Sugar Loaf Mountain, just across the line in Frederick County, is a focal point for most of upper Montgomery County from Poolesville to Germantown and Damascus.

I can remember as a kid going to the mountain with my parents for picnics, as a teenager climbing the rock face near the top, and as a young man sitting with a date looking out at the view of the Monocacy River Basin on a Sunday afternoon.

Many in the Washington area treasure such times as the spring evening my wife Betty and I watched the sunset while red- tailed hawks and turkey buzzards soared below us, then drove down the winding road with two whitetail deer scampering ahead.

Just 30 miles northeast of Washington, the mountain is an easy daytrip up I-270 to the Hyattstown exit. Go west for about three miles on Old Hundred Road (Rt. 109) to Comus and follow the signs to the entrance. But to get the full effect, follow River Road through Potomac to Esworthy Road, right on Seneca Road to Darnestown and then left on Route 28 to Dickerson. Right after the railroad bridge there is a historical marker, partially obscured by weeds:

Sugar Loaf Mountain, so called in 1710 by a Swiss nobleman, Baron Graffenreid, who ascended it in search of silver mines with Martin Chartier -- a remarkable Frenchman, married to a Shawnee Indian wife, who lived near the mouth of the Monocacy River.

You won't be able to see the mountain from that point and in fact another Swiss, Louis Michel, discovered it in 1707, but the baron named it and wrote of the delicious chestnuts he found there.

Now go about a block and turn left at the sign for Monocacy Aqueduct, where the C&O Canal crosses the river. From the aqueduct you can see the merging of the Monocacy and Potomac to the south; to the north is one of the most beautiful views of Sugar Loaf Mountain, the one Michel and Graffenreid saw. And from that point of rocks looming above the trees Union lookouts first spotted Lee's army crossing the Potomac on their way to bloody Antietam.

Now go back to the historical marker and take a left at Mount Ephrain Road.

On a visit to the mountain last year I found young Robbie Holland doing a very creditable imitation of Tom Sawyer on the white picket fence leading up to the entrance. I stopped to say hello to his granddad, Bob Holland, a lucky man who lives on the mountain in a house called Westwood and who oversees the maintenance of the park and its many hiking trails, bridle paths and scenic overlooks for Stronghold, Inc.

The nonprofit corporation, founded by Gordon Strong, a real estate man from Chicago, is run by 12 unpaid trustees. The modest income of his trust is used to develop and administer some 3,000 acres. In 1969 the Interior Department designated Sugar Loaf a national landmark, and the trustees agreed to maintain it in as nearly a natural state as possible.

Strong fell in love with Sugar Loaf in 1902 when he bicycled from Washington to Frederick on vacation. Always ahead was the mountain, unique and alone.

Over the next half-century before his death in 1954 Strong and his wife Louise bought up hundreds of woodlots for as little as 50 cents an acre until they had the whole mountain. In 1926 they decided Sugar Loaf was too good not to share, and made arrangements for the public to enjoy it free.

They built their Georgian-Colonial mansion in 1912. The house usually is not open to the public but occasionally is included in house tours and can be rented for special events such as weddings. Don't miss a chance to see the 30- by 60-foot living room with its high ceiling, huge windows, and two magnificent fireplaces topped with proud portraits of Strongs. His mother chose "Stronghold" because "it was suggestive of a landholding on a rugged mountain. . . and perpetuated the family name."

Sugar Loaf was and is dedicated to "the appreciation of natural beauty." It is so beautiful, the story goes, that President Franklin D. Roosevelt coveted it for his weekend White House until Strong diverted him to the spot in the Catoctins that became Shangri-La (now Camp David).

Simple beauty is just about all there is. There is drinking water at the foot of the mountain, a couple of very rustic toilets, a "snack shack" at the fourth view (open only open on weekends and holidays) and a single bulletin board. A leisurely drive leads through an unspoiled wilderness of oak, pine, honeysuckle, myrtle and new stands of chestnut; there are two or three lovely views along the way but the main point is to get to the top. After parking it's not an overly taxing climb up the last 325 not-quite-vertical feet. The view from the top was probably best described by Strong himself:

When one stands on the summit of the mountain, the sheer cliff hanging over the wild and wooded slopes below, looking out over the peaceful and lovely Frederick valley, looking at the Catoctin and Blue Ridge rising to meet the lowering sun, for a moment at least one experiences an inspiration, a moral uplift.

One may picnic at one of the many tables on the grounds (no fires are allowed) or drive back to the Comus Inn, built in 1860 on a tract of land George Washington once owned. He called it "Happy Choice." A Comus lunch is a good buy, with huge portions plus soup, salad bar and choice of potatoes. There's so much food that a doggy bag routinely comes with the check. The prices for lunch range from $4.40 for baked chicken, a specialty, to $8.20 for steak. Dinners are $7.40 to $14.40. Ask for the back room, which has an enchanting view.

Other points of interest in the area include the small man-made lake at the foot of the mountain and the Sugarloafer Antique Shop, lots of knickknacks and old tools with some furniture, near the entrance.

Along 109, there's Old Hundredth Farm, probably the most photographed in Maryland since it's framed so majestically by the mountain, and nearby Sugar Loaf Chapel, an 1861 brick church.

While fall is the most popular season at Sugar Loaf, spring is my favorite. There is no more inviting spot than one of the overlooks on on a clear cool spring day with new green clothing the countryside. And just 45 minutes from Washington.