Garrett County, the westernmost county in Maryland, is a land apart from the rest of our world. Here, beyond the mountain chain that forms the eastern continental divide, the waters all drain to the Gulf of Mexico -- not the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. Here -- despite the presence of the Redskins training camp in nearby Frostburg -- the locals root for the Pittsburgh Steelers, not the Skins. And here, many travelers speed past on I-68, bound west to Pittsburgh or beyond, oblivious to a county that is an outdoor person's paradise.

Hiking, biking, horseback riding, golfing, camping, boating, swimming and fishing are the major attractions found here. The county boasts the largest lake in Maryland -- the 12-mile-long, 3,900-acre Deep Creek Lake, which offers swimming beaches, boating and fishing. There are more than 70,000 acres of state forest, parklands and wildlife management areas in the county, undeveloped lands that offer hiking and biking trails, backroads for four-wheel-drive explorations, campgrounds and mountain cabins, and rivers for kayaking and canoeing.

And while Washington swelters in the summer furnace, the mountainous county barely simmers, enjoying temperatures 10 to 15 degrees below the capital's. In the months before the winds blow and the temperature drops and the deep snows of winter storms come, Garrett County is a perfect getaway for those who find their adventure out of doors.

Must-Sees

First, stop by the Garrett County Chamber of Commerce on Route 219 in McHenry. Here you can pick up a guidebook and map to the county, which you will need, and brochures on some of the major attractions and parks, most of which can be shared by the entire family. If you are planning to hike or explore the back-country roads, bring along a compass and other appropriate gear.

With so much parkland, the county has hundreds of miles of hiking trails. Marked trails can be found at Deep Creek Lake State Park (898 State Park Rd., Swanton; 301/387-5563); Herrington Manor State Park (222 Herrington Ln., Oakland; 301/334-9180); the Savage River Complex, which covers two parks, New Germany State Park and Big Run (349 Headquarters Ln., Grantsville; 301/895-5453); and Swal-

low Falls State Park (222 Herrington Ln., Oakland; 301/334-9180). Some of the parks offer guided nature hikes during the summer months. The hiking trails go through dense forest and often lead to some spectacular scenery, including Muddy Creek, Swallow and Tolliver Falls in the Swallow Falls State Park.

Deep Creek Lake, the main feature of the county, is a boater's and angler's haven. The lake, which has 65 miles of shoreline, is home to trophy trout and bass. You can stop by Johnny's Bait House (Route 219 just south of the Deep Creek Lake Bridge; 301/387-3474) for fishing advice and a license. If you need a boat or a jet ski, drop by the Aquatic Center (634 Deep Creek Dr.; 301/387-8233), Crystal Waters (at the Will O' the Wisp resort, 20160 Garret Hwy./

Route 219; 301/387-5525) or Deep Creek Outfitters (1899 Deep Creek Dr.; 301/387-6977).

Deep Creek Lake also has the best swimming beach in the county. Deep Creek Lake's sandy beach is 800 feet long and has lifeguards on duty during the summer months. New Germany State Park, south of Grantsville, has a 13-acre lake with 600 feet of sandy beach. Herrington Manor State Park near Swallow Falls has a 53-acre lake with 400 feet of sandy beach.

Kayakers and canoeists will want to explore the calm waters of those same lakes while the more experienced may want to test the faster waters of the Savage River (301/895-5453), which has more than five miles of white water, or the even more challenging rapids of the Youghiogheny River. But the Upper Yough, as it is called here, is not for the novice. The rapids can easily reach Class IV and V. (For questions on the Yough and its water conditions, call Youghiogheny River Management at 301/387-4111.)

One of the more relaxing ways to enjoy the area's spectacular scenery is on horseback. Small Oaks Riding Stables (Broadford Road off King's Run; 301/334-4991) and Western Trails Riding Stables near Deep Creek Lake (off Route 219 on the road to Swallow Falls; 301/387-6155) offer year-round guided trail rides by the hour or half-hour, with package rides available for both beginning and expert riders. During the winter, some stables also offer sleigh rides.

And there are two 18-hole golf courses in the county: the Oakland Golf Club (Bradley Lane in Oakland; call 301/334-3883) and the Golf Club at Wisp Resort (follow signs off Route 219 in McHenry; 301/387-4911). Wisp is also Maryland's only downhill ski resort.

When to Go

The Apple Butter Boil is held Sept. 4-5 at Swallow Falls State Park (301/334-9180). More than 100 craftsmen and artisans will display their works at the 42nd annual Spring Folk Festival Oct. 1-2 on Route 609, three miles north of Grantsville (814/662-4158). And the major event of the fall, the 32nd annual Autumn Glory Festival, features banjo and fiddle contests, arts and crafts, dances, bands and more, Oct. 14-17 (301/387-6171).

Where to Stay

Most of the accommodations in the county are rental condos and houses, offered by the week or weekend. Contact the Garrett County Chamber of Commerce for a complete listing.

My favorite place to stay is the nine-room Lake Pointe Inn (174 Lake Pointe Dr., McHenry; 301/387-0111 or 800/523-5253), an elegant B&B on the lake front. The inn offers kayaks and canoes, a dock for swimming and fishing and a very serene front porch on which to rock and nod off. And most evenings, the innkeeper takes guests on a boat tour of the lake. Another nice inn is the Carmel Cove B&B, which has 10 luxurious guest rooms, many with fireplaces and whirlpool baths. This inn (P.O. Box 644, Oakland, MD 21550; 301/387-0067) also has a private dock, canoes and a paddleboat.

If you prefer larger hotels, consider the condominiums at Will O' the Wisp (20160 Garrett Hwy., Oakland; 301/387-5503, Ext. 2206) or the Point View Inn (Deep Creek Drive, McHenry; 301/387-5555).

Herrington Manor State Park offers 20 furnished cabins (with electricity, bathrooms with showers and fully furnished kitchens) by the week from Memorial Day through Labor Day and on a two-day minimum through the rest of the year (301/334-9180).

If you prefer the great outdoors, consider camping in Deep Creek Lake State Park (all sites with fire ring, pad and table, showers and bathrooms nearby). More campsites are available at Double G Campground (Mosser Road, Mc-

Henry; 301/387-5481) or Glen Acres Campground (218 Glen Acres Rd., Swanton; 301/387-9596). Primitive camping is permitted in Savage River State Forest (301/895-5453).

Where to Eat

McClive's Restaurant (1375 Deep Creek Dr.; 301/387-6172) is the most consistent, offering steaks and seafood. Expect a wait. The Silver Tree Restaurant (19638 Garrett Hwy., Oakland; 301/387-4040) is a lake-front place with a dock for boaters coming for its steaks and pasta. And the Four Seasons dining room at Will O' the Wisp (20160 Garrett Hwy., Oakland; 301/387-5503, Ext. 2201) features continental cuisine with lake views.

After Dark

McClive's has entertainment in its Courtyard Lounge. Children will enjoy racing go-karts and playing miniature golf at the Funland Family Fun Center (Route 219 in McHenry; 301/387-6168).

How to Get There

Garrett County is about 195 miles from Washington. From the Beltway, take I-270 north to I-70 west to I-68 west to Route 219 south.

For More Information

Contact the Garrett County Chamber of Commerce, 15 Visitors Center Dr., McHenry, MD 21541. Call 301/387-4386 or visit the Web site: www.garrettchamber.com.