RED DELICIOUS, Golden Grimes, Jonathan, Golden Delicious, Winesap, Stayman, York, Rome Beauty, Ida Red, McIntosh, Rambo.

For the next several weeks, on the rocky hillsides not far from Washington, the apple is king, ruling a domain that encompasses some of the most scenic and historic areas of Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia and Pennsylvania. This is Apple Country, where at harvest time the visitor is welcomed with festivals, food and old-fashioned fun. This year's crop is expected to be a good one.

On crisp, cool mornings wisps of chimney smoke rise from the rambling, white-frame farm houses tucked into a stream valley or sitting high on a bluff overlooking rows upon rows of fruit trees. When the sun burns off the early ground fog, the hillsides shimmer in the red and golden hues of autumn, dotted by the jutting white-shingled steeples of small churches.

Over this rural scene wafts the rich, sweet aroma of ripening apples, an enticement that each fall lures thousands of apple fanciers as much for the fruit as the foliage.

Winchester, Va., dubs itself "The Apple Capital," staking its claim as the major city in Virginia's primary apple-producing counties of Frederick and Clarke. Rte. 739, just north of the city, is known as "Apple Pie Ridge," named by Hessian prisoners of war who were kept in camps nearby during the Revolutionary War.

But three other not-too-separate areas also are endowed with apple orchards: Maryland's Washington County at Hancock and Smithsburg, and Frederick County at Thurmont; West Virginia's rolling "Eastern Gateway," which includes Berkeley Springs and Martinsburg; and the hills just west of Gettysburg, Pa. (Of course, apples are grown in many other areas of these states.)

Within this region, at least a dozen communities have organized weekend festivals to pay homage to the apple. Among the biggest are those in Winchester (Sept. 18-19); Gettysburg (Oct. 2-3 and 9-10); Thurmont (Oct. 9-10); and Berkeley Springs (Oct. 9-10). These annual events draw 15,000 to 40,000 or more visitors.

Many feature parades, apple queens and demonstrations of woodworking and other home and farm crafts of generations past, but they also put strong emphasis -- and rightly so -- on good country food, which usually is made and sold by members of a local church or civic group. The festivities bring out the Appalachian dulcimer pluckers, whose gentle tunes are the anthems of Apple Country.

At the Gettysburg fest, bob for apples or compete in hourly pie-eating contests. At Hancock (Sept. 18-19), home of Maryland's two largest orchards, take a bus tour to a nearby apple-packing plant, a rare opportunity because operators tend to be unwilling to permit large numbers of tourists underfoot at their busiest time.

Take a free tractor-drawn wagon ride through the 45-acre Gateway Orchards at Thurmont's Catoctin Colorfest, while owner Gene Bollinger and his father explain apple growing. At the Burlington, W. Va., celebration (Oct. 1-3), squeeze your own cider or dig into the Saturday ox roast.

The traveler heading for Apple Country should have no difficulty in finding it. If nothing else, chances are you can follow your nose.

Apple fritters, apple jelly, applesauce, apple pie, apple dumplings, apple cider, apple wine, candied apples, apple cake, apple butter.

An apple tour might also include any or all of a wide range of other activities:

* Drive, cycle or hike along winding country roads through hundreds of acres of apple orchards, where the red or yellow fruit hangs heavy on the drooping branches. At the large orchards, watch the pickers -- mostly Jamaican migrants -- plucking the apples by hand from high up on their ladder perches. You are bound to pass truckloads of apples headed for storage or for the juice and applesauce-making plants nearby. The Winchester and Gettysburg Chambers of Commerce offer guide maps to nearby orchards.

* Take along a box or bag and pick your own at dozens of orchards, where the do-it-yourselfer can save from $1 to $1.50 a bushel. The 1982 Virginia Apple Guide lists 38 roadside markets, many of which allow you to pick your own (available from the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Division of Markets, P.O. Box 1163, Richmond, Va. 23209, with a self-addressed, stamped, legal-size envelope). The Maryland guide lists 26 markets (available from county libraries or extension offices). Call in advance to make sure the orchard has ripe varieties of apples and hasn't been overwhelmed by crowds.

* Skip the not-so-hard work and buy from a roadside stand, or several stands. (One grower estimates that he will retail his crop at $7 a bushel.) Select six or more of each variety available to sample the difference. Search out less-familiar kinds. Any trip to Apple Country should be savored for weeks afterward, since the fruit was bought fresh from the trees. Entire recipe books have been devoted solely to the awesome apple.

* Watch a press squeeze cider and drink your fill as the sweet, fresh nectar flows from the tub. The unfiltered, no-additives, slightly fermented cider is not to be confused with the bland, pasteurized stuff in cans sold as apple juice in grocery stores.

At Ivy Hill Farm in Smithsburg, John R. Martin's family has been growing apples for six generations, and he makes about 30,000 gallons of cider a year. Martin, 48, squeezes the whole apple -- peel, core and seeds -- and then blends the juice of three varieties (sweet Red Delicious; semisweet Golden Delicious; and tart Stayman, Jonathan or York) to produce the balanced taste he prefers. He charges $2 a gallon.

About 30 miles south of Charlottesville, a few minutes west off Rte. 29 near Wintergreen Ski Resort, Kruger Farms Cider Mill offers tours Sunday through Friday of the Kruger family plant. Apple-grinding should begin the week of Sept. 20, with annual production aimed at 75,000 gallons.

* Visit one of Maryland and Virginia wineries that have begun to make apple wine, and try a taste. It's definitely not either apple cider or juice, though a lingering apple flavor may be detected. At Byrd Vineyard in Myersville, Md., this season's apples will make next year's Maryland Apple Wine ($2.99 a fifth), so any sipping will be from last year's crop. Owner Bret Byrd, 41, who specializes in fine wines from grapes, says apple wine can be fairly "sophisticated," though its slight sweetness may make it more enjoyable with dessert. Its greatest popularity has been with the busloads of senior citizens who tour his 47 acres. The winery presents a superb view of the Catoctin Valley.

* Poke your nose into one of the Apple Country bakeries that specialize in homemade pies and other apple goodies. Two popular ones are at Baugher's Farm Market (and restaurant) in Westminster, Md., where 70-year-old Romaine Baugher has been turning out baked goods for 34 years, and Hill High Orchard at Round Hill, Va., which bakes 30,000 pies a year from fruit grown on the premises. For the 85 to 100 pies she makes on a weekend day, Baugher prefers the Ida Red apple, a product of the orchard, because it remains in small chunks throughout the baking: "They'll get tender, but they won't go to sauce." She sells her 10-inch apple pies for $3.10.

* Sample the fare at a country inn or restaurant that features apples on the menu. The colonial-style Wayside Inn in Middletown, Va., dating from 1797, can seat 300 for breakfast, lunch and dinner in seven dining rooms. At apple time, try the pies and cobbler for dinner and the fried apples for breakfast. They are peeled, sliced thin, sprinkled with sugar and fried in butter. In Middleburg, Va., dessert at the Red Fox Inn includes apple-butter ice cream.

* Witness at almost all of the community festivals an especially popular oldtime craft that is both aromatic and tasty -- the traditional apple-butter stir.

Well before dawn reaches her Shenandoah Valley farm home in Compton, Va., Mary Ann Painter is up and bustling. She makes certain she has packed up enough sugar, along with the right quantities of oil of cinnamon and oil of cloves. She checks that the dozen bushels of Golden Delicious apples -- laboriously peeled, cored and quartered the day before -- are still in top condition. Friends pitch in to help in the peeling process, called "snitting" in apple jargon.

Then she loads these ingredients, assorted pots and pans and her 50-gallon copper kettle into the car and truck. To ward off the country chill, she tosses a work shirt over her cotton print dress, gives her wispy hair a quick brush and drives off to the annual apple butter-making contest at Winchester's Apple Harvest Arts and Crafts Festival.

Apple butter making is time-consuming, so Painter tries to have the outdoor fire going and the apple pieces bubbling in the pot by 7 a.m. Her fellow competitors set up similar pots nearby, and soon they are all simmering under a cloud-swept sky. She is careful to avoid using pine logs for the flames,because they may give her butter a piney flavor.

For the next eight to nine hours, watched by curious festival crowds, she and family members will be constantly stirring and tasting, assuring herself she has put in just the right amount of sugar. Adding the sweetener, she says, is mostly "a guess," but she figures on about three pounds per gallon of apple butter. The sugar goes in about four hours into the cooking time; the spices are stirred in during the last five minutes -- a bit more cinnamon taste than cloves. Sometimes observers will ask to stir with the long wooden paddle so they can have their pictures snapped at the kettle.

At day's end, when the apples have boiled to a caramel-colored goo that spreads as easily as warm cow's butter, the judges scoop out two sample quarts from the 25 gallons she has made. They allow it to cool overnight, and then taste it the next day to decide on the winners. For the first three years she competed, Painter took third place; but last year her apple butter was judged the best among 13 contestants.

Painter bottles the rest of the batch to sell at the festival, and it disappears rapidly. (Last year she charged $3 a quart; this year's price depends on the price of apples.) For her, apple butter is enjoyed best on toast, but others, she says, use it as a topping for cottage cheese or as dessert with whipped cream.

The contest has become a big event for Painter, 44, who works with 4-H Club youth at the Page County Cooperative Extension Service. This year, Gov. Charles Robb has proclaimed the Winchester contest, set for Sept. 18, as the first Virginia State Apple Butter-Making Championship, and Painter has every intention of being there to try to repeat her 1981 victory.

"I've been making apple butter for 30 years," she says. "We have a ball."

Apples are an important crop both in Virginia, which produces about 10 million bushels annually, and in Maryland, which grows about 2 million bushels. With West Virginia and Pennsylvania, the four-state region makes up a major share of the total U.S. production of 145 million bushels, according to the International Apple Institute in McLean. New York State and the Pacific Northwest are the other two largest apple producing areas in the country.

Local growers insist that their apples taste a heck of a lot better than those big Red and Golden Delicious ones shipped here from Washington state. The problem, though, is that the local product often doesn't have the same eye appeal. The weather is to blame. Pacific Northwest apples grow in a dry climate and are watered by irrigation. Around here, frequent rains and heavy morning fog tend to blemish the skins of many of the apples, turning them rusty instead of shiny red.

Apples prefer a fertile, limestone soil that is well-drained and a climate that doesn't remain too warm all year. Virginia's Frederick County meets those requirements in a narrow six- to seven-mile strip that runs roughly north and south of Winchester, says Gary C. DeOms, the county extension agent. A 1977 survey reported 480,951 apple trees in the county. That's where he suggests touring the orchards.

More than 50 percent of the Virginia and Maryland crop is hauled off to processing plants to be made into applesauce, apple slices, a little vinegar and a lot of apple juice. The production of juice has been increasing by "leaps and bounds" in the past few years, say state apple-marketing experts in Richmond and Annapolis. Apples that aren't sold immediately or processed are washed, brushed, graded and packed for cold storage, to be shipped to market throughout the rest of the year.

Apples were brought to this country by European colonists in the early 1600s, and rapidly became a big crop. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both grew apples on their Virginia farms. As many as 2,500 varieties have been identified since colonial times, but today only 14 account for about 90 percent of the commercial U.S. production. Consumer preferences and the growers' search for high-yielding, uniform varieties that ship well have eliminated many varieties. However, many of those that have disappeared from the major markets are still grown on a small scale in "collectors' orchards."

The reason for the many different kinds of apples is that an apple tree grown from seeds is completely different from any other tree, much as any child is different from his or her parents and other children. Trees with identical characteristics are reproduced through the grafting of rootstock.

For example, one of the country's most widely grown apples, the Golden Delicious, first appeared by chance in the early 1900s. It happened on a farm in Clay County, W. Va., where the tree's parentage may have been a Golden Grimes pollinated by a Golden Reinette. Once the quality of the new fruit became apparent, the tree was sold to a nursery that began introducing it to growers.

In Virginia and Maryland, the York Imperial, a good cooking apple, is the one most frequently grown for processing. The sweet Red and Golden Delicious are the most abundant eating apples, trailed by the Stayman and Jonathan, which are preferred by apple fanciers who like a tart taste. Rome Beauty is a heavily produced baking apple. Meanwhile, new varieties are continually being tried, including the fine-tasting Ida Red that Romaine Baugher prefers for pies and the increasingly popular Granny Smith.

Two other important apple facts for the knowledgeable traveler: Johnny Appleseed is not a myth. He was a real person (John Chapman, born in Massachusetts in 1774) who spent 50 years traversing the forests and fields of Ohio and Indiana planting and tending his apple orchards and teaching farmers apple culture. And:

An apple has only about 80 calories.

Applejack, apple cookies, apple crisp, baked apples, Waldorf salad, apple chutney, apple bread, apple yogurt and, of course, the apple sandwich.

If that last one stops you, one recipe calls for mixing a cup of finely chopped tart apples with a package of cream cheese, a couple of tablespoons of mayonnaise and a half-dozen strips of cooked and crumbled bacon. Spread between two slices of bread and grilled in butter until golden brown.

Made with apples picked yourself, it makes a savory reminder of a day spent in Apple Country.