Approximately 80% of Americans live in “urbanized' and “cluster areas" defined by the U.S. Census Bureau as “areas with 50,000 people or more” and “areas with between 2,500 and 50,000 people,” respectively.
Despite where most Americans reside, rural land encompasses ~95% of the surface area of the United States. Definitions of “rural” differ depending on the source and context. Generally, population density is an agreed-upon metric to measure how urban or rural an area is. A simple calculation – the total square miles of a space divided by the number of inhabitants – is used to derive population density.
Below, we will introduce ten of the most rural counties in America. Before we do, here are some interesting factoids about rural America on the state level:
• The states with the greatest percentage of rural residents are Maine (61%), Vermont (61%), West Virginia (51%), and Mississippi (51%). Interestingly, none of these states are home to any of America's 50 most rural counties.
• Alaska (AK) is tied for the state with the most (10) rural counties. This is not surprising; AK is the largest state in the union and the second least populated. That combination translates into a lot of sparsely inhabited areas.
• Wyoming is the state with the least number of people. Curiously, the Equality State, as WY is known because it was the 1st state in the Union to afford women the right to vote and elect a woman governor (Nellie Ross in 1925), does not harbor any of the 50 most rural counties in America.
• Nevada is one of the five most urbanized states due to the concentration of residents living in or around Las Vegas & Reno. The Silver State is also home to four of the 50 most rural counties in the nation.
• Interestingly, Texas has the second most rural counties and is the second most populated state in the Union.
• States with the greatest number of rural counties are Alaska (10), Montana (10), Texas (9), Nebraska (4), Colorado (4), Nevada (4) and New Mexico (3).
46) Wheeler County, Oregon
Over 1,700 square miles encompass Wheeler County, OR the most sparsely populated county (pop. 1,441) in the state. Located in central Oregon, Wheeler County is home to two national forests. An interesting factoid: more prehistoric fossils have been found in Wheeler County than in any other county in America.
43) Grant County, Nebraska
Grant County, NE was named after General Ulysses S. Grant, who led the Union Army to victory in the Civil War and later served as the 18th President of the United States. Only 614 people live across 776 square miles, equating to a population density of just 79.10 people per 100 square miles, making Grant Country the 43rd most rural county in America.
39) Hinsdale County, Colorado
Hinsdale County, CO is situated in the southwestern part of the state, just to the east of Telluride, in the Rocky Mountains. Home to three national forests (and just one town, Lake City), it has a population density of only 75 residents per 100 square miles. Hinsdale County is believed to have the fewest roads of any county in the contiguous United States.
24) Catron County, New Mexico
Situated in the far west of the state bordering Arizona, Catron County is the largest county in New Mexico. For an idea of how desolate this part of the state is: Catron County occupies almost 7,000 square miles of land, and there are no stoplights in the entire county! Most land in Catron County (80%) is publicly owned.
21) Eureka County, Nevada
Eureka County was established in the late 1800s around various silver mines. Located smack in the middle of the state, mining and agriculture still drive the local economy. But, what is atypical about the 21st most rural county in America: its population is growing. At almost 2,000 residents, Eureka County’s population is up ~30% over the last 10 years. In fact, the last time ~2,000 people lived in Eureka was in the year 1900.
19) The Aleutians East Borough, Alaska
The Aleutians East Borough comprises the Aleutian Islands that jut out of the Southeastern tip of Alaska. The Aleutian Islands are the only part of the United States that was invaded during World War 2; Japanese forces briefly occupied the islands of Attu and Kiska. During the fighting, 43 Americans were killed, and 90 taken as POWs. U.S. & Canadian forces launched the Aleutian Islands Campaign and successfully re-took Attu, and later Kiska.
13) Petroleum County, Montana
Petroleum County, MT is located in the interior of the state. It boasts a population of just 494 people spread across 1,655 square miles. To nobody’s surprise given its name, oil was discovered in Petroleum County in 1920 and is still an essential driver of the local economy, along with cattle ranching and agriculture. Like Wheeler Country, OR, Petroleum County, MT is known for an abundance of prehistoric fossils.
8) Dillingham Census Areas, Alaska
Dillingham Census Area is spread across 18,569 square miles in the southwest of Alaska. Home to just 4,847 inhabitants, its population density is 26.10 people per 100 square miles, making Dillingham Census Area the 8th most rural county in America. The largest town is Dillingham, which sits on a bay in the Bering Sea. Dillingham’s economy is leveraged to the salmon industry and is heavily seasonal.
4 ) Loving County, Texas
Positioned in the midwestern part of TX just south of New Mexico, Loving County is the least populated county in America. According to the 2020 census, just 64 people live across 669 square miles yielding a population density of 12.26 people per 100 square miles. Loving is named after Oliver Loving, a cattle rancher who moved cattle from his home state north into Kansas. Interesting factoid: Loving County was the last county in the continental United States to record a Covid-19 case, in November of 2020.
1 ) Yulom-Koukuk Census Area, Alaska
Yukom-Koyukuk Census Area is the most rural county in America. It is also the largest. Its territory encompasses ~145,000 square miles in central Alaska. With a population of just 5,588 residents, this equates to just 3.84 people per 100 square miles, earning Yulom-Koukuk Census Area the distinction of most rural county in the United States.