The Bay Bridge looms in the background, and you can see the cars crawling across on their long slow journey to Ocean City, Md., 100 miles away. But down on the golden and somewhat gravelly sands of Sandy Point State Park, there are beach lovers who have arrived already.

"Ocean City? It's too far," said District resident Carleton Washington, who was at Sandy Point on Saturday with fellow members of the D.C. Regulators, a District government employes softball team. "And when you get there, it's too crowded. There's too much hassle, and you only do the same things you do here. This is convenient and economical. And you don't have to deal with going over that bridge."

Sandy Point is the largest Maryland beach on the Chesapeake Bay, AT THE BEACH Another in a Series 1 1/3 miles of sand at the western end of the Bay Bridge. While hundreds of thousands of beachgoers flock to the Atlantic on hot summer weekends, several thousand people go to Sandy Point and find that there is plenty of sand and sun an hour's drive from Washington.

Until the 1950s, most beachgoers from the Washington area drove to the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay and stopped. There was no bridge. Communities of summer cottages and small private beaches thrived in Anne Arundel County, while slot machine gambling attracted thousands to Chesapeake Beach, farther south in Calvert County.

But when the Bay Bridge opened in 1952, it suddenly became easy for Washingtonians to drive straight through Anne Arundel and spend the weekend in Ocean City, Rehoboth Beach, Del., and other Atlantic Ocean resorts. When Maryland banned slot machines in the late 1960s, Chesapeake Beach and other bustling, western shore resorts became small, quiet towns again.

Now, many of the remaining western shore resorts are fast fading away, as the Washington and Baltimore suburbs expand. Summer cottages have been winterized and turned into year-round residences. The summer homes of Anne Arundel are increasingly a thing of the past.

Nevertheless, some pockets have held out. The Bay Ridge Beach, a privately operated beach just south of Annapolis, remains open to anyone with the $4.50 admission fee and attracts up to 2,000 people on summer week- ends. Highland Beach, a once- segregated resort near Annapolis that is still a largely black commmunity, has stayed a vacation spot with nearly 300 summer homes.

But it is Sandy Point State Park -- opened the same year the Bay Bridge was completed -- that proves more than anything else that some beach life remains on the western shore of the Chesapeake.

Children swim under the watchful eye of lifeguards waving semaphore flags, protected from stinging jellyfish by long lines of nets. Parents sunbathe on the sand, barbecue in the picnic groves, or sit on lawn chairs and picnic benches. On many summer Sunday afternons, park officials lock the gates because all 2,300 parking spaces are filled.

There is a small boat basin at the west end of the beach where sport fishermen can launch their boats. The northeastern end of the beach is reserved for small sailboats. Behind the beach are a small concession stand, restrooms, showers and several hundred acres of land for picnicking and ball playing.

The beach displays more variety than its counterparts on the Atlantic. There are grandparents leaning on canes and young midshipmen on afternoon leave from the U.S. Naval Academy four miles away in Annapolis. People come in beaten station wagons and pickup trucks as well as shiny Volvos and Saabs.

Some carry plastic baseball bats and balls, while others carry windsurfing boards and sails. The families that stream through the gates of Sandy Point are racially mixed, in contrast to the overwhelmingly white crowds at the ocean resorts.

This Saturday, many people at Sandy Point said they were there not only because they liked it, but also because it was the closest beach they could get to and it was cheap. Park officials charge $4 for each Maryland vehicle driving in and $5 for each out-of-state vehicle. Several beachgoers noted that the cost is a lot less than paying $2.50 in Bay Bridge tolls and buying gas for the drive to the Atlantic.

Lisa Murphey of Silver Spring had come with her friend Virginia Wright from Gaithersburg and Wright's mother Yvonne from Hyattsville. "It's close and it's kind of nice scenery, watching the boats go under the bridge and watching the cars go over it," Murphey said. "I was going to go to Ocean City this weekend, but I really didn't feel like driving for three hours."

"There's a boardwalk and a there's a lot more stuff to do in Ocean City," said Virginia Wright. "But if you just want to lie out in the sun for a couple of hours, this is a nice place to come."

Joseph Johnson of Landover, who works for a roofing company, was sitting on top of a cooler farther down the beach with his friend Charles Lauer of Lanham. They said they like to go to Sandy Point to drink beer and inspect the women. "There's a lot of nice-looking ladies here," Johnson observed.

Richard Manning, an artist from Baltimore, was also impressed by the scenery. "Look at the colors," he said as he put away his watercolors for the day and looked across the Chesapeake. "I come here a couple of times a week. But I can't get it all in one day or one year."

He pointed to the multicolored sails of small boats out in the bay, the rust-colored lighthouse a mile or so offshore, the trees near the water's edge and the cluster of fishermen casting their lines into the bay. "Then you have the freighters and the container ships," he said. "There's a lot of variety and a lot of colors in the hulls, the superstructure and the containers. I can't understand why there aren't more artists here."