THE rugged majesty of the Grand Canyon, sand as it slips through toes on a Nantucket beach, or a cable car ride in the city of the famous Golden Gate Bridge can be experienced without emptying one's pockets on lodging. The American Youth Hostel (AYH) organization sees to that. Anybody, no matter what age - young, middle-aged, or senior citizen - is encouraged to join AYH and enjoy overnight accommodations in about 240 hostels across the United States, including Alaska and Hawaii, for the bargain price of $10 or less per night, per person. And many hostels are conveniently located in or near parks and cities that have a wide variety of activities to offer.
Of course, bunk beds, cleaning up after yourself, and a small housekeeping chore are the normal fare, rather than double beds and room service. But a growing number of people don't seem to mind cutting luxury for the sake of the low cost and interaction with people from all over the world.
``Month by month we continue to show an increase over last year's [membership] figures,'' says Toby Pyle, who is the public relations manager of AYH in Washington. Other growth indicators are 23 new hostels opening up in the US, welcoming visitors for the first time this year.
Standard hostels have separate bunk rooms and personal care facilities for men and women, a common room (like a family room where everyone gathers to read and talk), and a kitchen-dining area for meals. Some hostels have rooms set up for couples and families. It's also nice to know these are safe, clean places to stay. No drugs or alcohol are allowed. And smoking, when permitted, is only in specified rooms and never in the sleeping quarters. Other rules stipulate quiet hours that ensure a good night's sleep.
One of the hostels that recently opened is in Washington, D.C. It's the largest hostel in the US, an eight-story building with 250 beds, having all the basics, plus laundry and bicycle storage areas. A definite bonus is that several of the attractions of the nation's capital are a short walk away, and the subway is very close. Families can be accommodated, too. This hostel advises reservations for groups, and during the summer, reservations are recommended for all visitors.
Staying at a youth hostel feels like a mix of college dorm, camp, and home, with the possibility of foreign languages being heard any moment. As a matter of fact, many hostels are in people's homes. These generally have a very limited number of beds, and reservations are a must. In addition, it's good to check whether or not arriving by car is acceptable, instead of by foot, bicycle, or public transportation. Parking space may be unavailable.
Does the thought of spending the night in a tepee, lighthouse facility, mansion, geodesic dome, log cabin, or battleship intrigue you? All of these and more are hostels.
Anne Goldberg chose a lighthouse. ``Listening to the waves, and watching the whales go by'' are two of the reasons that drew her to manage the Pigeon Point Lighthouse hostel in Pescadero, Calif., she says. Hearing the seals and seeing the light shining from the second-tallest free-standing lighthouse in the US also influenced her decision.
Besides the beautiful seacoast, there are the redwoods of Butano State Park just a bike ride away. This park of towering trees and other places of special interest near each of the hostels are listed in the handbook, received with the membership card needed to register for overnight visits.
The book also indicates the dimensions of a sleep sack - a sheet version of a sleeping bag - required for each hosteler. It protects the hostel's pillow and blankets, and can be sewn, bought, or rented.
The idea for providing inexpensive shelter to travelers wanting to see different places and peoples goes back to Germany in about 1910. By 1934, hosteling had caught on in the States. After World War II, a depleted hostel system began rebuilding what it had lost from volunteers leaving for the war effort. The number of hostels is now back up to the prewar level.
On the 50th anniversary of AYH in 1984, the organization decided to celebrate by giving free group passes to nonprofit clubs and public-service groups. Today there are more than 8,000 group memberships. Many Scout troops and school classes have taken them up on this continuing offer, Mr. Pyle says.
Martin and Anne Vesenka of Littleton, Mass., put to use another benefit of AYH. Back in the '50s, Mrs. Vesenka was able to raise their family in a lovely country setting managing the hostel they later purchased, while Mr. Vesenka taught school. Some people wondered how the children would turn out with so many visitors stopping by.
``Our children turned out fine,'' Mrs. Vesenka asserts. ``They're not afraid of anyone. They welcome people. And they're pretty good judges of character.''
Doug Mass, director of hostel operations for the US, says that there are about 70 to 80 families today that have one member in charge of managing a hostel.
Membership has a lot of other privileges, which include access to about 5,000 youth hostels in other parts of the world, affordably priced package trips complete with guide, information by mail about local AYH events, and discounts on travel books and equipment.
Supplemental accommodations are also listed in the youth hostel handbook to supply low-cost lodging in desirable locations, where AYH has yet to get established. A word of caution, though: These don't always have the strict rules that AYH hostels do. The writer's recent unpleasant experience with the Manhattan YMCA Sloane House - mice, roaches, lax supervision, and noise throughout the night - left her feeling glad that the national office is hoping to have a deluxe AYH facility in operation there by late 1989.
A yearly adult pass - for ages 18 to 54 - costs $21. Senior citizens and youth pay only $11 a year for membership benefits. To try AYH out, an introductory membership card can be purchased for $3 and applied to the yearly price. Two-year and family memberships can be obtained for $31. If you decide to join for life, it's just $201.
For more information, write American Youth Hostels Inc., PO Box 37613, Washington, DC 20013, or phone (202) 783-6161.