Last week, I tried to find the most remote county by taking a look at the US road system. While my final answer (Hinsdale County, Colorado) was satisfactory, I wasn’t all that happy with the methodology. So, today, I’m taking a look from a different point of view: distance from population centers. This was much easier, and as a result this post is gonna be short and sweet.

First, I had to define what a “population center” was. I mean, I’m sure that many people in rural areas consider their county seat of 1,500 to be a population center. So, I had the challenge of finding a population parameter that was big enough to make sure that rural areas were counted as such, but small enough to avoid counting any actual cities as “remote”. For my first go, I chose 500,000 as my magic number. After all, half a million has always been the drop-off point between “major city” and “small city” in my head. I found all the counties containing these cities, which gave me this:

From here, it was a simple matter of fill-in-the-blank. By filling in concentric circles of counties adjacent to the population centers, I could figure out which counties were farthest from any major city. The result was an explosion of color and confusion:

Minnesota and the Dakotas monopolize the top of the rankings.

The map is difficult to read, but the end result wasn’t entirely surprising: the most remote areas of the country were in North Dakota. In these four counties (shaded maroon in the northeastern part of the state), you’d need to drive through 16 counties to reach the nearest city of over 500,000. Still, everything felt wrong from the start. One of these four “most remote” counties contained Grand Forks (see map), one of the largest cities in North Dakota; hardly remote, considering the surrounding plains!

There were other problems, too. Places like Miami, Kansas City, and Minneapolis didn’t make the cut as population centers, and their distance from other large cities meant that they were mistakenly categorized as remote – as remote as the Montana prairie. Heck, even a regional superhub, Atlanta, was left off the list. Clearly, my population parameters were all kinds of messed up. So, I changed my minimum population to 100,000. This would ensure that smaller, regional hubs made the cut. The result:

All states had population centers except Maine, Vermont, Delaware West Virginia, and Wyoming.

Now, that’s much better! With more population centers, the number of concentric circles I needed to cover the entire map was cut in half. Take a look:

North Dakota, Michigan’s UP, Minnesota’s shoreline, and Maine take the crown.

With Fargo represented as a population center, my original “most remote” counties in North Dakota didn’t even come close. In fact, there were very few places in the country where you’d have to travel through more than 4 or 5 counties to reach the nearest city. This time around, the remote counties lined up more with my expectations. North Dakota was still represented, but this time the sparse northwestern area was the remote one. Surprisingly, nothing in the Great Plains or the West could match the remoteness of the East. In Washington and Hancock Counties, Maine (see map), you had to travel through 8 counties to get to Manchester, New Hampshire (the nearest city). I’ve been to the Down East area before, and I’d say that my conclusion is justified.

4 Replies to “The Most Remote US County – Using Population Centers”

  1. The areas you concluded were the most remote aren’t bad answers, however, if I understand how you measured it then a county in Northern Maine that is X counties away from the nearest population center would be considered more remote than a remote spot in Nevada or Arizona or Montana that was less than X counties away, even though in actual distance it might be 2X or 3X as far from the population center because counties in the west tend to be bigger due to the history of how county splitting happened and how that evolved over time.

    1. Yeah, that’s the biggest problem with using counties as a unit of measurement. Obviously the middle of the Nevada desert is going to feel more remote than most eastern locations, but there’s no way to do that while still using counties as my main measure.

  2. Nice analysis. You may want to try using the Office of Management and Budget MSAs. This is a relatively defensible parameter to use in case anyone out in the internet ether questions your methodologies.

    From Wikipedia http://tinyurl.com/y8wm32gw :
    The United States Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has defined 383 metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) for the United States and seven for Puerto Rico.[1] The OMB defines a Metropolitan Statistical Area as one or more adjacent counties or county equivalents that have at least one urban core area of at least 50,000 population, plus adjacent territory that has a high degree of social and economic integration with the core as measured by commuting ties.

  3. Idea: Rather than counting concentric “circles” of counties from a population center, what about mileage circles? I suggest that a county whose edge is 200 miles from a population center but only two large contiguous counties away is more remote than one that is 8 contiguous counties away but only 150 miles.

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