Despite the absence of spring flowers and retired Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, 43 hikers this week began walking 185 miles from Cumberland, Md., to Washington to celebrate the 25th anniversay of "the hike that saved the C & O Canal."

Buffeted by cold winds and reports of snow flurries in the nearby mountains, the hikers on Monday stepped off the first to supper and then to a hot breakfast after they weathered a chilly night in tents beside the canal.

It was even colder and bleaker in early April, 1954, when Justice Douglas led a group of 34 journalists and conservationists from around the nation along the historic canal. Douglas had challenged editors of The Washington Post to hike the trail after The Post had endorsed a federal proposal to turn the canal into a scenic parkway. The 185-mile hike convinced most of the hikers of the need to preserve the canal as parkland and ultimately led to creation of the 20,000-acre C & O National Historial Park in 1971.

At a small banquet in Cumberland Sunday night, the hikers were told the health of the 80-year old retired justice was too fragile to permit him to take part in the two-week anniversary hike to Washington, but that his wife, Cathy, was expected on Saturday, April 28, when hundreds of Washington-area hikers are expected to join the last day's hike from Great Falls to Tide Lock No. 5, just above the District line.

They will be joining a diverse group of hikers that includes 70-year-old men, several young boys playing hooky from school, two Englishmen and many women. Women and children have been significant additions to the annual one-and two-day reunion hikes of the C & O Canal Association, formed by Justice Douglas and the veterans of the 1954 hike.

Although Douglas banned women from the early hikes, that was ended in 1956 by conservationist and later chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Jean R. Packard, the Sunday night banquet was reminded.

Packard and her husband Fred, a retired National Park Service official, arrived late the first night at the hunting lodge where the 1956 hikers were staying. A somewhat flustered Douglas met her the following morning in his bathrobe, toothbrush in hand, according to fellow hikers. "My God, there's a woman in the women's room," he announced after entering what he thought was an empty lodge restroom.

Women and children have since been among the association's heartiest hikers - its president and past president are women - which was clear as the 25th anniversary hikers trudged off the miles this week.

Nine-year old Chris parker, a fourth-grader at Montgomery County's Bannockburn Elementary School, was still skipping alon in his sneakers, small rucksack on his back, when he and his engineer father, Jeremy, completed the first day's hike. The rucksack, with a canteen of lemonade and a copy of Model Railroaderm was the same one he carried in 1974 when at the age of 4 he made canal association history by hiking more than 160 miles of the towpath during the 20th reunion hike.

He missed one day of that hike he said because he'd gotten "bored," which meant he hadn't seen any trains lately along the B & O Railroad tracks that parallel the canal. The railroad completed with the canal and finally put it out of business with help from a Potomac River flood in 1924.

Coal trains rumbled through downtown Cumberland all Sunday night but few other hikers shared Chris's enthusiasm for the trains. The railroad yards near Cumberland have littered the edge of canal with trash and even discarded train cars. With the neighboring Cumberland County dump and sewage treatment plant, they were among the few eyesores seen by hikers.

But Cumberland, the National Park Service and several communities along the canal have made major improvements since the abondoned canal towpath was hiked by Douglas in 1954. The canals banks near Cumberland were being graded by Park Service employes and were almost litter free. This year alone the Park Service will spend close to $3 million in repairing the canal near Georgetown and the famous Paw Paw tunnel near Oldtown.

However, Park Service canal superintendent William Failor said this week at least $14-to- $16 million in towpath repairs still remain to be completed, another $5-to- $10 million in repairs to aqueducts is needed and almost 2,000 acres still must be acquired to complete the 21,000 acres now authorized for the canal park.

The public is welcome to join the 25th reunion hike and details on hiker's progress are available by calling the National Park Service at 426-1776 between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. on weekdays. This weekend's hikes will be from Four Locks to Williamport on Saturday and Williamsport to Dam 4 on Sunday.