AT THE WASHINGTON youth hostel at 11th and K NW you'll find what many people still consider the caricature of a hostel guest: a shaggy European kid with an overstuffed backpack. In fact, only travelers from outside of the capital are allowed to stay at the Washington hostel. But although city hostels in general draw foreign students, there are other hostels not too far from Washington that find mostly Americans of all ages on their doorsteps.

The appeal is more than the low prices -- often less than $10 a night. The attraction for travelers lies in the difference of these unconventional lodgings. Hosteling means communal living. It's odd at first to be in a dorm bunk amid friendly strangers if you haven't been in college or camp or the army lately. The social dynamic is opposite that of a hotel, since guests tend to socialize in a common room rather than isolating themselves with cable movies and room service. Clearly hosteling isn't for guests who expect a whirlpool in the bathroom and a mint on the pillow. Yet for a weekend escape that's out of the ordinary, it's an interesting option.

Hosteling started in 1909 when a German teacher sought inexpensive accommodations for student outings. Hostelers toted their own sheets and towels and did chores before departing. "Houseparents" gently enforced curfews, allowing thrifty visitors to use the kitchen.

American Youth Hostels (AYH), a non-profit organization providing travelers with clean, comfortable, safe, inexpensive, overnight accommodations, operates much the same now. Many hostels close during the day, since managers have outside jobs. Alcohol is taboo, and guests bring towels and sheets or rent shroudlike "sleeping sacks" for $1. The sexes sleep in separate dorms, though some hostels have family rooms. The customary chore (typically, sweeping the bedroom) is in some hostels token, in others more substantial.

You don't have to be young to visit a hostel, or necessarily an AYH member. Many will admit you for a $3 introductory fee added to your modest tab.

Unusually attractive AYH hostels lie within weekending distance in every direction. To the north, Ironmaster's Mansion in Gardners, Pa., has a secret room that once hid slaves escaping on the Underground Railroad. Today the 1762 home shelters urbanites fleeing the city, but upstairs, in nicer quarters. So quiet is this forest retreat that one recent guest found she couldn't sleep without the familiar din of traffic and sirens.

The mansion once housed the benevolent despots who dominated an ironworks that mined the earth and denuded the hills. Reconstructed in the basement is the prison cell where the boss could discipline underachievers on his payroll. In 1914 a state park flooded the quarry into a cool, deep lake encircled by resurgent pines. A trail traces the ghost town around the huge furnace ruins.

Closer to home is Baltimore's 1857 Bennett Mansion, a stately Victorian brownstone poised opposite Assumption Cathedral and the main Pratt Library. Elevated ceilings, ornate molding and sprawling chandeliers evoke an elegant past, in odd contrast to the bubbly international socializing below. It's an easy walk from the train station as well as the Inner Harbor, the gustatory delights of Lexington Market and most other Charm City attractions.

To the south is Sangraal-by-the-Sea, actually by-the-river (Rappahannock) near 300-year-old Urbanna, Va., renowned for its yearly Oyster Festival. The wooded 18-acre retreat with a main lodge and adjacent cottages borders a salt marsh complete with frog pond and a treehouse for nature study. Some 40 miles above Williamsburg, the hostel is near the historic homes and water sports of the Northern Neck.

East, in Betterton, Md., on the Eastern Shore, is the Lantern Inn, a "supplementary accommodation" to the hostel system. That means the Washburn family sets limited space aside from their regular bed and breakfast operation for hostelers from around the world. "We like them; they have interesting personalities," says Ann Washburn.

The inn was built in 1904 as a steamboat hotel. Betterton, once a bustling 40-hotel resort, now boasts a (nettle-free!) bayside beach, freedom from commercial activity and three nearby wildlife refuges.

Go west to Knoxville, Md., and you'll find the Harpers Ferry hostel where manager Donna Williamson cultivates fragrant herbs, wild birds and mellow feelings in a homey haven wallpapered with photos of recent guests. High on a wooded knoll across the Potomac from Harpers Ferry National Historic Park, it's convenient to tubing in the summer, trailriding, biking on the C&O Canal towpath and visiting the Kennedy Farmhouse (which in 1859 was a sort of hostel for John Brown's raiders).

Despite its name, Bear's Den looks more like a castle than a cave. High above Bluemont, Va., at the point where Route 7 vaults the Blue Ridge, this turreted bastion in the woods guards the Appalachian Trail. Designed in 1933 for operatic diva Francesca Kaspar, the living room walls arched gracefully to accommodate her grand piano, no longer there. Today this is a good jumping-off place for the Shenandoah Valley -- but don't take this literally from the scenic overlook out back.

You'll find other nearby hostels in Gettysburg, Pa., Philadelphia, and Virginia Beach. Farther afield, the more exotic of America's 200-odd hostels include lighthouses on the Pacific, treehouses in Georgia and a battleship in Massachusetts. The new Manhattan hostel, in a historic building near the subway at 103rd Street and Amsterdam Avenue, costs $20 a night.

More than just "cheap sleeps," youth hostels are distinctive travel alternatives for youths of all ages. HOSTEL OVERTURES --

For information on hosteling, call American Youth Hostels at 202/783-4943 or visit the hostel stores at 11th and K streets NW or in College Park, 7420 1/2 Baltimore Ave., 301/209-8544. Both locations sell guidebooks, backpacks and other hosteling supplies. Adult membership in AYH costs $25, entitling members to stay at hostels nationwide at special rates. Family and senior options are available. A special bargain for local members is the Potomac Pass; for an additional $18 you can stay one night at Bear's Den, Baltimore and Harpers Ferry.

IRONMASTERS MANSION --

In Pine Grove Furnace State Park, Gardners, Pa. 717/486-7575. Open year-round except Dec. 24 to Jan. 2. AYH members $7; nonmembers $10.

BENNET MANSION --

17 W. Mulberry St., Baltimore. 301/576-8880. Open year-round except Dec. 24 to Jan. 2. Members $10; $13 nonmembers.

SANGRAAL-BY-THE-SEA --

In Wake, Va., on Route 626 off Route 33. 804/776-6500. Open year-round. Hostel rate for AYH members only $9; cottages and bed-and-breakfast arrangements available for higher fees.

LANTERN INN --

115 Ericsson Ave., Betterton, Md. 301/348-5809. Open year-round. Hostel accommodations for AYH members only, $11; bed-and-breakfast lodging costs more. Reservations recommended.

HARPERS FERRY AYH --

19123 Sandy Hook Rd., Knoxville, Md. 301/834-7652. Closed in January. Members $9; nonmembers $12. Reservations accepted with deposit; recommended for spring and fall weekends; .

BEAR'S DEN --

On Route 601 above Bluemont, Va. 703/554-8708. Closed Dec. 24 to Jan. 2. Members $8 summer, $9 winter; nonmembers $11 summer, $12 winter. Group reservations required.

S. J. Ackerman last wrote for Weekend about suburban walking tours.