Summer vacationers tend to fall into two groups: those who flock to the sea and the rest of us who head for the mountains. One good look at weekend traffic jams suggests the favorite of the two destinations is the beach.

That's all right with me. One of the best things about the mountains is the absence of crowds.

Who knows what force in our lives sorts us early on into mountaineers or sons and daughters of the sea? Family tradition? Proximity to the mountains or the beach? A story that grabbed hold of childhood imagination and never let loose? Whatever the reason, the mountains have always had a strong attraction for me. I go for their serenity and the majestic views; for the smell of pine and the rustle of leaves in an evening breeze; for a cool escape from mid-summer's heat; and to watch a tiny brook tumble over a rocky ledge.

Once I thought I could find these natural delights only in some remote wilderness at the end of a long trek. I was eager to explore all of the backwoods trails in the nearby mountains west of Washington, setting up a tent at night as far from the road as a good day's hike would take me. But that was a while ago. Now the passing years, and my wife, have convinced me that the mountains are just as pleasurable when enjoyed in the comfort of a mountain inn.

Fortunately, the mid-Atlantic region -- roughly Pennsylvania south to North Carolina, for our purposes -- is graced with an abundance of mountain terrain. The local peaks don't soar to 14,000 feet as they do Out West, but some manage to reach above 5,000 feet, which is entirely respectable.

The beauty of much of this landscape is protected in hundreds of thousands of acres of state and federal park and forest lands. A morning's hike may take you to a mountaintop or to a lovely waterfall. Many trails follow the meandering path of a rushing stream, and somewhere on your walk you are likely to find a pool deep enough for a swim.

In recent weeks, I visited three Virginia inns in the Blue Ridge and Allegheny mountains -- Sugar Tree Inn in Vesuvius, Mountain Lake Resort in Mountain Lake and Highland Inn in Monterey. Each is very much different from the other -- which, for one thing, illustrates the diversity of choices available to Washington weekenders. It's also a warning that the word "inn" has no firm definition, and you ought to know before you go what kind of inn you have picked for your getaway.

The seven-room Sugar Tree Inn, although it is only a few years old, has the look of an old hand-hewn log cabin. It clings to a steep hillside deep in a thick woods high above the Shenandoah Valley near Lexington. But only its appearance is rustic. It caters to sophisticated city folks who enjoy a quiet nap on the long front porch, a taped flute concerto for background music and a personable resident manager who paints in watercolors and cooks gourmet dinners.

Mountain Lake is a family place, a beautiful, century-old lakeside resort that has just undergone a $5 million refurbishing. Lodging is in a grand old 44-room inn of natural stone and wood -- a real charmer -- as well as a modern 16-room lodge and another 50 rooms in white-frame cottages. They are all perched atop an Allegheny Mountain west of Blacksburg and surrounded by 2,500 acres of woods. Three meals a day are a part of the room price. Once you've made the twisting climb to the summit, you can park your car and forget it for your stay.

The Highland Inn is a Victorian relic, a three-story white-frame structure that has served travelers to picturesque Highland County on the West Virginia border since 1904. Alas, it has seen better days. And yet it has its own kind of charm. The 17 rooms are clean and comfortable; the furnishings are individual and authentically mountain style; and it is inexpensive. Two long and wonderful porches give you wide panoramas of scenic ridges that soar above you or a delightful peek into the everyday life of a country village passing in front of you.

If you picture in your mind an ideal mountain cabin, it might come close to resembling the Sugar Tree Inn. It is a very special place, all very rough and unpolished on the outside, warm and cozy on the inside. Each room has its own stone fireplace and plenty of wood for cold nights. We stayed in the "Yellow Room," named for the color of the rug, where the stonework filled one wall, climbing all the way to the high-angled ceiling. Heavy comforters covered our bed, and we needed them in early June.

Completed in 1983, the main lodge -- consisting of three guest rooms, a dining room, tavern, lounge and library -- was built over a period of five years by local craftsmen using hand-hewn logs of oak, chestnut and poplar. The logs were rescued from century-old structures in the neighborhood, and were notched and locked into place without nails. Eight high steps lead up to the long front porch, where a row of wooden rocking chairs and a swing for two invite you to relax.

A forest of tall shade trees frames a lovely view of the Shenandoah Valley below and the distant peaks of the Alleghenies beyond. The inn is so well hidden in the woodsthat getting to it is something of a mini adventure, a test in mountain driving skills on the last five miles to the inn.

From the tiny village of Vesuvius on the valley floor, Route 56 climbs quickly and in many twists almost to the top of South Mountain. Just shy of the Blue Ridge Parkway, which traces the ridgeline of the mountain, is the turnoff to the inn. The private drive, a one-lane road, dips and climbs so steeply through the woods that for a minute you might confuse it for a footpath. According to a story told at the inn, the Sugar Tree road has frightened away at least one vacationing couple, a man and wife from Florida who were more accustomed to flatland driving.

We managed it without much difficulty, although the first time over I missed spotting the waterfall on the left, so concentrated was I on my driving. By the time we reached the lodge (and its adjacent four-room guest house), we were deep enough in the woods to suit even me, the former backpacker. Once in a while, we could hear a truck struggling up Route 56, but mostly the only sounds were the leaves in the wind, the splashing of Little Mary's Creek in front and, in some far away pasture, a cow waiting to be milked.

Since 1985, the inn, sitting on 27 acres adjacent to George Washington National Forest, has been owned by an Alexandria couple, Hilmuth and Geneva Schroeder. He is a retired Air Force supply officer; she is in the real estate business. Their daughter Karla Painter, once a ballet student in Washington, is the innkeeper and chef. Both mother and daughter are watercolorists, and their work hangs on several walls.

The family had been looking for a break from urban congestion, and they found it at Sugar Tree. "You really slow down up here," says Geneva Schroeder. "It takes about one night. People who live here take life easy. They don't get in a rush about anything." That seemed like good advice, so we each settled into a rocking chair with a book until dinner.

The inn offers only one seating for dinner, and that is at the rather early hour of 6:30 p.m. It is Painter's idea. After a summer meal, she says, "You still have time for a walk, to sit on the porch, to appreciate the atmosphere." A loud dinner bell summons guests from their rooms or the porch.

Dinner is served in a glassed-in room cut into the side of the mountain. The view is uphill into the dense foliage. The one-entree menu on our Friday night stay was a delicious steamed fresh trout in parchment with green peppers, mushrooms and onions. It was accompanied by a green salad, pecan rice, baby carrots with tarragon, fresh-baked almond bread and a piece of chocolate truffle cake for dessert. The short, but decent, wine list features Virginia wines. Afterward, as Painter suggested, we returned to the porch to watch the sun fade.

On a short stay, you may not want to move very far from the porch, but there are a number of interesting sightseeing possibilities nearby. At the foot of the mountain, just outside the town of Steele's Tavern, is the former homestead of Cyrus Hall McCormick, who in 1831 at the age of 22 invented the first mechanical grain reaper. It revolutionized agriculture, and McCormick went on to found International Harvester.

The 642-acre farm, called Walnut Grove, is now an agricultural research facility of Virginia Polytechnic Institute. The McCormick blacksmith shop and grist mill are still standing and nicely preserved as museums. They are surrounded by a small but very pleasant little park with a pond, a stream, several flower-filled rock gardens and one or two picnic tables.

Just over the far side of the mountain, about an eight-mile drive from Sugar Tree, is Crabtree Falls, a scenic spot within the national forest. An easy trail from the parking lot, less than a quarter-mile long, follows a whitewater stream to the base of the falls. Crabtree tumbles over the rocks from high above in a series of long leaps, forming a pool and spilling over again. A two-mile trail (one way) climbs to the upper falls.

The inn is open from April through November, and each season has its special attraction, says Painter: the flowering trees in spring, lazy days in summer, the brilliant colors in fall. A room for two with full breakfast (egg souffle', sausage, juice, blueberry muffins, melon) is $80. Our dinner for two with wine, tip and tax was $68.

What delights me most about the Mountain Lake is this fine old resort's newgazebo by the lake. You can comfortably read a book in it, avoiding the sand of the adjacent beach; it provides the shade those of us who are susceptible to sunburn have learned to appreciate; and yet you are on the very edge of the water and can hear the riffles lapping at your feet when a boater paddles by. Like the porch at Sugar Tree, it is a place to enjoy the atmosphere.

Mountain Lake is a natural lake, about 60 acres in size, its shoreline mostly untouched except for the resort buildings clustered at one end. It is fed by underground streams, which tend to keep the water both clean and refreshingly cool -- rarely above 72 degrees -- even in midsummer. It has attracted vacationers since before the turn of the century.

The present main lodge fronting on the lake was built in 1937 of native stone, an imposing structure fully deserving its mountaintop setting. It reminded me of some of the great lodges in the nation's national parks, which get more beautiful the longer they stand. An acquaintance, learning I was headed for Mountain Lake, recalled that his parents had honeymooned there.

The white-frame cottages, scattered at lakeside, are older than the lodge. They were built by vacationers who returned to the lake each year. They received a 15-year lease and got discounts on meals, but after 15 years the ownership of the cottages reverted to the resort. Many of them still carry the names of their original owners.

The recent renovation of the lodge has been tastefully done. The rooms are fully as comfortable and attractive as any new first-class hotel. The lobby has a huge stone fireplace, polished red-tiled floors, plush carpeting and wrought-iron fixtures -- the solid look of the mountains. And while some traditional inns may verge on the stuffy, that's not a problem at mountain lake. My "junior suite" was equipped with a two-person whirlpool bath.

The dining room is attractively decorated in light colors, which give it the look of a garden in spring, and its windows face out onto the lake. The dinner menu is a long one, offering families several choices of standard but well-prepared entrees -- steaks, fish, chicken, roast pork. It is a full-course affair with appetizer, soup, salad, a dessert tray and tea or coffee. A wine list is available. All three meals are part of the room rate.

Like resorts of an earlier day, Mountain Lake features simpler pastimes: scenic walks around the lake; paddle boats and row boats; lake swimming, of course; good fishing for bass, trout and perch; horseback rides and carriage rides; table tennis, billiards, horseshoes and croquet. The resort has a clay tennis court, and there's a nine-hole golf course a mile and a half away.

The resort is now open year-around, introducing its first winter sports season this past year. It offers a full cross-country skiing facility with instruction and rentals, ice skating, winter hiking and horse-drawn sleigh rides. Guests can warm beside the lobby fireplaces or in the health club sauna.

A room for two (with three meals daily) begins at $130 a day, plus a gratuity of $5.50 per person a day. A junior suite with whirlpool tub is $150. A parlor suite is $175. Children in their parents' room are $20 a day for ages 3 to 8 and $35 for age 9 and older. A dress code requires jacket for men at dinner. Horseback riding and golf are additional.

The last jog up the mountain from U.S. 460 west of Blacksburg is a scenic one, the road at several points nudging a bit too close for comfort to a steep dropoff. From the hot valley floor, you climb, and climb some more, and the temperature seems to drop with every mile. A strange feeling grows that you have suddenly strayed into Canada. It's a beautiful dream for midsummer.

"Oops, we goofed," we told each other as we pulled up to the Highland Inn in downtown Monterey, population about 400. The inn had come highly recommended, but to our eyes it looked worn and in need of painting. It had, we learned after making reservations, been purchased by a new owner. The popularity of any inn owes much to the innkeeper, and a change of management can quickly alter the character of a place.

This is the case at the Highland, where we found ourselves grumbling at some new policies. But not grumbling so much that the inn itself, almost despite the new order, could not reveal its still very abundant charms to us. It is a gentle old country place, a bit creaky but doing as nicely as could be expected.

A rambling, three-story, white-frame Victorian structure built in 1904, the Highland Inn is a relic from the days when mountainous Highland County was a center of health spas and resorts. Once, it is claimed, such notables as Harvey Firestone and Henry Ford, who hiked in the Alleghenies together, were guests at the inn.

In the late 1960s, the inn closed, and it seemed doomed to the wreckers. But in 1971 and again in 1982, new owners invested in substantial renovations, preserving it as a Virginia Historic Landmark. John Hulser, who owns cattle farms in Massachusetts and an inn in Vermont, acquired it in 1986. He had read it was up for sale, and he was impressed by the countryside. "It's just like New England," he says.

I suppose our biggest complaint is that Hulser has closed the inn's tavern, and you can't order a cocktail, or wine or any alcoholic beverage with dinner, although he says he doesn't care if you bring your own. Hulser is a nondrinker himself whose goal is "to run a good restaurant and a good, clean house." He's also permitted liquid soap dispensers to be hung on bathroom walls, a modern motel disservice that contrasts with the antique flavor of the clawfoot tub in our second-floor room.

On the other hand, the inn stands in the midst of one of Virginia's most scenic and least-populated counties. We took a drive through the gorgeous valleys nearby; strolled up and down the few short blocks of town; and once again headed for the balcony porch to read, to nap, to sniff the mountain air and to watch the townsfolk go by.

Just down the street is Highland County Crafts, a sales outlet organized in 1968 for fine mountain crafts. All of them are handmade, a requirement, and many are from Highland County, although other Appalachian Mountain craftsworkers are represented. While we were browsing, Hildred Cook of Waynesboro, a former Highland County resident, brought in a bag full of afghan quilts that she crochets "to pass the time away." She sells them for $25 to $75, "to pay for the cost of the wool."

Across the street, we stepped into the H & H Cash Store to buy a bar of soap (we weren't about to use those dispensers) and a couple of ice cream bars. It was a trip back to a time before supermarkets. We poked down tightly packed aisles in a difficult but interesting search for the soap. By the looks of it, the store has tried (successfully) to cram into one small room everything you might find in a Giant and then some.

At The Personal Touch, at the side of the red-brick courthouse, we chatted with Barbara Hevener, who hand-makes lovely lamp shades. Her husband's family name is on many local mailboxes, so we figured she could give us some sightseeing advice. Point us to a scenic back road, we asked, and she complied marvelously.

Her route, a 20-mile loop, took us west out of town on U.S. 250, climbing over Monterey Mountain for five miles to Hightown. There we headed north for eight miles on Route 640 through Blue Grass Valley to the village of Blue Grass and back to Monterey via U.S. 220. I can't remember when I've seen such lovely pastoral scenery.

Much of Blue Grass Valley is lush pastureland. The road rambles along the eastern slope, not in much of a hurry to get anywhere. It parallels a brook in the meadow that waters small herds of cattle and flocks of sheep. Neatly maintained farm houses dot the wrinkled hillsides beyond. To an outsider, it seemed as unrealistically beautiful as any fantasy world Disney might create.

Back on our hotel balcony, we watched the guests stream from an afternoon function, presumably a wedding, at the Word of Faith Church. While the men waited in their pickups, the women donned aprons over their party clothes to pack up the leftovers and haul away the trash. We weren't snooping, but we noticed some townsfolk headed for Saturday night dinner at High's Restaurant took a slug of whisky from the bottle before they got out of their cars. High's doesn't serve alcohol either.

Rates at the Highland Inn begin at $39 for two people, not a bad price for nostalgia. We paid $49 for a large front bedroom looking out onto the balcony. The inn is closed from December through February. The dinner menu features home-cooked country fare: baked trout or baked stuffed pork chops the night we were there. Not great, but filling and cheap. A full dinner with dessert, tax and tip came to $13 each.

If we didn't actually fall in love with the Highland Inn on our first visit, we left it on very friendly terms.

WAYS & MEANS

For reservations or more information, contact:

Sugar Tree Inn, Vesuvius, Va. 24483, (703) 377-2197. The inn is about 200 miles southwest of Washington. The quickest route is south through the Shenandoah Valley via I-81 to Exit 54 south of Staunton. Go east 1.5 miles to U.S. 11; left for 50 yards on U.S. 11; and then right on Rte. 56 for four miles. The scenic route is south on Skyline Drive and the Blue Ridge Parkway to Rte. 56 and then right for 1.5 miles.

Mountain Lake Resort, Mountain Lake, Va. 24136, (800) 346-3334 or (703) 626-7121. The resort is about 275 miles southwest of Washington. A fast way is south on I-81 to Christiansburg; west through Blacksburg on U.S. 460 for about 20 miles; and right on Route 700 at the sign to Mountain Lake.

Highland Inn, Monterey, Va. 24465, (703) 468-2143. The historic old hotel is about 200 miles from Washington. Head south on I-81 to Staunton and then west for about 40 miles on U.S. 250. The latter takes you on a scenic but twisting roller-coaster ride up and down three mountain ridges.