cedar Crest, the plaza sits on NM 14—“North 14,” if you want to sound like a local—and Arroyo Seco Road, next to the Cedar Crest Post Office. At the end of the road, the trailhead for the John A. Milne and Gutierrez Canyon Open Space leads to 720 acres of gently sloping forest and endless mountain vistas. Free of rutted, rocky roads, the area (the Milne portion was named in honor of the longest-serving superintendent of Albuquerque Public Schools) is one of the most accessible trail systems in the East Mountains. Its trails suit nearly every skill level for hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, and trail running. Dogs on leashes are also welcome.
The 2.3-mile Arroyo Loop is one of my favorites, suitable for families and those looking for a short stroll rather than a mighty conquest. For a more amped-up experience, you can connect from the Loop to a series of trails that wend through the entire space.
Cherry says it’s not uncommon to see hikers parking behind Cabra Coffee to prime their trek with a warming cuppa and made-from-scratch baked scones and muffins. Cabra’s soothing lavender latte is a favorite of the locals, but I prefer the spicy house-made chai.
After an excursion, opt to imbibe something a little more potent, at Rumor Brewing Co., Cedar Crest’s only brewery. Steps away from the Milne/Gutierrez trailhead, it’s a good place to grab a beer, a slice of brick-oven pizza, and a relaxing spot on the patio before the sun sinks red and radiant behind the Sandías. In warmer weather, Rumor also features live music.
Just north of the trailhead, the popular El Mariachi, a small, family-run Mexican restaurant, dishes up some of the best mole and carne adovada this side of the Sandías. El Mariachi also serves breakfast and offers a heated, covered patio for alfresco dining. But what makes this a favorite food spot among locals is the welcome from Ozzy Aragon and his family. A few times here and you’re a friend. Known for its generosity, El Mariachi distributes hundreds of burritos to those in need and holds burger cookouts to raise funds and collect donations of warm clothing and blankets. It’s a place with a lot of heart—and a heck of a great guacamole.
FOR ANOTHER DAY TRIP, head to the south side of Tijeras Canyon by way of NM 337, still referred to as “South 14” by stubborn locals even though the highway was renumbered in 1988. We locals refer to this community collectively as “Tijeras,” though very little of the area stretching from the canyon through the Manzanita and Manzano mountains lies within the village boundaries, which is a slight 1.2 square miles in size.
The name Tijeras, spelled various ways on survey maps over time, from “Tejeras” to “Tegera” to “Tijera,” derives from the Spanish word for scissors. It earned the name because of the way the canyon cuts through the mountains.
A half mile from the canyon on South 14 is what remains of the original village of Tijeras, active more than 700 years ago. Tijeras Pueblo, built on a bluff in the bowl between the Sandía and Manzano mountains, was home to as many as 250 people at its Ancestral peak. For years, the inhabitants endured harsh winters, unreliable water sources, and interloping marauders before dying out or moving west to the more inhabitable Río Grande Valley. Alas, most of what was the pueblo’s kiva, plaza, and boxy rooms has returned to the dirt underfoot, the puddled-adobe walls worn away by weather and time.
Take the 1/3-mile interpretive trail, just off the parking lot of the Sandia Ranger District, and ascend toward the bluff, passing signs warning of rattlesnakes, before making a loop around the eroded buildings. From the highest point of the trail, the sounds of interstate traffic whooshing through the canyon might serve as a reminder of the passage of time.
At the ranger station, pick up maps and seek advice about other nearby hiking and cycling trails and picnic sites in the Cibola National Forest. Among the most popular trails are Coyote, Otero Canyon, and Tunnel Canyon, each accessed from South 14 and no more than five miles from I–40.
Begin or end this south-side day trip at Roots Farm Café for a panini, soup, or salad, made with seasonal, organic ingredients—with some of that produce grown by the restaurant owners themselves. The parking lot at Roots is almost always full, but somehow the cozy rustic cabin finds room for all. I don’t know how they do it, but the daily offering of quiche manages to combine a savory, melty nirvana while still maintaining the integrity of a flaky crust.
Roots also offers one of the best selections of local goods, including copies of Timelines of the East Mountains, an exhaustive trove of area history compiled by the East Mountain Historical Society.
And what a history it’s been. For much of the time, the East Mountains were a place along the way to somewhere else. Wagons full of Civil War soldiers in the 1860s and refugees escaping the Dust Bowl in the 1940s made their way through Tijeras Canyon, each seeking their own ideas of something better, something true. Farmers, miners, and settlers came and went. Towns such as San Antonio, Yrissari, Bartolo Baca, Escabosa, and Vallecito are now just names on a map.
Later businesses such as the popular Bella Vista restaurant, home of all-you-can-eat chicken and fish dinners, and the Golden Inn, a rowdy bar that attracted hundreds of city folks to watch acts like Chubby Checker and Asleep at the Wheel, were torn down years ago.
Even today, some visitors pass through Tijeras or Cedar Crest on their way to other destinations—north to Santa Fe by way of the historic Turquoise Trail or skyward to Sandía Crest and the Sandia Peak Ski Area. Like me, many people sometimes do not see that some of the best destinations are within reach of our own backyards, in our own communities.
But stay at this altitude, in this rarefied air, in this place. You might find the East Mountains is the right place at the right time
Far Side of the Mountain
Get outside. Download a map of trails in the John A. Milne and Gutierrez Canyon Open Space—and other nearby Albuquerque Open Space trails. Get maps for Cibola National Forest trails at the Sandia Ranger District. 11776 NM 337, Tijeras; 505-281-3304.
Fuel up. At Burger Boy, the magic is in the home-processed and hand-ground meat. For four decades, these burgers have been winning accolades as the best burgers in New Mexico. Home-baked pies are also a must, if you’re lucky enough to get a slice before they sell out—and they almost always do. 12023 NM 14, Cedar Crest; 505-281-3949.
Pop into Rumor Brewing Co. for brick-oven pizza, house-crafted beer, and a stunning view of the Sandía Mountains. Belgian ales are popular here, but the Cedro Stout is a creamy, rich brew worth trying. 28 Arroyo Seco, Cedar Crest; 505-281-2828.
Mountain upscale ambience, chicken-fried steak, Friday fish fries, local beer and wine, and a rotating variety of tacos on Tuesday make Greenside Cafe a great place for a sit-down meal. 12165 NM 14,Cedar Crest; 505-286-2684.
Make a toast to history. Yes, there really was a Molly at Molly’s Bar. Amalia “Molly” Giannini Simballa stood under five feet but could toss out unruly customers and break up fights like the burliest of bouncers back in the day. This old watering hole remains a favorite with locals, bikers, and folks looking for a good time, good pool, and good live music on its outdoor patio—and no fighting. 546 NM 333, Tijeras; 505-281-9911.
Shop. At BackRoads Home Decor, you’ll find antique furniture and country farmhouse decor with a great range of prices. BackRoads also hosts painting, crafting, and furniture repurposing classes. 12216 NM 14, Cedar Crest; 505-200-2673.
Polk’s Folly Butcher Shop and Farm Stand sells humanely raised meats, eggs, organic vegetables, honey, herbs, and cheeses, all sourced locally. This small, family-run shop also supplies ingredients to many of its neighboring eateries.
12128 NM 14, Cedar Crest; 505-503-0395.
Stay. Although most visitors to the East Mountains bunk up in nearby Albuquerque, Airbnbs and VRBOs abound in these forested foothills. If log cabin lodging hits your sweet spot, you’ll find it here.