Changing seasons: Springtime at The Dish

Wildlife and livestock, runners and researchers intersect at Stanford's Dish Area Academic Reserve

The Stanford Dish, as the academic reserve area of open space nestled in the Stanford foothills is known, is many things. A jogging route. A favorite hiking and wildlife-viewing spot. A place for scientific research and environmental protection. A cattle ranch.

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 Ö 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

"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," 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."

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Posted by George
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 1, 2011 at 1:14 pm

The Dish offers a beautiful parade of nature.

Recently, great egrets and white-tailed kites have been putting on a show. Red-tailed and coopers hawks are regulars.

Thanks, Stanford. You deserve a 'well done' on this set of nature trails enjoyed by thousands every week.

Like this comment
Posted by Not so happy
a resident of South of Midtown
on Apr 1, 2011 at 1:37 pm

Wonderful to know that that beautiful area is supporting the inhumane slaughterhouses that these young cattle are lucky enough *not* to understand that's where they're headed. Anyone ever been to one? The fear and suffering is indescribable. It altered my life forever - if you ever get close to one, you'll never eat meat again - guaranteed - unless there is something very seriously wrong with you. Sorry to make this comment, but the article started out so great, and then I was quickly reminded of the ugliness also represented in this article. Made me very sick.

Like this comment
Posted by BaaBaaRaa
a resident of Menlo Park
on Apr 1, 2011 at 4:03 pm

@Not so happy..... Oh thank you so much for mentioning that. It's the one thing that made me sad when I hiked there daily. I miss the Dish... and I miss those young cattle... I remember when they'd first be dropped off, so young and scared. How they reacted to a huge thunder and lightning storm... they were so frightened... running and kicking. I loved seeing them, and yet I hated knowing their fate too. I am a vegetarian because of that. Still... they have it so much better than the poor young cattle who live in their dung on feed lots. I can't imagine the fear and suffering. You don't have to apologize. Thank you for reminding folks. The poor dears.

Like this comment
Posted by lone hiker
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 1, 2011 at 7:29 pm

I love the Dish. I don't go there often myself - parking can be hard to find, and that single, four mile, crowded asphalt loop can become boring very quickly. Why hike there anyway when a few minutes up the road there are more parks with lots of trails to choose from, shorter and longer, with a much greater diversity of flora and fauna, and much better views? Yes, I love the Dish - because it attracts so many people who would otherwise be crowding the trails farther up the hills!

Like this comment
Posted by Parthena
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 1, 2011 at 9:40 pm

I love the Dish. I was visiting the area 23 years ago and that place was one of the reasons I've moved to Palo Alto. Fewer people back then, no asphalt on the trails, no security, and you could explore every hidden place. The oak trees are so beautiful every season. This year is particularly beautiful thanks to the rainfall. I love seeing the young cattle, and I am not vegetarian! Thanks for the article!

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Posted by Moo
a resident of Woodside
on Apr 2, 2011 at 7:56 pm

I agree with most, I love seeing the cows, last week one was actually sprawled out in the middle of the trail @ Alpine side. Am I the only one that talks to them :>) I'm very saddened to find out they'll be slaughtered. All that aside, the Dish is very special to me, makes me feel alive, so good to be out in the wide open space with those unbeatable views.

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Posted by Chris Zaharias
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 3, 2011 at 7:50 am

I really enjoy a good bacon double cheeseburger every now & then. As for hiking, I much prefer going further up into the hills. Ever since Cow Hill was turned into a heavily-guarded concrete-only walking trail, I lost interest.

Like this comment
Posted by Miss the old Dish
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 3, 2011 at 1:35 pm

I agree with the above about Stanford having paved paradise. I spent so much time running there in the 80's. I loved being able to cross under 280 and run with my dog out to Felt Lake. There were far fewer people, nothing was paved and you could really enjoy all the trails. It's still pretty, but nothing like the escape it used to be.

Like this comment
Posted by Wheelchair hiker
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 4, 2011 at 3:37 pm

Does anyone know of a similar length hike near Palo Alto that will allow someone in a wheelchair? Used to love the dish, but can't push up the grade in a wheelchair. Thank you.

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Posted by Moooraaraa
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 14, 2011 at 1:46 pm

Personally, it makes me sad to see any resource that can feed people lay wasted. Whether a garden overtaken by weeds, orchard unwatered, or grassy field sitting dormant. I enjoy knowing that the Dish is being used to feed cows, to eat feed people. The cows seem pretty happy to me.

Like this comment
Posted by Moo2
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 15, 2011 at 7:47 pm

I am also sad to think that the cows are on their way to slaughter. I always enjoy seeing them as I run the DISH...

Like this comment
Posted by Viking staff writer
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Apr 27, 2011 at 12:51 pm

If anyone is thinking of trying hiking or backpacking, check out this story which was published in the high school sports magazine, The Viking.

Web Link

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