FOR ANYBODY who loves the mountains, there's a certain fascination in finding the highest one around and getting a look at it. That's what sent my wife and me on a four-day ramble through far-off Southwest Virginia, where the state's two highest peaks, Mounts Rogers and Whitetop, stand shoulder-to-shoulder, reaching -- like children trying to prove who's tallest -- more than a mile into the sky.

Along the way, we peered into what is claimed to be the largest canyon east of the Mississippi, the Breaks--five miles long, more than a half-mile wide and 1,600 feet deep--an awesome gorge of stunning views protected in an interstate park shared by Virginia and Kentucky. Its nickname is "Grand Canyon of the South," but that's stretching the comparison.

And by chance, we came upon a lovely mountain lake in a state park that bears perhaps the most-intriguing name in the park system, "Hungry Mother," named for a tragic legend of pioneer hardship that may have more than a grain or two of truth.

Captured by raiding Indians who killed her husband, so the story goes, Molly Marley managed to escape with her child. For days she survived by eating berries, but ultimately she collapsed. Now alone, the child wandered down a creek that led to a group of houses, where the only words he could utter were "Hungry. Mother." Searchers who found Molly Marley's body named the creek for the child's two words.

The highest. The tallest. The most intriguing. If our travels had any theme, it was just this: We were on the trail of Southwest Virginia's surprising superlatives. It was a discovery trip, and we were well rewarded.

One of the earliest discoveries, of course, is that even though this narrow finger of land at Virginia's western tip is a part of the same state that borders the District of Columbia, it is a long way off, in fact several hundred miles and a good day's drive. Folks in the Southwest joke that they are so isolated the government in Richmond thinks the state ends in Roanoke, though the city really is the gateway to the highlands region.

We went in search of scenic views promised in the ridges and hollows of the Appalachians, but we also caught a glimpse (and only that in our haste) of a mountain life that in its rural strangeness rivaled nature for our attention. Much of Southwest Virginia is the blue-collar country of coal, and ugly as they are, the trappings of the mining industry nevertheless capture your attention.

Who knows how much to believe from a travel brochure? The one advertising Breaks Interstate Park near Haysi, Va., proved only half true, but its error was in hiding just how delightful a place it is. For $33.28, we spent a night in a comfortable lodge room that, perched as it was on the very edge of the canyon, offered a view that simply was grand.

Nothing in the brochure had prepared us for the moment when we stepped inside the room and saw the dazzling sweep of sky and forested mountain in front of us through the full wall of window. From our private balcony, we could peer into the chasm, clutching the railing to steady a slight dizziness from the height.

Here, at least in spring, was one of those romantic hideaways travelers are always looking for but seldom find. Here, in the summer, is the place to relax on quiet evenings, rocking to the sound of the Russell Fork River tumbling over the rocks hundreds of feet below. Though the April evening was cool, we wrapped up in our jackets and from the balcony watched the night fall on the canyon sides, a dance of shadows in nature's theater.

The canyon got its name from the geological fact that it is a break in Pine Mountain, a long, narrow Appalachian ridge straight as an arrow. If you pointed the arrow tip southwest and broke off the feathered end, that's where you would find the canyon, with the river racing between the two pieces. The part of the park developed so far sits atop the feathered end. There are plans for campsites and other tourist facilities on the other side of the canyon.

At the Visitors Center, you learn that frontiersman Daniel Boone himself discovered the Breaks in 1767 on an exploration trip from North Carolina, carving his name and the date on a tree in the vicinity. Not far away, on the Kentucky side, the Hatfields and the McCoys fought their murderous family duel. Moonshiners once hid in the hills nearby, and out in back there's a replica of a mountain cabin and still. (Unless you sneak in your own, that's the only whiff of booze you will get since liquor is banned in the park, and the lodge restaurant likewise is dry.)

Timbering was the big industry at the turn of the century, and in 1909 lumbermen built the largest splash dam in the world just before the river enters the canyon. When the logs had filled the lake that formed, the dam was opened and the logs were sent splashing through the Breaks to the sawmill. Nowadays, it's the coal industry that is everywhere evident on the approaches to the park, and railway tracks for coal trains parallel the river through the canyon.

Climbing the narrow, twisting road to the Breaks that branches off U.S. 460 at Vansant, the traveler is apt to meet any number of dump trucks heavy with coal. Sometimes the flatlanders think the trucks get a bit pushy on the tricky route. But don't worry, says Breaks Supt. James Childress, "These old boys are courteous. They grew up behind the wheel."

About 10 miles of hiking trails lace the park, mostly atop the ridge and leading to scenic overlooks, though one fairly steep one drops down the canyon side to the river. In the summer, paddle boats are available on Laurel Lake, and there's a large swimming pool. In addition to the 30 canyonside rooms at the Breaks Lodge, there are four two-bedroom cottages and 122 campsites and enough overflow space so that, boasts Childress, the park never turns any campers away.

Over the years, the park has become popular with local residents for two kinds of gatherings: One is the annual family reunion, some of them drawing as many as 500 members back home to the hills for day-long picnics. The other is the Autumn Gospel Song Festival, scheduled this year for Sept. 3-5. Choral groups from all the nearby states show up, and from morning to night, says Childress, "they open up," and singing only ends when the voices grow hoarse.

On this spring weekend, though, the only music is the wind in the trees that later turns into a howl. The thought does cross my mind: Could this building be toppled into the canyon? At dawn, we are still safely put, but the canyon has disappeared in a heavy fog. For the next hour, the morning view from our room is the dancing wisps of mist rising to meet the sun.

Much of the fun of exploring by car is getting off the highways, and Southwest Virginia is full of backroads crisscrossing the mountains. At one point or another, it seems, a brook or river invariably will be racing you down a hill or through a valley. Whitewater alongside a road brightens any drive, except when (as occasionally happens in these economically depressed hills) the waterways become trash dumps.

Supt. Childress had warned us against using Virginia Route 16 as we headed south from Tazewell to Hungry Mother State Park, so I decided we should take it. From a couple of conversations, I had concluded the mountain people have no patience with their winding roads and would just as soon have an Interstate sweep them from home to job and store. It turned out to be a road to warm the heart of any mountain trail blazer, with both nerve-shaking dropoffs and compensating views in every direction.

The distance was only about 20 miles, but we had to cross over two ridges, winding slowly up and then down again in repeated U-curves, tires squealing even in low gear. For a time the road narrowed to less than a two-car width, and we cautiously crept around hidden curves, though we never met anyone heading toward us. Such is the charm of a back road.

At the end, our reward around a final curve was Hungry Mother Lake, draped elegantly at the feet of several grass-covered slopes. Pioneer Molly Marley could ask for no finer memorial.

Ellison Ketchum is bringing change to the small community of Abingdon, almost at the end of Virginia's southwestern tip near the Tennessee border. It was here in 1760, according to another story, that Daniel Boone's dogs were attacked by wolves living in a cave. Until 1777, the town's name was Wolf Hills, and the cave can be seen under a protective barrier behind the Cave House Craft Shop on Main Street.

As the new general manager of the Martha Washington Inn, now two years on the job, Ketchum was given the task of renovating and reviving the imposing old brick structure for its new owners, 15 local businessmen who wanted to halt its long period of decline. The inn occupies eight acres on Main Street in the heart of historic Abingdon, just across the way from the Barter Theatre, so whatever happens to it has an impact on the town.

In a region that values traditional "southern cooking" (chicken, ham, chops and gravy) and early meals, Ketchum is introducing sophisticated dining--French cuisine, even--and he has pushed back the dinnertime hours, taking reservations for as late as 9 and 10 p.m. But it hasn't been easy.

"I order escargot from the store and they send me escarole," he says. One night, when stir-fried vegetables made their debut, a diner complimented him: "I liked your vegetables. They were real pretty. But the potatoes weren't cooked." Ketchum smiles: "Those weren't potatoes. They were water chestnuts."

His story points out another discovery: In this region, a quality meal is hard to find. So is a good drink since much of the southwest is dry, Abingdon (and the Martha Washington) being an exception. "Remember," says Ketchum, "this is the Bible Belt, and that belt is tight."

The Inn's original building was built in 1832 as a private home for Gen. Francis Preston, one of the state's richest men at the time, and his wife Sarah, the daughter of Patrick Henry's sister. From 1860 until 1932, it served as Martha Washington College for women, undergoing many additions. It became a hotel in 1937.

Since his arrival, Ketchum has raided the hotel's storage rooms for antiques to furnish the 65 guest rooms; torn away linoleum to cover the polished wood floors in the lobby and parlors with oriental carpets; and had the walls repapered. The windows are decorated with heavy, rich green drapes--resembling those famous ones at Tara that Scarlett O'Hara stripped from the walls to transform into a gown. The result is lovely.

We slept in the Johnson Suite, named after Lady Bird Johnson, who reportedly asks for the room when she stays at the Inn. Its principal feature is a canopied bed, the first either of us had been in. You feel like royalty. There's a fireplace, with the wood laid out ready to be lighted, and a small couch and chair sitting comfortably in front. The heating system gurgles, as it often does in any old house, but Ketchum hopes to have it replaced this year.

On the grounds, Ketchum has installed five peacocks, because he likes them. They wander free and have adjusted so well, he says, that they know when its popcorn time at the adjacent fire station and regularly show up for a handout there. This summer, he hopes to introduce chamber music concerts in the garden to supplement the Barter Theatre in supplying nighttime entertainment.

The night of our visit coincided with the senior prom of Abingdon High School, and the hotel staff lined the grand circular driveway with candles to greet the young men in their tuxes and the young women in their formals. From the rocking chairs on the long veranda of the Inn, it looked like a scene from the Old South--that is until the prom's rock band began tuning its amplifiers in the Grand Ballroom.

More than anything else for a visitor, it is the mountains that characterize Southwest Virginia, and that is what we had come looking for. Virginia's two highest ones are located only a few miles from Abingdon in the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area, a part of the Jefferson National Forest. As peaks go, it must be said, they are rather unremarkable in appearance, their smooth crests and heavily forested slopes not unlike any number of mountains nearby, only taller. Yet they are well worth a visit.

Mount Rogers rises to 5,729 feet and Mount Whitetop to 5,520. Both are easily visible from Route 603, which winds through Fairwood Valley in the heart of the recreation area. Several not overly strenuous trails, including the Appalachian, climb in switchbacks to the summit of Mount Rogers, a day's roundtrip. Several trails begin from this roadway.

You can drive up Whitetop through groves of birch, yellow beech and maple on a short but rough dirt and stone road, the highest auto road in Virginia (another superlative). At the top are spruce and fir stands, open grassy meadows and a magnificent view of Appalachian peaks and valleys reaching into North Carolina and Tennessee.

The two mountains serve as a splendidly solid focus for the large outdoor playground that is the 150,000-acre national recreation area. Here is a fine place for camping at almost 300 campsites spread over a number of locations; for hiking the 250 miles of blazed trails (through thick forests or, unusual in the East, atop the open, tundra-like meadows of the Crest Zone); for horseback riding along 150 miles of horse trails, including the almost 70-mile Virginia Highlands Horse Trail (guided horseback tours are available at Fairwood Livery on Route 603); or for fishing in the 75 streams that make up the highest (superlatives abound) concentration of quality wild trout streams in Virginia.

The recreation area, located between the heavily crowded Shenandoah National Park to the north and the Great Smoky Mountain National Park to the south, was created by Congress in 1966 to handle the overflow demand for outdoor spaces in the East. It is not a national park but a part of the U.S. Forest Service. As such, it is open to a number of uses not usually found in a national park, including hunting, log cutting and livestock grazing. But the emphasis is on recreation, and under the regulations these other uses must not interfere in the area's primary purpose.

And Mount Rogers is more rustic than many of our national parks. There is a Visitors Center, and during the summer the staff offers a number of interpretive programs. But there are no gift shops, lodge accommodations or restaurants. For food, you cook your own or dine outside the recreation area. In the nearby communities of Troutdale, Sugar Grove, Konnarock and Damascus, your choice is mostly lunch counters. The Troutdale Dining Room, open from May to October for dinner in a one-time hotel, is an exception. Its menu has earned it an excellent reputation in the neighborhood.

On our visit to Mount Rogers, we had not brought camping gear, but we explored several of the campgrounds. Raccoon Branch, tucked into a hidden valley at the end of a steep dirt road, seemed an ideal hideway. Individual tent sites are spread out along two burbling trout streams--not deep enough for swimming but you could certainly splash around a lot. Beartree is more easily accessible, and it is perhaps more popular with youngsters because of the small lake and sandy beach.

Here at the recreation area we had found the final scenic superlative in our Virginia highlands ramble. I had hoped to hike to the top of Mount Rogers itself, believing that was the best way to come to know it. But a storm that swept by overnight plummeted temperatures, and the day turned out to be one of the coldest and windiest of midspring. To have ventured up the mountain under those conditions would have been carrying the superlative theme too far.