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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- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Population density: 76.04 people / 100 square miles
- Population: 3,476
- Area: 4,571 square miles
This huge Texas county in the Rio Grande basin shares a border with Mexico to the south and New Mexico to the north. Swaths of Hudspeth County are so undisturbed that archaeologists have even discovered pottery and petroglyphs from prehistoric people in the arid desert.
- Population density: 75.45 people / 100 square miles
- Population: 843
- Area: 1,117 square miles
Few roads criss-cross Hinsdale County, giving it the distinction of the most remote county in the lower 48 states. Though there are three national forests and plenty of land controlled by the Bureau of Land Management within Hinsdale County, it only has one town: Lake City, the de facto county seat.
- Population density: 75.21 people / 100 square miles
- Population: 884
- Area: 1,175 square miles
Both of the towns in Golden Valley County—Lavina and Ryegate—sit along the Musselshell River, positioning that made them useful waypoints for stagecoach and railroad travelers. Today, it is primarily a farming and ranching community.
- Population density: 73.46 people / 100 square miles
- Population: 718
- Area: 977 square miles
During the homestead era, Treasure County was bustling with farmers, ranchers, and their families. But over the years, changes to the agriculture industry and the economy led more and more people to move away—so much so that Treasure County in 2007 became the fastest-shrinking county in Montana after losing more than 20% of its population over several years.
- Population density: 71.43 people / 100 square miles
- Population: 641
- Area: 897 square miles
Not only is this county named after Gail Borden, the Texan who invented condensed milk, but the county seat, Gail, shares her first name. Prairie grass and mesquite trees dominate the landscape.
- Population density: 68.15 people / 100 square miles
- Population: 783
- Area: 1,149 square miles
This North Dakota county got its name from Frederick Billings, the president of the Northern Pacific Railroad. Though more than 10,000 people called Billings County home in 1910, the population has dwindled to just 783 people today.
- Population density: 67.89 people / 100 square miles
- Population: 1,179
- Area: 1,737 square miles
Prairie County is undoubtedly Big Sky Country: Residents have 1,737 miles of wide-open spaces to traverse. The county was cobbled together from parts of three separate counties in 1915.
- Population density: 67.24 people / 100 square miles
- Population: 478
- Area: 711 square miles
With just four towns within its borders, Blaine County is undoubtedly rural. As of 2010, it was the second-least populated county in Nebraska.
- Population density: 65.60 people / 100 square miles
- Population: 1,734
- Area: 2,643 square miles
McCone County was named after state Sen. George McCone in 1919. The Montana county has just one incorporated town: Circle, which is also the county seat.
- Population density: 64.30 people / 100 square miles
- Population: 460
- Area: 715 square miles
Until 1962, this county's claim to fame was having what was possibly the smallest courthouse in the country. The county was named after President Chester A. Arthur when it was incorporated in 1913.
- Population density: 63.43 people / 100 square miles
- Population: 1,311
- Area: 2,067 square miles
Geology buffs might want to plan a trip to Sioux County, as it's home to two notable locations: Agate Fossil Beds National Monument, home to one of the most significant fossil sites of Miocene Epoch mammals, and Toadstool Geological Park, where visitors can check out unusual rock formations shaped like mushrooms.
- Population density: 62.89 people / 100 square miles
- Population: 2,398
- Area: 3,813 square miles
Culberson County boasts Texas' tallest mountain: the 8,749-foot Guadalupe Peak, which is also known as Signal Peak. Other than tourism to the mountains and Wild West attractions like antique saloons and frontier day celebrations, this county's biggest industry is agriculture.
- Population density: 62.75 people / 100 square miles
- Population: 539
- Area: 859 square miles
This county got its name from Civil War general James Birdseye McPherson when it was created out of unorganized Nebraska territory in 1887. Today, just 539 people live in the entire county.
- Population density: 62.05 people / 100 square miles
- Population: 707
- Area: 1,139 square miles
McMullen County may be small in population, but it is mighty: In 2017, it was named the richest county in the United States with an average adjusted gross income of $303,717. The high dollar amount is largely due to profits from oil and gas fracking, as McMullen County sits atop the U.S.'s most productive shale gas deposit.
- Population density: 59.84 people / 100 square miles
- Population: 727
- Area: 1,215 square miles
Slope County was created out of land from the similarly sparsely populated Billings County in 1914. The county has not able to sustain a large population in the 100-plus years since.
- Population density: 55.66 people / 100 square miles
- Population: 982
- Area: 1,764 square miles
The name of this Colorado county honors a native son: Sam K. Clark, a settler on Medicine Lodge Creek who later became the first state senator from this county. Idahoans might have visited this county to hike or camp at Harriman State Park or soak in the Green Canyon or Heise Hot Springs.
- Population density: 53.80 people / 100 square miles
- Population: 3,725
- Area: 6,924 square miles
Although it is the largest county in New Mexico by land mass, Catron County is the third-smallest by population. Less than 20% of the land here is privately owned: Most is rugged mountain public lands.
- Population density: 52.86 people / 100 square miles
- Population: 1,743
- Area: 3,297 square miles
The Powder River that runs through this Montana county got its name from its sandy banks that look like gunpowder. Most of Powder River County is grazing land for local ranches and farms.
- Population density: 50.27 people / 100 square miles
- Population: 5,345
- Area: 10,633 square miles
Lincoln County covers more than 10,000 square miles of Nevada's high mountain desert. It's a popular destination for UFO enthusiasts, thanks to its close proximity to the infamous Area 51 testing facility. Alien truthers can get a drink at the Little Ale'inn in the town of Rachel after visiting the Alien Research Center in Hiko.
- Population density: 47.59 people / 100 square miles
- Population: 1,987
- Area: 4,176 square miles
Ranching, agriculture, and mining are the three largest industries in Eureka County in central Nevada. Unlike many of the counties on this list, Eureka's population has actually grown in recent years—30% over the past decade, in fact.
- Population density: 46.98 people / 100 square miles
- Population: 1,255
- Area: 2,671 square miles
There are about 10 times as many cattle and sheep in Harding County as there are people, but that doesn't stop residents from having plenty of pride in their home county. Local legends include the story of Tipperary, a rodeo bronco who bucked off 82 cowboys before someone managed to ride him, and the tale of a three-toed gray wolf that supposedly killed $50,000 worth of livestock over his lifetime.
- Population density: 44.99 people / 100 square miles
- Population: 3,141
- Area: 6,982 square miles
This Alaskan county comprises a section of the Aleutian Islands trailing away from the southern tip of the state. Visitors can fly in by seaplane to go hunting, try their hand at sport fishing, or just take in the natural beauty of the region.
- Population density: 43.67 people / 100 square miles
- Population: 7,459
- Area: 17,081 square miles
This census area in Western Alaska is vast—almost twice the size of New Jersey. Though it was formerly named Wade Hampton Census Area after a confederate general and slave owner who never set foot in Alaska, Governor Bill Walker officially changed the name to Kusilvak Census Area in 2015.
- Population density: 41.73 people / 100 square miles
- Population: 984
- Area: 2,358 square miles
Most of the visitors to Terrell County in Texas come to hike the area's canyons and rugged mountains or hunt white-tailed and mule deer. Ranching, oil, and gas are the other large industries.
- Population density: 34.72 people / 100 square miles
- Population: 1,160
- Area: 3,341 square miles
Founded in 1936, the Carter County Museum was the first county museum in Montana. Today, it still shows off an impressive display of fossils collected in the area, most of which was covered by the Pierre Sea and wet marshland in prehistoric times.
- Population density: 32.70 people / 100 square miles
- Population: 695
- Area: 2,125 square miles
When Harding County was founded in 1921—on the same day Warren G. Harding became president of the United States, hence the name—it was a bustling farm community of more than 5,000 residents. Unfortunately, it never recovered from the Dust Bowl, and the landscape of prairie, mesa, and canyons seems even more wide open.
- Population density: 31.40 people / 100 square miles
- Population: 286
- Area: 911 square miles
The tradition of ranching in King County dates all the way back to 1874, when the U.S. Army removed the Commanche from the area. Today, most ranches in the area raise cattle or horses, while farmers grow wheat, hay, and cotton.
- Population density: 29.85 people / 100 square miles
- Population: 494
- Area: 1,655 square miles
The least-populous county in Montana, Petroleum County boasts a population of just under 500 people. Petroleum County is a well-known place for antelope hunting, and sheep- and cattle-farming make up the rest of the local economy.
- Population density: 28.57 people / 100 square miles
- Population: 2,150
- Area: 7,525 square miles
This census area located just outside Juneau has a significant population of Alaska Native people: 39%. It's also gigantic—Connecticut could fit comfortably within its borders.
- Population density: 28.53 people / 100 square miles
- Population: 416
- Area: 1,458 square miles
Archaeological evidence suggests that humans have called this Gulf Coast county home since the Paleo Indian period between 9200 and 6000 BC. Two local entrepreneurs—Mifflin Kenedy, the county's namesake, and Richard King—consolidated most of the viable farmland into ranches in the 1800s, and most of the land remains in their descendants' hands today.
- Population density: 28.38 people / 100 square miles
- Population: 7,029
- Area: 24,769 square miles
The median household income in this Alaskan census area is just over $63,000 per year. This census area is so large, that there is just 0.3 people per square mile.
- Population density: 28.14 people / 100 square miles
- Population: 9,636
- Area: 34,240 square miles
The median household income in the Valdez-Cordova Census Area is higher than the previous Alaska county, at more than $86,000. With 34,240 square miles of land within its borders, it's also one of the largest areas on this list.
- Population density: 26.10 people / 100 square miles
- Population: 4,847
- Area: 18,569 square miles
Harvesting and processing sockeye salmon is the big industry in the Dillingham Census Area, which means the economy is highly seasonal. Related businesses, like cold storage and commercial fishing, dominate the larger towns while many smaller communities practice subsistence activities.
- Population density: 25.79 people / 100 square miles
- Population: 1,206
- Area: 4,675 square miles
There's just one town in rural Garfield County: Jordan, the county seat that was named after settler Arthur Jordan. Jordan was not only responsible for settling the land, but also starting a small general store and petitioning for an official post office in 1899.
- Population density: 21.86 people / 100 square miles
- Population: 783
- Area: 3,582 square miles
It's fitting that ghost towns and historic mining communities are some of the main draws in Esmeralda County, Nevada—it's so sparsely populated that visitors actually come to see the abandoned towns. The landscape is full of rugged mountains, scenic mesas, and huge basins.
- Population density: 14.32 people / 100 square miles
- Population: 1,826
- Area: 12,751 square miles
Denali Borough shares a name with the famous national park that falls within its borders, where visitors flock to see North America's tallest peak as well as wildlife like Dall sheep, caribou, grizzly bears, moose, and wolves. Since the park comprises 6 million acres, it's no surprise that Denali Borough is the fifth most-rural county or borough in America.
- Population density: 12.26 people / 100 square miles
- Population: 82
- Area: 669 square miles
As of the 2010 Census, just 82 humans called Loving County their home. That makes it the county with the smallest total population in the United States, although it's only the fourth most rural by population density.
- Population density: 8.65 people / 100 square miles
- Population: 662
- Area: 7,649 square miles
Both the name of this county and the single year-round town within its borders traces its roots to the local Tlingit people: Yakutat comes from the word Yaakwdáat, which means “the place where the canoes rest.” Yakutat sits on a moraine, or land formed by deposits of rocks and sediment at a glacier's edge.
- Population density: 6.90 people / 100 square miles
- Population: 1,631
- Area: 23,652 square miles
In addition to Lake and Peninsula Borough's 23,653 square miles of land, it also controls another 7,125 square miles of water bordering the peninsula. Katmai National Park and Preserve—world famous for the 2,200 brown bears who call it home—also falls within this borough.
- Population density: 3.84 people / 100 square miles
- Population: 5,588
- Area: 145,505 square miles
The most rural place in the United States is Yukon-Koyukuk Census Area in Central Alaska. This swath of territory covers a whopping 145,505 square miles—about the same size as all of Montana. The Yukon-Koyukuk Census Area is also near the Arctic Circle, so many tourists travel to Fort Yukon, the largest town, to meet their local tour guides.