Most Landlocked State

The query simply said, "Most Landlocked State." It seemed innocent enough as I pondered it. I believed it would have a simple solution. However, the more I considered it the more I figured the answer could vary based upon one’s definition of landlocked. I wish I could ask the anonymous searcher what he (or she) meant but that’s not possible. I’ll throw out a few alternatives and let the Intertubes decide.

At a fundamental level, does he mean "state" as in an independent nation or as part of a larger entity such as one of the fifty United States? If it’s nation then I’d propose Uzbekistan and Liechtenstein. They are both Doubly Landlocked, meaning they are landlocked nations completely surrounded by other landlocked nations. Thus, Uzbekistan and Liechtenstein are probably as good a choice as any.

However I’m going to examine the other alternative in a bit more detail by bringing the discussion to the United States. I’m also considering the possibility that states bordering the Great Lakes aren’t truly landlocked: massive ships can navigate a full 2,300 miles (3,700 km) from the Atlantic Ocean to Duluth, Minnesota. Some of the 12MC audience may disagree with that premise and that’s fine. I’m going to run with it.

Given that assumption, there are two U.S. states that are double landlocked: Kansas and Nebraska. Perhaps those are the most landlocked states?

I defined a concept I termed "borderlocking" in an article I posted nearly two years ago: Layers of Borderlocking. It was a similar exercise although I focused my efforts at one level below the states, down at the county level. This created a rather colorful map with seventeen layers of borderlocking. Feel free to go back to the original article if you’d like a better description of what you’re seeing below.

Level of County Landlocking in the United States

The full seventeen layers happens in a handful of counties in Kansas and in a single county in Nebraska. Interesting. That method also seems to favor Kansas and Nebraska as the most landlocked states, with a slight nod to Kansas.

One might also consider the point of land within the United States that’s the farthest away from a coastline. That pole of inaccessibility, not only for the USA but for the entirety of North America, falls in southwest South Dakota. One would have to travel 1,030 miles (1,650 km) to reach the nearest coastline from that point.

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Now that seems truly landlocked! So is the answer South Dakota?

I considered one other possibility. I already allowed an exception for Great Lake states because they’re water accessible. What if I took that concept one step further and defined landlocked as only those places where water could not escape to an ocean (eventually)? Which state has the most acreage within endorheic watersheds?

SOURCE: Wikimedia Commons under Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Great Basin would be an obvious choice to investigate further. It covers most of Nevada and much of Utah, plus portions of several other states although to considerably lesser degrees. Water falls into the Basin but it doesn’t flow outward, leading to amazing oddities such as the Bonneville Salt Flats that I was lucky enough to visit last summer.

I’d propose Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota and Nevada as feasible options for the most landlocked state, but I still don’t feel completely comfortable with any of those answers. Are there other ways we can consider this phenomenon and help out our anonymous reader?

Layers of Borderlocking

Is Borderlock (-ed) (-ing) even a word? I don’t think so. "Landlocked" is a perfectly fine word but it doesn’t quite cover the situation I’m attempting to describe. I noticed a query that arrived recently on the Twelve Mile Circle from a user of a well-known search engine and it piqued my curiosity.

I’ve started many an article with a lead-in just like that. Truthfully, this is a great idea generator and an occasional benefit that comes with checking the access logs each day. Sometimes the fishing net drags-in an unexpected haul that results in an article. This time the search term seemed rather innocuous but it entertained me for several hours: "how many Maryland counties border another state?"

I know, I’m easily amused. It’s a gift.

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I though first, well almost all of them since Maryland is small, skinny and irregularly shaped. However, what does "border another state" actually mean? Certainly counties sharing a land border with the state boundary count towards that tally. I suppose a case could also be made for waterborne boundaries, and in this instance Maryland owns the Potomac River up the the shoreline of Virginia. Thus all Maryland counties except Anne Arundel, Calvert, Talbot and the the City of Baltimore (independent and considered a "county equivalent" — but not to be confused with the County of Baltimore proper).

Then I started having some fun with it and began to wonder, what would happen if I expanded the definition to also include counties that had direct access to the sea. Thus, are there any truly "borderlocked" counties within Maryland? Those would be counties that neither touch a state border not have a reasonable outlet to the sea. They would have to be completely enclosed within the interior of the state. Trapped. Make that slight change to the definition, note that Baltimore City, Calvert and Talbot all have direct access to the sea, and only Howard County remains totally borderlocked.

I took it a step further. How many levels of borderlocking exist for each of the fifty states? These would be instances of one or more borderlocked counties hemmed in by a ring of borderlocked counties, then surrounded by another ring of borderlocked counties, and so on. It’s kind-of like a double landlocked country but a little different. Maryland, as we just observed, has ONE level of borderlocking. Travel from borderlocked Howard County to any of its neighboring counties and one will find direct access to the state border either by land or by sea.

In homage to my obsessive-compulsive side, this is what it looked like for all fifty states.

Level of County Landlocking by State

Indeed, I colored each of the 3,000+ counties in the United States on this map to determine the level of borderlocking for each state. Now, in my defense, it didn’t take very long. I could have been excessively precise but I guessed liberally when it was close. I am sure there are errors contained here but I have a life so I didn’t spend hours obsessing over exact precision (hmm… just spotted one now but I’m too lazy to go back and fix it). I also discovered that this method of mapping was fairly self-healing: an error might impact the coloring of one or two counties but it usually didn’t change the formation of subsequent ring(s).

By the way, feel free to right-click the image and open open it up in another tab if you want to see it in greater detail. I shrunk it down to fit within the confines of the blog template but the full-sized image has already been read by your browser and still lurks behind the scenes — I simply adjusted the width and height of the image tag in the underlying HTML code.

The various states fall into ranges. There are some states like Connecticut (sorry, CTMQ), Rhode Island and Delaware that have ZERO borderlocking where every county straddles the state border, either by land or by sea. The greatest extremities exist in Georgia and Kentucky with four levels of borderlocking, plus the Grand Champion found only Texas with an astounding FIVE levels of borderlocking. That’s right, there are select people in Texas who would have to cross through a minimum of five counties before hitting the state border.

Apparently that wasn’t enough for me. I had to discover the most borderlocked counties in the United States overall rather than by individual state, so I produced the following map.

Level of County Landlocking in the United States

Before I looked at the resulting data I have to say that I appreciated the map first on an artistic scale. It reminded me of the inside of a geode; morphing and changing as it drew closer towards the center. I found myself staring at the image on its own terms as much as I pondered the geographic implications. It’s kind-of mesmerizing.

What this says, assuming I’ve drawn and counted this correctly, is that there are only SEVENTEEN layers of borderlocking for the collective counties of the United States. Think about it. Nobody, ever, is more than seventeen counties away from an international border or the sea. That extreme definition applies only to a scattering of counties in eastern Kansas plus one lonely county in far southeastern Nebraska. Most people are considerably closer.

A traveler could and probably would take a more circuitous route involving many more counties unless he wanted to undertake this trip on foot. However, in theory at least, he could reach a land or sea border by traversing seventeen counties or fewer depending upon his starting point. Can it be done by automobile? I’m not sure. The path would need to avoid places where the layers meet at a single point (e.g. square counties connected on a diagonal). I think I see a possibility heading from eastern Kansas towards the general direction of Lake Michigan. Maybe I’ll save that puzzle for a future article if people seem interested. Maybe someday you’ll earn the bragging rights by being the first person to drive it!

This isn’t what I expected to find at all. Thank you random visitor who had no idea that I’d latch onto it somehow and take it down this path.