Reality hit Ellen Dudley when she awoke one morning to the sudden "swish-h-h-h" off the side of her yellow tent. Snow . . . and this was a busy day.

Breakfast first, outside in the cold, then a long hike and, hardest of all, finding a sometimes-trail system that frequently vanishes, even without snow. This was more than a hike in the woods.But, there would be better days ahead. She knew that. There had been before - many, many for her and her hiking companions - Eric Seaborg and Sam Carlson.

The three are discovering America on foot and on bike tires. They started June 2 at Point Reyes National Sea Shore, about four days' hike north of San Francisco, and by February or March they hope to be soaking their feet in the frigid ocean waters off the East Coast.

The three hit Salt Lake City this week to meet with local hikers and mountain bikers to plot their west-to-east hike and/or ride across Utah. When all the maps have been examined and routes plotted, they will begin walking from Garrison, a small town on the Utah/Nevada border near Great Basin National Park.

They will head southeast across the Wah Wah Mountains to Beaver, then directly east through the Fishlake and Dixie national forests, Capitol Reef National Park, over the Henry Mountains and across a part ofthe Burr Trail to Hite, where they'll cross the Colorado River. From there they will move northeast through Dark Canyon, a corner of Canyonlands National Park and into Moab. The final leg of their Utah experience will take them over the Kokopelli's mountain biking trail to Grand Junction, Colo.

"How long it will take," said Dudley, "I don't know. We haven't hiked in canyons or sand much. We don't know how much we'll be able to ride the bikes."

They were 26 days (365 miles) in California and then 24 days (515 miles) in Nevada. To beat the snow to the Rocky Mountains (they didn't make it and were covered with snow on Sept. 25), they hopped over Utah and hiked Colorado - 20 days (325 miles). After Utah they'll hop back over Colorado and pick up with Kansas; then Missouri; Illinois; Indiana; Ohio; West Virginia; Washington, D.C.; and end, they hope, at Cape Henlopen, Del.

Dudley and Seaborg are from Washington, D.C. Carlson is from Allentown, Pa. All are avid hikers. All agree on the need for an ocean-to-ocean hiking trail. All agree it was time to draw attention to the poor conditions of the nation's hiking trails . . . 50,000 miles of trails lost in the past 50 years and 200,000 miles on various state and federal backlogs for maintenance.

The reality of it hits on a hike such as this one, said Dudley.

"Some trails look great on maps . . . people tell you where they are and everything. Then when you get there you don't find anything. It's frustrating. You see them on maps but not on the ground," she explained. "Other times you go through an area that has no trail and say to yourself that it should have one because it's so beautiful."

The hike, called "The American Discovery Trail," is being sponsored by, among many, The American Hiking Society and Backpacker Magazine. Hiking and equipment manufacturers also are involved and have seen to it that the team has "only the finest," said Dudley.

They realize, of course, that not many people will want to take the nine months off to hike the entire trail.

"But we are hoping that people will want to take maybe a state a year," she added.

A daily schedule requires that at least one of the trio drives the support vehicle, packed solid with everything from a minicomputer to a yellow tent, while two hike or, where dirt roads work into the route, ride mountain bikes.

And if it snows?

"Oh, we're all experienced cross-country skiers. We're prepared for it. It does make it tough, though . . . sometimes real tough."