On a recent afternoon in early spring the ground was bright green with fresh grass thanks to recent rains. A Great Blue Heron stalked amongst the mud puddles, hoping to spot a frog or other prey. California ground squirrels scurried back and forth through the grass, gathering seeds and flowers and playing games of chase, while a hawk, no doubt in search of a squirrel snack, swooped overhead. Runners braved the fickle weather, getting in some fresh air and exercise.
Charles Carter, Stanford University's director of land use and environmental planning, said up to 400,000 human visitors enter the Dish Area each year.
"I love that this trail is all open land; it looks just like a backdrop. It's so peaceful here. You don't have to worry about cars or deal with traffic lights, bikes or dogs. You can just zone out," weekly hiker Laura Hamilton said.
"It's an hour to hike the loop, and it's an hour where you can't turn on the TV and you leave the cell phone behind. You can solve any of life's problems out here walking the loop. Whenever my friends have … problems I say, 'Go to the Dish,'" said Jenn Shoup, who hikes the Dish four to five times a week.
Besides the visible birds and small mammals, other creatures are present. Stanford conservationists have installed breeding ponds for the endangered California Tiger Salamander, although the elusive amphibians are only active on winter nights, Carter said, and visitors have reported seeing bobcats and coyotes.
As the trails from the entrances to the Stanford Dish Area rise in elevation, the wooded areas give way to open fields. The titular Dish itself, a massive radiotelescope still in active use, crowns the hilltop. Around the trail and visible from bustling Interstate Highway 280 on the other side of the hills are the cows.
The gentle-eyed cattle — often motionless save for their flickering tails and eagerly munching mouths — are members of a herd numbering several hundred (mostly of mixed breeds including Angus and Hereford). They belong to local rancher David Murdoch, who owns the nearby Glenoaks Equestrian Center in Portola Valley, and his two partners, George Parker and Jeff Graham.
Murdoch and his partners have leased some of the land that formerly made up Piers Ranch from Stanford for the past five years. Each winter and spring, from about November to May, young cattle, recently weaned from their mothers and purchased from breeders, are set out on the Dish land to graze the grass, which is plentiful during the rainy season. The cows perform the valuable service of keeping the grass trimmed, reducing fire risk to the area, Murdoch said. As spring turns to summer and the grass dries up, they're sent to a feedlot for the remainder of their lives, until they reach a marketable size for slaughter and beef sale.
"These cows spend that time there this year, then next year we'll get another group," he said of their time at Stanford.
Murdoch, originally from New Zealand, grew up on a beef farm and is now a professional horse trainer and riding instructor. His interest in having cattle graze the land is based on a desire to preserve the land, keeping it close to its rural roots.
"It's really land management, not something that brings in an income. In a good year we might bring in a little money, other years we may break even. We do it because the land needs to be looked after and maintained," he said.
"We're so fortunate to have the open space in this area; it's very enjoyable. The cattle are more of a hobby. We're not planning our retirement from it. Our interest is in taking care of the land as opposed to being beef farmers."
Murdoch said the cattle do attract a good amount of comment and interest, as the public trail runs through their pasture. But generally the cows don't bother the people and vice versa. People, he said, seem to enjoy the pastoral site of the browsing bovines. And so far he's had no problem with mountain lions or other predators.
Once the cattle move on from the Dish area to the feedlot, Murdoch's involvement with them ceases.
"I have a love for all animals," Murdoch said. "But when they're going to go, you try not to get too personal. The reality is they're here for some time, then they go."
Though Murdoch's livestock remind visitors of "The Farm's" bucolic days, other fans of the Dish incorporate the high-tech into their hiking experience.
Palo Alto company GlobalMotion Media, Inc., which develops mobile travel applications, has created a Dish Hike app, which gives maps and other helpful information, available at www.everytrail.com.
"When I was a student in business school, classmates and I would routinely meet up at the Dish for exercise and to connect — either socially or to work through a project," EveryTrail.com founder and Stanford alum Joost Schreve said. "The Dish offers both casual and competitive hikers and runners a challenging workout with incredible views."
"I always like seeing the Golden Eagles in the winter time. And in the spring time you have wildflowers," Carter said. "The views after a storm are pretty spectacular; you can see the San Francisco skyline when it's clear. It's just open space with a view. People tend to like that."
Hiker Jeff Schwegman put it simply. "It's instant transcendence out here."