Least Visited U.S. Counties

On June 30, 2011 · 8 Comments

Of all the 3,143 counties and county-equivalents in the United States, which are the least visited? I don’t think there is any definitive way to know for certain. As a proxy, however, I examined the 20 least visited counties for the Lower 48 states listed on the Mob Rule county counting website. This may not be a perfect list but it should closely approximate it. After all, these are people who go out of their way to catalog county visits. Counties at the very bottom of their collective list are undoubtedly inconvenient places to visit.

Least visited doesn’t mean lowest population, it means fewest non-residents entering a physical space, although I imagine there would be a general correlation. Each of the Bottom 20 provides plenty of elbow room. A lightly populated county can still have plenty of visitors though however fleeting: imagine rural outposts that straddle Interstate Highways or serve as a gateway to national parks. Loving County, Texas, the least populated county in the United States has only 82 residents but it does not appear in the Bottom 20.

I took the Mob Rule list and plotted the twenty counties on a map.

View Least Visited U.S. Counties in a larger map

Fourteen of the Bottom 20 fell into the upper Great Plains of the Dakotas; nine in North Dakota and five in South Dakota. Montana scored next with four more, followed by Nebraska and Texas with one each. Most of them were fairly tightly clustered except for the outlier in Texas which was all the way down in 20th place anyway. I can’t say that I’m all that surprised. The northern plains tend to be lightly populated and a bit out of the way. Visitors don’t run into them accidentally. They need to have a reason to explore and there aren’t that many reasons available as compared to other areas of the nation.

I’m going to take a look at the four least-visited counties and see if I can come up with some reasons. Maybe these will create sufficient interest to get them out of the Bottom 20.

Grant County, North Dakota (tied for first place)

View Larger Map

Grant has a website, sort of, and I love the picture of it’s boxy courthouse with all the brick and one large window.

Reason to visit: General George Custer camped out about nine miles northeast of Carson, the county seat, on his way to being annihilated at the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876. There was also a stagecoach line that ran through the southern end of the county. There are plenty of elements of the "old west" in Grant County for aficionados of that era.

Daniels County, Montana (tied for first place)

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How rural is Scobey, the county seat? The local Chamber of Commerce is called the Chamber of Commerce and Agriculture. The population density is only about one person per square mile. They once picked-up Scobey and moved it 1.5 miles. The Great Northern Railroad came through Grant County but bypassed the Scobey. The railroad wasn’t going change its route so the only alternative was to move the town.

Reason to visit: The Daniels County Museum and Pioneer Town. Historic buildings have been collected from miles around to recreate the feel of a pioneer town from the early 1900’s. They accept Canadian currency and they offer AAA discounts; sometime nice for visitors from either side of the border. Visitors can also go to the Scobey Border Station and visit one of the places mentioned in a previous article, "What Crosses an Airport Runway?"

Logan County, North Dakota (tied for third place)

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Napoleon is the county seat and it’s not named after the Napoleon you might expect unless you descended from Napoleon Goodsill. He was the president of the townsite board. Gee, I wonder who selected the town’s name?

Reason to visit: I’d visit the town of King assuming it still exists. The biggest historical event in Logan County happened in 1899 when King stole the county seat title. Napoleon took it back a year later. Also it should be pretty easy to reach Logan County. It’s only 75 miles from Bismark, and a straight shot south of an Interstate highway. It’s probably the most convenient of the least visited.

McPherson County, South Dakota (tied for third place)

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McPherson County has the most attractive courthouse and a nice template for its website. It’s a little light on content, though.

Reason to visit: Leola, the county seat, fashions itself as the "Rhubarb Capital of the World." That by itself should be reason enough to visit. This entire area was also settled by Germans of Russian Heritage with Leola and McPherson County at the epicenter. I didn’t have time to research this further but I am sure there is a fascinating story behind this, with plenty of historical fingerprints left upon the land.

The rest of the Bottom 20 are as follows: McIntosh, ND (5th), Ransom, ND (6th), Ziebach, SD (7th), Garfield, MT (8th-tie), Griggs, ND (8th-tie), Dewey, SD (8th-tie), Faulk, SD (8th-tie), Marshall, SD (12th), Sheridan, MT (13th-tie), Sargent, ND (13th-tie), Steele, ND (13th-tie), Eddy, ND (16th), McPherson, NE (17th), Chouteau, MT (18th-tie), Cavalier, ND (18th-tie), Cochran, TX (20th).

I’ve not been to a single one of these counties yet, but I will someday.

On June 30, 2011 · 8 Comments

8 Responses to “Least Visited U.S. Counties”

  1. Peter says:

    It wouldn’t surprise me if Loving County gets some visitors who are drawn by the fact that it is the nation’s least populated county.

    • Exactly! There are lots of reasons why small populations don’t necessarily equate to few visitors. Some explanations are more mundane (an Interstate highway just happens to run through the county); others are more exciting at least to niche communities like geo-oddity collectors, fishermen & hunters, hot air balloonists, whatever…

  2. Alger says:

    Do you have numbers? Just for comparison with some baseline, like what county is average?

    I have been in Grant County. My ex-wife was from Elgin, IL and had been told that there were only two in the entire US by a teacher. I toured the country looking for Elgins and sending her pictures of the town signs (Elgin, Nebraska is the Vetch Capital of the World). Or crossroads when the town had died (Elgin, Missouri). Elgin, North Dakota didn’t stand out at the time but now I have to rethink the importance of the experience. As a result of that trip I think I have been to at least half of the counties on your list.
    A Minor Distinction to be sure.

  3. Doug R. says:

    Just think of the traffic spikes on the county web sites you linked to! (Wow! 20 hits today!!!?!) Hope we don’t crash any of them…

  4. Origuy says:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Germans_in_Russia_and_the_Soviet_Union tells why there were a lot of Germans in Russia and why they left. For 300 years, the tsars encouraged German immigration, particularly Peter and Catherine. Plus, many of the lands conquered by Russia over the years, notably the Baltics and Poland, had substantial German populations. Alexander III eliminated many of the privileges of the German speakers and subjected them to military conscription. Probably they went to North Dakota because it is similar to the Russian steppes. A lot went to Canada, too.

  5. Thias says:

    So… There was a conflict between King and Napoleon? That seems familiar.

  6. Philip says:

    I used to live in Montana and have explored the state plenty over the years. I’ve in fact been through Choteau County at least once but none of the others listed here. I vaguely remember not much of Choteau as we went through it and the town of Choteau (in an adjacent county) on a side-trip to see the area that inspired the dinosaur dig site at the beginning of Jurassic Park (I believe the movie sub-titles it as “near Choteau, Montana”). It’s pretty barren out there. I’m also not surprised Sheridan County is so under-visited. Plentywood is REMOTE even as far as Montana is concerned (one would conside. I worked for the Billings Gazette for five years and we pretty much carried the entire eastern portion of the state (a huge area size-wise but not population-wise outside of Billings). I’m not sure I’ve been through P-Wood (as we called it) but I have been to the even more remote town of Westby that straddles the county and state border with North Dakota). That part can be easily visited if your heading out to Fort Union for the day (from Williston, ND). It would take a 7-hour drive just to get out there from Billings.

    I live in your neck of the woods now (Bethesda, MD) and I know in 7-hours I could get four or five states under my belt.

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