Outfitted as a Spanish explorer, George H. Cardinet Jr. led a team of re-enactors on a 900-mile horseback ride that snaked north from Mexico through California in 1976. The modern quest closely followed the path that Juan Bautista de Anza had traveled 200 years before.
Cardinet, then in his late 60s, was one of the few riders to complete the journey that brought attention to his most passionate cause: He wanted the route recognized as a national historic trail.
A trail activist since the early 1940s, Cardinet was considered by many to be the father of the California trails system. He was instrumental in developing the state’s first long-distance hiking and equestrian trails and in getting legislation passed that established a federal trails system in 1968.
Cardinet, who lived on a ranch in Concord, Calif., died Jan. 19 of unknown causes while visiting a friend in Mexico City, said his son, George H. Cardinet III. He was 97.
“Without George, the national trails system wouldn’t have the shape or breadth it does today,” said Steve Elkinton, National Trails System program leader for the National Park Service. “George was larger than life, one of those giants on whose shoulders we all stand.”
The National Trails System Act recognized an extensive system of scenic and historic trails.
It included the Pacific Crest Trail -- even though it was not officially completed until 1993 -- only after intense lobbying by Cardinet, said Nancy Dupont.
She is director of the Heritage Trails Fund, a nonprofit she and Cardinet helped found in 1980 to develop and preserve trails.
“He was as comfortable in a dirty old suede vest with sheep’s blood on it as he was at a formal gathering in a tux meeting dignitaries,” Dupont said. “He could work it either way.”
With his strong sense of history, Cardinet was drawn to the Anza Trail, named for the explorer who led the colonizing expedition to San Francisco Bay. Cardinet played a key role in getting the route designated a national historic trail in 1990, said Stanley Bond, superintendent of the trail for the National Park Service.
“George was really good at capturing other people’s enthusiasm,” said Jeannie Gillen, a founding member of the Anza Trail Foundation. “He would seek out people that were younger than he was and put them to work on his passion.”
Born April 8, 1909, in San Francisco, George Hugh Cardinet Jr. grew up in Oakland. His father co-founded Cardinet Candy Co., maker of the U-No bar. The eldest of four children, he succeeded his father as president of the firm, which was sold in the early 1970s.
His affinity for horses dated to the early 1920s, when he would work at a stable in the Sierra Nevada in exchange for taking a horse out for a ride.
In 1934, he married Margaret M. Bowen. They had four children. About 1940, they moved to a ranch on 400 acres in Concord, where he lived until his death.
Since Mt. Diablo State Park was “practically in our backyard,” he began developing trails there, his son said.
“He would take off up a hill on horseback with a roll of toilet paper and string it out to mark the various trails, and his friend would follow him with a bulldozer,” his son said.
Cardinet is credited with building more than 200 miles of trails in the park and throughout the East Bay.
In the 1940s, he became actively interested in trail building when horses began “falling out of fashion,” Dupont said, and he helped found the California State Horsemen’s Assn., which worked to preserve trails.
According to an oft-told story, the hard-charging Cardinet built the Heritage Trail Fund by organizing weekend rides in the mountains.
“He would ride them ragged, and those who made it out at the appointed time would be nominated to the board,” Elkinton said. “He liked challenging people, but underneath it all he had an extremely kind heart.”
In addition to his son, George, Cardinet is survived by two daughters, Maureen Casteel and Michele Tomasulo; a brother; 12 grandchildren, and 16 great-grandchildren. His wife died in 1992.
Instead of flowers, the family requests donations be made to the George H. Cardinet Jr. Memorial Trails Fund, P.O. Box 612, Clayton, CA. 94517.