Carol V. Harford, a dominant figure at Wolf Trap for the last eight years, yesterday announced unexpected retirement plans, effective this autumn, following Wolf Trap's 15th anniversary season.

Harford, Wolf Trap Foundation president, had been long regarded second in power at Wolf Trap only to its benefactor and founder, Catherine Filene Shouse. She came to Wolf Trap in 1972 after service as a cultural aide in the Nixon White House under presidential assistant H. R. Haldeman.

At an Interior Department press conference yesterday, the outgoing chairman of the Wolf Trap Foundation Board of Directors, William F. Bolger, said a national search committee chaired by former Communications Satellite Corp. executive vice president John L. McLucas has been formed to choose Harford's successor, hopefully before autumn.

Harford had been regarded by many as an heir apparent to Shouse. But in her statement yesterday said she had decided to retire "after many months of careful consideration."

"Wolf trap has been such a significant part of my . . . career that, as you can imagine, this has been an extremely difficult decision to make," the statement continued. "Since 1972, when I became deputy director of the Wolf Trap Foundation, every day, and most nights, I have been involved in this growing organization. Even before that, as cultural adviser at the White House, I was actively involved in helping to assure the concept of Wolf Trap. As with anything for which one holds so much affection and admiration, it is difficult to let go."

Harford, 62, said she "had always planned to evaluate my career plans when I reached 60, in the hope of early retirement," but said the fire that destroyed the Filene Center in 1982 "reset my schedule. There was no question in my mind but that I should remain with Wolf Trap until I was certain it had substantially recovered."

Before her White House service, Harford worked for the U.S. Information Service in Singapore, Australia, Indonesia and the Philippines. Upon returning to the United States she worked with Nancy Kefauver to establish the Art in the Embassies program of the State Department.

As a result of Wednesday's meeting of the board of the foundation, the slate of other officers is Beverly Sills, vice chairman; Harford, vice chairman; G. William Miller, vice chairman; Earle C. Williams, vice chairman; Jane Weinberger, secretary; Mrs. Jed W. Pearson, assistant secretary; Irving Goldstein, treasurer, and Charles B. Ruttenberg, general counsel.