Washington — On the cover is the Grand Canyon, its tawny stone ridges lit with sunlight that turns them into fresh-panned gold against the hard blue sky. It's Vol. 1, No. 1, of Traveler, the National Geographic Society's venturesome new magazine. And the reason the Grand Canyon is on the cover is that this is how the society's members wanted it. Traveler aims to please its 750,000 new subscribers: Society members have been intently quizzed and polled since 1981 on what they wanted to read about in a travel magazine, long before a single story assignment was made. And the Grand Canyon was numero uno on the list, while several more exotic spots and Ellis Island were at rock bottom. Other subjects covered in the premiere issue: Walt Disney's EPCOT Center; San Simeon, the Baroque Hearst castle in California; Montreal; Mystic Seaport, Conn.; Hawaii's island of Maui; Washington, D.C.; Dinosaur National Monument; and London day trips to Bath, Cambridge, and Kent.
Joan Tapper, the editor, remembers the way one skeptic summed it up before the magazine began to pile up initial circulation: ''Oh, you're going to cover the Eiffel Tower!'' Mais non. ''But we're not going to cover the 10 most out-of-the-way places in the world,'' she emphasizes. The magazine is intended, as it says in tiny white print on the cover, to be ''an educational travel resource,'' a serious magazine but entertainingly written. It is the National Geographic Society's first new publication for adults in 100 years, will be published quarterly, and is available to society members only, at a subscription rate of $15 a year. It is not bound in Geographic Yellow like its famous predecessor.
According to society president Gilbert Grosvenor, the magazine is already outstripping circulation estimates, with the summer target of 650,000 subscribers already overtaken; now 1 million readers are expected by summer and an ultimate 11/2 million subscribers ''would be a comfortable circulation,'' says executive editor Robert Breedon.
Traveler made its debut at a party in the society's white marble building, complete with Brie, strawberries, crudites, and a slide show. Mr. Breedon quoted Willa Cather: ''They travel faster now . . . but I do not think they go to better places,'' then explained: ''Traveler's designed to help them go to better places.''
In addition to travel features about place in American that society readers want to visit, each issue includes at least one foreign article and one on Canada, where membership is high (800,000) among the society's 101/2 million members. In addition, each issue provides readers with a three-month regional calendar of events throughout the United States, Canada, and Mexico, a ''Bulletin,'' briefing readers on travel news and money saving ideas, and a ''Traveling Easy'' section, giving advice on subjects like choosing travel agents, trips with children, and photography. Each feature article on a specific place is followed by ''Travel.Wise,'' a helpful and exhaustive listing of transportation, sightseeing, hotels, restaurants, and nearby attractions, with prices - although the listing hasn't any specific recommendations, which might be helpful. The effect is that of a paperback travel book on each subject, transistorized down into magazine space with handsome photos and compelling writing. It's the sort of useful magazine that fans might file and keep in bound covers, for future reference.
Articles for the magazine will be drawn primarily from free-lance writers and chosen for their literary appeal. ''We're looking for people who've lived in a place and write about it with affection and love,'' says editor Tapper, who heads a staff of 25. In its first issue, Canadian novelist Mordecai Richler writes about his native city in ''Montreal Mosaic.'' In the next issue Australian-born novelist Shirley Hazzard pens a reminiscence on growing up in Sydney and the Australian personality.
In the first issue, Robert Laxalt, a specialist on the American West, writes tellingly in his cover story on the ''Unconquerable Chasm'':
''From dawn to dark the changing colors of the Grand Canyon hypnotize. At sunrise, slanting broadswords of light first reveal the dun hue of limestone beneath the North Rim, then gradually the multicolored rock layers beneath the rim are exposed one by one. At high noon the flaming red of the canyon walls at last comes into view. As the day progresses and the sun wanes, the entire process reverses itself, and the multicolored layers are swallowed up in the shadow and, finally, darkness. When the sun has set, the yawning abyss is a well of utter blackness. Then, the Grand Canyon becomes a little terrifying.''
Executive editor Breedon says the new magazine's demographics indicate its readership is primarily people in their late 40s and early 50s ''with plenty of money and time to travel, and that's what they want to do.'' The magazine, which is hefty with full color ads, is not an attempt to challenge the American Express Travel and Leisure magazine market, he says. It is, instead, ''to provide travel services to our own members, and is not sold on newsstands.'' To subscribe, readers have to join the society first, at an initial $15 membership fee which also provides a subscription to the National Geographic magazine.
Readers of Traveler magazine may have a busy spring, following the magazine's recommendations on its seasonal calendar, which lists among dozens of events an Elk Antler Auction in Jackson, Wyo.; a Shad Festival in Lambertville, N.J.; a ''Toad Suck Daze look in mag'' in Conway, Ark.; a Whale Watch in Westport, Conn.; and a Hot Air Balloon Stampede in Walla Walla, Wash.