I’ve lived in six different locations throughout my life. All of them were within 30 miles of the nearest major city, and each one had at least one interstate running through the county. I suspect this is the case with most Americans; after all, while our country is filled with wide open spaces, more and more of us are flocking to urban areas.

The urban migration. Via Governing Magazine.

Still, the wilderness has a certain appeal to it. It’s nice to imagine losing yourself in the middle of nowhere, where there are less mundane responsibilities and time seems to move slower. The contrast between urban and rural areas in the US got me thinking: what was the most remote place in America? This question has been asked before, with varying answers. However, I will get one thing out of the way: obviously, Alaska has many of this nation’s most remote locales. So, for these particular posts, I’ll be excluding Alaska and Hawaii.

So, what makes a place remote? Is it its distance from the nearest major population center? Its distance from the next town of any population? Perhaps it’s the difficulty of getting there, through the lack of efficient road networks. In my opinion, remoteness can mean all of these things. So, over the next couple of weeks I’ll be finding the most remote places in America by looking through different lenses. I’ll begin today by looking at the USA’s road network.

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These shields will come in handy later. Via Wikimedia Commons.

America has one of the best road systems in the world, and it’s easy to get pretty much anywhere with a standard car. Still, there are some places that remain on the fringes of the network. Today, I’ll look at the counties that are the farthest removed from the country’s main arteries, using my own (very unscientific) methodology. I’ll be using a process of elimination to figure out the most remote counties to get to by car.

First, we can eliminate any counties that have interstates running through them. This automatically gets rid of over 40% of the nation’s counties, but we’re still left with well over 1,000. So, let’s also eliminate any county that contains a federal highway. In short, we’re treating any roads that bear the famous white or blue shield as major arteries. This still leaves us with over 250 “remote” counties.

The first round of cuts.

There are some interesting observations to be made from the above map. First of all, just because a road isn’t federally maintained doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s not a major artery. For example, in California’s Central Valley, State Road 99 is the major highway for large cities such as Visalia (see map). However, under my criteria some of these clearly urban counties still count as “remote.” The same applies in New Jersey: Cumberland County (see map) is considered “remote” despite containing several cities and the main highway between Philadelphia and the shore. Clearly, I had to dig deeper.

My next round of elimination focused on proximity to interstates. If a county’s neighbor contained an interstate, that county was eliminated. I figured that most people living in these counties would still have a relatively easy drive to get onto the highway. After this next round of eliminations, the map looked like this:

Getting more remote…

Now, that’s much better. The number of “remote” counties was cut to just 70, and many of them were in places you might expect: the Appalachians, the Ozarks, and the sprawling Great Plains. Of course, this methodology wasn’t perfect. It eliminated many of the larger counties in the more rugged west, while preserving counties like Nantucket and Dukes in Massachusetts (see map) that were fairly close to urban centers. Still, I was making progress. Time to dig deeper.

My next round of eliminations focused on Google Maps. In short, Google divides its roads into three colors: Orange, yellow, and white. Orange was typically reserved for freeways, while yellow roads denoted intermediate local routes. I figured that if a county only had white roads on Google, it was more remote than its counterparts. This process cut the map down significantly once again. Take a look:

Much better.

This final map shows the 12 most remote counties in the United States, according to the road system. I was surprised at the representation of the Chesapeake region in this final map – guess my trip to St. Mary’s County last week wasn’t enough to drive home how out-of-the-way this area was. In many ways, though, this map is exactly what I expected. I knew that the West would be underrepresented due to the size of the counties, and I knew that many Appalachian and Atlantic counties relied on small local roads.

Now, it was time to figure out which of these 12 counties was the most remote. I looked at each remaining county to determine which one had the least state roads running through it. After all, if a county had to maintain all of its own roads, it was essentially forgotten by the rest of the road system. Through this method, I reached a surprising conclusion. Both Dukes and Nantucket Counties in Massachusetts had no state roads! Despite being located less than 100 miles from Boston, these counties were the farthest removed from the road system. I suppose this made sense, since both required ferry access. Still, it felt like cheating.

MV Nantucket August 2017

It just feels wrong. Via Wikimedia Commons.

So, I looked for the next best candidate. The result was clear: Hinsdale County, Colorado (see map) only had one road running through it. And I don’t mean one state road, either. Hinsdale literally only has one paved thru-road running through it, the Silver Thread Scenic Byway. I’d driven this road before, and I can attest to the sheer wildness of the county. I feel confident declaring Hinsdale the winner. Despite the East’s best efforts, the wild West still prevails.

Empire Chief mine, 2001

Scenes from Hinsdale County. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Tune in next week when I look at this same concept from the perspective of population centers!

5 Replies to “The Most Remote US County – Using Roads”

  1. Can’t argue with your end result as a viable answer although I’ve been to some places with US highways that were pretty darn remote in spite of that. Isn’t US 50 through Nevada called the loneliest highway or something like that. But having kicked around the northeast recently I can’t argue with some of those counties in states many of us think of as being urban actually having areas that are far from it even if geographically close-ish to urban areas.

    1. Yeah, it’s definitely not a perfect analysis. The West was heavily underrepresented, particularly Nevada, Utah, and West Texas.

  2. I loved driving along Hwy 50 in NV, but I’ve been on lonelier roads. 🙂 I like this analysis, I drove from Montrose to Alamosa, via Lake City and Creede, a few years ago. Yep. I would have to say that Hinsdale County is incredibly remote. Beautiful country and NOBODY on the road. Loved it out there.

  3. I look forward to your further analyses. For me ‘remote’ has always meant both ‘hard to get to’ and having a lack of accessable services for living there. By that definition parts of the Loneliest Road would qualify while other parts would not. Wondering if Hinsdale County had anyone actually living there……
    As for me I am a small town girl now and my definition of remote is more than 15 minutes away from a buying a quart of milk (or ice cream, as the need arises)

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