There are mountains thought to be the realm of gods, dragons and dead souls. There are mountains so prepossessing they recall the horror of 15th century travelers who tied on blindfolds to prevent a glimpse of the Alps from driving them mad.

And then there's Sugar Loaf.

Sugar Loaf Mountain, benchmarked and mapped as a bonafide mountain by the U.S. Geological Survey, is an unforbidding pipsqueak of a peak whose friends often apologize for its size. At 1,282 feet tall, it can't really be said to loom, soar, or tower like other mountains. Perhaps crouch is the word. It has a rival in the smokestack of the nearby Pepco plant. Girl scouts call it Sugar Lump. Sometimes fire breaks out, kids get lost, and last year a man hanged himself there. Otherwise the peak is conspicuous simply for its isolated position near the Frederick-Montgomery county line; mountains just don't come any closer to Washington than Sugar Loaf.

How close is hard to say from old newspaper clippings. The distance between the peak and the city whose residents have visited it for more than half a century seems to have fluctuated widely as if Sugar Loaf were subject to periodic attacks of wanderlust. This paper put the mountain 37 miles from Washington in 1939 and 36 miles in 1946. In '53 it was spotted 40 miles out but by '65 it had closed to within 30 miles. Reporters may one day pin Sugar Loaf down, but to people who love wilderness the confusion is sweet. Nothing about a mountain should be too precise.

Like all landmarks Sugar Loaf occupies a place in the mind where maps and newspapers are unreliable but poetry is rich. Being so near urban precincts, Sugar Loaf is prized by a colorful miscellany of people. It's a popular place for weddings, the site of the annual Sugar Loaf Cotillion, the subject of innumerable pastel sketches, and a pleasant non-polar locale for the annual picnic of the Antarctican Society whose members don their Penguin Power T-shirts and swap news about the bottom of the world. Using a complex equation, Charles E. Morrison, the society's vice president, has calculated that the South Pole is 8,924.13 miles from the summit of Sugar Loaf.

Since the 1920s, millions of people have picnicked on the mountain terraces, motored along its winding lanes, savored the piney air, combed locust blossoms out of their hair, contracted poison ivy, and tackled Sugar Loaf's fieldstone stairs and boulder-strewn slopes, drawn upward by the lure of a new point of view.

The sights are bracing. One morning last week Sugar Loaf framed two kinds of time--the immense stretches of geologic history and the fleeting interval of youth that concludes with a high school prom. As avowals scratched and painted on the rock attest, Sugar Loaf is a favorite haunt of teen-agers; some young revelers apparently scaled the peak to drain a last bottle of champagne and greet the new day in best afterglow tradition. Whoever they were, they left a red rose, like a token of evanescent youth, lying on a slab of 300-million-year-old rock.

The mountain's top is a philosophical place. On a summit rock one November, Rose and Bill were stirred to etch "Rose and Bill and Jesus 11/6/81." You can hear the mourning doves and the creak of oak boughs, a sound like a weightlifter easing into a wicker chair. Creepy looking buzzards coast by on carrion patrol. Below the world spreads out in corn and wheat fields, pastures, woodlots, burgeoning suburbs, glinting barn roofs and ivy-covered silos--undulant Piedmont country that rises into the Catoctins, the Blue Ridge, and other peaks faintly pencilled on the rim of the world.

All mountains reveal the reaches of infinity, and Sugar Loaf is no different. With permission to enter after dark, Dr. Dave Gardner's astronomy class at Montgomery College ascends the slopes and trains its Celestron telescopes on the nuances of the universe that are lost in the wash of haze and city light. The last time out the class spotted the pieces of an exploding star in the Crab Nebulae, the red spot on Jupiter, and galaxies M-81 and M-82.

Geologically speaking, things have been pretty quiet around Sugar Loaf for the last two million years. As a monadnock--a free-standing vestige of an older landscape--it owes its prominence to its durable quartz sandstone constitution. Where all else around it succumbed to wind and water, Sugar Loaf endured.

Tramping the peak with a good guide can be a journey through the ancient days of the mountain's youth. Robert Ridky, a University of Maryland professor, sometimes brings students to the mountain to show them where the rock is scored with "slickensides," a grain that tells how the rock has been stressed. He points out the veins in the mountain where the stone has "sweated" out seams of pure quartz, and elsewhere marks the evidence of nature's implacable instinct for destruction.

"You can see where water has split the rock," said Ridky, indicating a fissure in the upper cliffs. "Water expands by 9 percent when it turns to ice. It's a tremendous pressure. The analogy I use is that it's like having a Volkswagen pressing on your thumb."

Sugar Loaf's involvement in the affairs of people can be measured in mere centuries. Long before Rose and Bill, Indians are thought to have held religious ceremonies on its summit. Hemmed in by the giant forests of the new world, the earliest settlers in the Potomac Valley surmounted the peak to get a bead on the land. The mountain owes its name to these pioneers who were reminded by the mountain of the loaves of sugar concocted by their wives and mothers. A Swiss explorer left the first map in 1707 and five years later, a Swiss baron left the first written account of an ascent. ("It's frightfully dull," says a local authority.)

Sugar Loaf has been logged and quarried and served as a lookout for Union troops, but its modern-day history is inseparable from one man: Gordon Strong. Dead and buried almost 30 years in a mausoleum at the foot of the mountain, Strong's shadow still looms over the peak he first glimpsed on a bicycle trip in 1902. Strong, who used to arrive at board meetings with the minutes already written out, had graduated from Harvard at age 16, inherited his father's railroad fortune and grown rich a second time in Chicago real estate when he began buying up land around Sugar Loaf. He built a house that is referred to as "The Mansion." He set up Stronghold as a non-profit corporation to maintain Sugarloaf's 3,250 acres as a public preserve after his death.

Strong is still called "Mr. Strong" by the dwindling number of people who knew him, and from beyond the grave he seems to have a hand in the operation of the mountain. Eighty-year-old Donald McCormack, who attended the boys school Strong operated at the base of the mountain, and was a lifelong friend, serves as the corporation's executive secretary. He often refers to the 82 pages of "Will Comments" that Strong left. They contain Strong's explicit instructions on future developments in Stronghold's natural, legal, financial, and educational affairs, and an essay entitled "The Call of Natural Beauty."

Before Strong was persuaded to leave the mountain in its natural state by Robert Marshall, one of the founders of the Wilderness Society, he toyed with ideas for putting his peak to a purpose. He commissioned no less an architect than Frank Lloyd Wright to dream up a structure for its crown. The "automobile objective" Wright designed, a "spiraling ziggurat" of ramps and terraces with parking for 500 cars, two theaters, a planetarium, restaurants, hotel rooms and a docking tower for a dirigible, was never built. But Wright continued to play with the notion, turning it inside out, until it became the scheme for the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

In recent years Sugar Loaf might be said to have had a kind of binding gravitational influence on the rural communities that exist in its shadow. On Easter morning the dozen up-county churches traditionally join forces for a sunrise service at "East View" on the mountain. With good weather, the attendance tops 1,000 people who join voices in "When Morning Gilds the Skies," and afterwards, repair for a breakfast of eggs, bacon, doughnuts and coffee.

The mountain also rises over a political landscape, a 100-square mile area where hayfields are turning into housing tracts and the suburban way of life is eclipsing the way of rural farmers. A preservation-oriented film produced by the citizens of a group called Sugarloaf Regional Trails claims the region has "a fatal beauty." Working out of an office at the base of the mountain, Regional Trails contributed to the development of a preservation and agricultural ordinances that have slowed down, if not halted, the encroachment of the suburbs.

"Sugar Loaf helped us develop a sense of identity," says Frederick Gutheim, a beetle-browed historian and planner who raises sheep and vegetables at his six-acre homestead below the mountain. "The 160,000 people who visit Sugar Loaf every year are the nucleus of this constituency, but there are lots and lots of people who look at the mountain every day and in some way are able to identify with it."

But the pressures of expanding population rival the forces that created the mountain itself. One victim was a bobcat that apparently wandered off Sugar Loaf last year and was mowed down on Interstate 270. The region's appearance of rural simplicity masks a city savvy: no simple farming area, the hills and dales are full of rich gentry, people who plant crops and commute, milk cows and complete PhDs. Farmers plant with the latest no-till methods and contend with the diminished labor pools through strategies such as pick-your-own-fruit days. In the hope of developing a blight resistant chestnut to replace the trees that were decimated 80 years ago, Stronghold has enlisted the aid of a local firm, Neutron Products Inc. in Dickerson, which has the facilities to expedite evolutionary change through radiation.

Even at the Comus Inn, which boasts of its country setting and traces of George Washington, the waitresses don't place an order without first punching into a Tandy 3 computer and handing the cook a printout.

Some of the changes that accompany progress are disheartening to the likes of Billy Hilton of Barnesville. Hilton, 44, is a cheerful pot-bellied yarn spinner and fourth generation descendant of carpenter-undertaker William T. Hilton who built barns and churches like the red brick Sugar Loaf Mountain Chapel off Old Hundred Road. Billy C. keeps his great grandfather's peg drills, saws and horse-drawn hearses. He continues, as well, in the family profession, burying 40 people a year.

"Life has speeded up in the last 10 years," he says. "Things have gotten too accelerated. I like to prop my feet up and not rush but nobody has time anymore. It gets to be after a while if I don't slow down I'll be using one of my own boxes."

A few miles away, some of William T. Hilton's cabinetwork graces the home of Arthur Hoyle. Hoyle has lived all his 77 years on a patch of farmland under Sugar Loaf. He is a link to mountain's past, and to the culture that now ebbs from the land around it. "I guess I've been around the longest of anybody," he says.

Hoyle attended Gordon Strong's school for boys with Donald McCormack. When he brought his wife Anna Lee, 70, to live at the foot of Sugar Loaf, Strong came to their wedding, and gave them a mountain painting that resembled Sugar Loaf. It hangs in the Hoyle's living room. Arthur Hoyle tells of the time his father gaped through a knot in a cabin at the horses of the Union calvary during a skirmish with the Confederates. The chimney of his mother's house still stands in the yard as "a keepsake," choked in ivy, aswirl with birds. He can tell of lying awake as a boy one night when high winds staggered the woods, and toppled the dead, desiccated chestnut trees up on Sugar Loaf with loud cracking booms--the sound of a shipwrecked species going under. All night, he said, he heard the mountain boom.