On almost any weekend morning throughout the year, while most people are still sleeping, hundreds of men and women gather on street corners around Washington and the outlying areas of Virginia and Maryland waiting for buses to take them to the mountains.

Two weeks ago I joined the ranks. Meeting up with some members of the Capital Hiking Club on the corner of 16th and I NW, we took a bus to Thurmont, Md., for a six-mile hike on the Catoctin Trail.

The Capital Hiking Club travels to the mountains every Sunday, regardless of the weather conditions. According to President Eliott Kapstein, who has been involved with the club for more than 10 years, operations have gotten more sophisticated since the organization's inception in 1937.

"They used to go to what is now the end of the Metro line {in Wheaton} and hike back into town," said Kapstein. "Now we use the bus and actually go to the mountains."

This particular Sunday was perfect for getting out of the city. The sky was bright and allowed just the faintest hint of warmth. I thought back to the other times I had gone to the mountains to enjoy the peace and solitude. I was certain I was in for a good time.

When we arrived at the drop-off point, just outside Catoctin Mountain State Park, guide Ken Lacey gave us a quick briefing. He had already mapped out a route and told us what we could expect along the way. "Just watch for the blue trail markings and no one will get lost," he said.

With a group of about 45 people, it led to questions of whether it would be possible to enjoy the solitude of the woods. I was to learn that hiking with a club can have little or nothing to do with peace and quiet. Forty-five pairs of feet trudging single file through the woods on one trail does nothing to increase appreciation for the outdoors. This method of hiking is about getting up early, getting to the designated drop-off point and hiking the predetermined number of miles.

The trek began with a gentle downward slope. We then traversed a small valley and up a small hill, down the other side and across a road. I was still feeling pretty good.

It wasn't until what Kapstein called the "slight incline," about four miles into the hike, that I began to lag behind -- way behind. The other hikers were keeping a very brisk pace. I was quickly overcome with a feeling of anxiousness. I was alone and I wasn't supposed to be. My concentration had shifted from enjoying the outdoors to finding the group, which was now out of sight.

Just when I thought I was the only one left behind, I heard voices coming from another direction. About 10 others had also lost track of the blue trail markings.

Together we marched on to the base of Cunningham Falls, the lunch break meeting point. For me, this was the end of the line. I was only participating in the short version of the six-mile hike. Some members continued. Those who opted for the shorter hike went back to the bus to nurse tender feet.

While club hiking has a few drawbacks, like providing little opportunity to enjoy the surroundings and a very brisk walking pace, it does have some advantages. The clubs offer transportation, usually for a nominal fee. Experienced guides chart the hiking routes ahead of time.

Most clubs, such as the Capital club, vary their hiking destinations from week to week in order to provide members with a variety of trails. Some even offer short and long versions of the hike.

Although it isn't always necessary to be a dues-paying member of a local club in order to participate in weekly hikes, it is wise to reserve a place early in the week to ensure a space. Most clubs offer buses or car pools for each trip and some even offer more than one pick-up point.

Some things to consider before hiking: Ask how strenuous the hike will be and try to determine whether your goals are the same as the club's. As one participant of my hike said, "Be glad you didn't go with the Wanderbirds. They take their hiking seriously." AREA HIKING CLUBS

Sierra Club: Frequent day and weekend trips. Tape: (202) 547-2326.

Potomac Appalachian Trail Club: Frequent day and weekend trips. (202) 638-5306.

Wanderbirds: Day hikes every weekend. Buses for most trips leave 17th and K streets NW at 8 a.m. (703) 255-4705 or (301) 596-7602.

Capital Hiking Club: Day hikes every Sunday. Buses for most trips leave 16th and I streets NW at 8 a.m. (202) 966-1459.

Washington Women Outdoors: Day and weekend trips. (301) 587-6111.

Center Hiking Club: Day trips. (703) 379-0460.

Northern Virginia Club: (703) 330-1393.

Potomac Backpackers: Tape: (703) 524-1185.

Appalachian Mountain Club: Tape: (301) 530-4870.