My friend would agree to climb the mountain only if I promised we'd meet a bear.

"I've never seen a bear except one time and that was at a roadside carnival," said my friend, who has recently moved here from Louisiana, where bears and mountains are in short supply.

"I'd go up to a bear, wrap my arms around its chest and just pick that big boy right up," he said.

If you want to be where bears are, Shenandoah National Park is about as good a place as any this side of Yellowstone. There are 300 bears in Shenandoah, one for every square mile of park, enough bears to fill a circus tent. But if you want to see one up close and personal, you'd do better to visit the zoo.

"Our black bears are very shy and wary by nature. Generally when you get near one, it changes ends and takes off," said Dave Henry, a Park Ranger who met us on the eastern edge of the park at the base of Old Rag Mountain. Since 1975, when the park closed its landfills and introduced "bear proof" trashcans at campsites, getting a bear to pose for a picture has become increasingly rare.

"I wouldn't bet on seeing one today," said Ranger Henry.

Whether you are interested in beauty or beasts, popping a sweat or just escaping the background noise of your own routine, it is time to take a hike. The summer's haze has disappeared to reveal a cobalt sky. The breeze is cool enough to keep the sweat from blurring your view.

And the bugs that plagued you all summer have have gone wherever it is that bugs go when temperatures drop.

The hardest part of hiking in this area is deciding which trail and what kind of terrain to trek. We have the ocean to our east and mountains to the west. Under foot are the towpath beside the C&O Canal and horse trails through Rock Creek Park, where, with just a bit of effort, you can get lost in woods a few minutes from the White House.

But when the deciduous trees stage their fall color show, and that will begin within the next few weeks, the best direction to hike is up.

Find yourself a mountain, then get high enough for a panoramic view.

Maryland's Sugar Loaf is the closest mountain to Washington, about 33 miles north and easily reached from Interstate 270. But if you are looking for something majestic, Sugar Loaf is easily missed. At 1,282 feet, the mountain does not threaten even the lowest flying cloud. Earlier this summer one writer described it as "a pipsqueak of a peak."

Spend an extra hour in the car and go to Virginia's Old Rag Mountain, about 80 miles west of Washington. The Matterhorn it is not. But at 3,291 feet, the boulder-thick summit provides a lofty, exposed perch and one much appreciated after the climb required to reach it.

"I swear every time I'm a quarter of the way up that I won't do this again," said Flor Felsenthal of Bethesda, eating a bologna sandwich with her husband and son at the top of Old Rag.

"But it is always so great once you get here. And food always tastes better up here."

There are two routes up Old Rag and both are tough hikes. The Ridge Trail is the most direct.

For two miles it climbs over dirt, stone and the twisted roots of hemlock and maple. Then the forest disappears and a half-mile boulder scramble begins.

"This is unbelievable," said my friend, climbing the stony spine of the mountain ridge. On one side of that ridge we could see the Piedmont plain with its tidy farm houses, apple orchards and fields. On the other side the Blue Ridge Mountains crouched beneath a flight of ravens, hawks and turkey vultures.

It was hard to tell if my friend was more impressed with the view or his granite viewing stand.

Despite the difficulty of the climb, perhaps because of it, Old Rag is one of the most popular hikes in the Shenandoah Park.

Ranger Henry estimates that each month 1,500 to 2,000 people make the climb. During fall weekends, when the leaves shine bright, Old Rag can resemble a forced march.

If you like to hike with company, there are half a dozen local clubs eager for new membership, including the Wanderbirds, the Central Hiking Club, the Capital Hiking Club and the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club. Each Friday in the Weekend section of The Post, club activities and organized hikes are listed.

Be advised, however, that fall weather can change from balmy to cold within hours, especially in mountain terrain. And don't expect the local wildlife to stick around long enough for a friendly hug.