Most rural counties in America
For many people, rural America elicits idyllic and peaceful imagery. It is often pictured as the embodiment of hard work and resilience. Today, faced with the growing threat of COVID-19 pandemic, all of these characteristics are being threatened or tested in rural parts of the country.
COVID-19 got a foothold in the U.S. in coastal states and regions with high population density. Within weeks, New York City became the epicenter for the virus not just relative to the rest of the country, but to the world. The regional experience with the pandemic has largely varied over the last 10 weeks, with rural populations reporting lower case counts per capita and now being some of the first to ease lockdown restrictions and reopen their economies.
But what appeared to be a narrow miss for many rural regions is instead a delay in the virus’ impact and the country’s understanding of it to date—an incomplete picture now coming into sharper focus. According to an April 30 report released by the Kaiser Family Foundation, non-metro regions are now experiencing faster average daily growth rates of deaths and case counts than metro regions.
A shortage of testing for COVID-19 means the true spread of the virus in rural regions is greater than the numbers currently reflect, according to comments by Andrew Pavia, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at the University of Utah School of Medicine, at an April 2020 Infectious Diseases Society of America briefing. Rural populations—which tend to be older, with more underlying health conditions, and more limited access to health care—are also uniquely vulnerable to COVID-19.
A surprising number of U.S. counties have 100% rural land—702, in fact. Stacker ranked all 702 rural counties by population density data from the 2010 Census Urban and Rural Classification to find the 50 that are the most rural. The 2010 Census is the most comprehensive, reliable, and recent urban-rural classification available.
According to the Census Bureau, rural land encompasses any land that isn't an urban area. To be considered an urban area, a place has to have a densely settled core of census tracts or blocks and count at least 2,500 people, at least 1,500 of whom must be residents of non-institutional buildings. Areas with 50,000 people or more are considered urbanized areas, while areas with between 2,500 and 50,000 people are considered urban clusters.
The epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic is shifting to new parts of the U.S., including places like those on this list. Hinsdale County, Colorado, and Slope County, North Dakota, for example—both of which are featured on this list—are among the hardest-hit rural counties experiencing an uptick in cases.
The faces and experiences of those most severely impacted will also begin to change. This list of the 50 most rural counties in America can help to contextualize what life is like in these regions and how COVID-19 will impact the people living in some of the lesser-seen parts of the country.
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#50. Kent County, Texas
- Population density: 89.53 people / 100 square miles
- Population: 808
- Area: 903 square miles
Ranching and oil and gas are the two big industries in Kent County, which has a population of just 808 people spread across 903 square miles. Cattle, cotton, wheat, and sorghum are the most common crops.
#49. Custer County, Idaho
- Population density: 88.76 people / 100 square miles
- Population: 4,368
- Area: 4,921 square miles
The highest mountain in Idaho—Mount Borah—looms over rural Custer County, where the terrain varies from green valleys to arid deserts. This county sees a fair amount of tourism because of the Salmon River, Sawtooth National Recreation Area, and the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness.
#48. De Baca County, New Mexico
- Population density: 87.06 people / 100 square miles
- Population: 2,022
- Area: 2,323 square miles
Named after the second governor of New Mexico, Ezequiel Cabeza De Baca, this county is the second-least populated in the state. It's claim to fame? Sheriff Pat Garrett shot and killed the famous outlaw Billy the Kid in 1881 in Fort Sumner.
#47. Jackson County, Colorado
- Population density: 86.38 people / 100 square miles
- Population: 1,394
- Area: 1,614 square miles
This sub-alpine valley in Northern Colorado has just one municipality: Walden, which is a popular destination for hikers and campers. It was once a famous Ute hunting ground and today is known as the Moose Capital of Colorado.
#46. Wheeler County, Oregon
- Population density: 84.04 people / 100 square miles
- Population: 1,441
- Area: 1,715 square miles
Wheeler County counts two national forests within its borders, and the rest of the terrain varies from sagebrush to juniper to rimrock. An impressive amount of prehistoric fossils have also been discovered here—the most in any county in the United States, in fact.
#45. Phillips County, Montana
- Population density: 82.74 people / 100 square miles
- Population: 4,253
- Area: 5,140 square miles
Phillips County is bordered by Canada to the north and the Missouri River to the south. It's the second-largest county in Montana, but far from the least populated.
#44. Mineral County, Colorado
- Population density: 81.31 people / 100 square miles
- Population: 712
- Area: 876 square miles
Ninety-five percent of this county in the southern Rocky Mountains is public land, so it makes sense that it's fairly sparsely populated. Creede—the one municipality in Mineral County—was originally a silver mining town and today depends on tourism for its economy.
#43. Grant County, Nebraska
- Population density: 79.10 people / 100 square miles
- Population: 614
- Area: 776 square miles
Named after General Ulysses S. Grant, this Nebraska county has just 614 total residents. The county is comprised of three towns: Ashby, Hyannis, and Whitman.
#42. Kiowa County, Colorado
- Population density: 79.08 people / 100 square miles
- Population: 1,398
- Area: 1,768 square miles
Kiowa County shares a name with a local Native American tribe. Established in 1889, this county has just 1,398 people spread out across 1,768 square miles.
#41. Meagher County, Montana
- Population density: 79.06 people / 100 square miles
- Population: 1,891
- Area: 2,392 square miles
With a rather meager population density (pun very much intended), Meagher County is one of the many rural counties in Montana. The county seat is White Sulphur Springs, which gets its name from the natural hot springs that are purported to have all kinds of health benefits.2018 All rights reserved.