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San Clemente Island: An island not in San Clemente.

CHANNEL ISLANDS— San Clemente Island was discovered in 1542 by Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo who called it La Victoria after one of his two ships; soon after discovering the island he died from complications of a fractured arm.

San Clemente Island is the southernmost of the Channel Islands of California. It is owned and operated by the United States Navy since 1934 and is a part of Los Angeles County. It is roughly 21 miles long and contains 57 square miles of land.

San Clemente Island is of volcanic origin and erupted millions of years ago from the sea. The entire island is covered with a burned, volcanic, sharp rock. Many caves and caverns were formed on the island when it was a molten mass by gas bubbles in the lava. The gas bubbles would burst on the surface leaving the caves or caverns in this cooling mass of molten rock.

The Tongva, an indigenous group from California, well-attested from Catalina Island, called the Island “Kenkopa.” The Chumash, Native American people from central and southern coastal regions of California, are also believed to have influenced the inhabitants.

San Clemente is known as a secret city for naval training purposes. Modeled on Beirut and Baghdad, San Clemente’s “fake city” was built in the 2000s to train units for Military Operations in Urban Terrain (MOUT). After years of sheep ranching in the early 1900s, the islands’ desert environment adds a further Middle Eastern flair to military training in the fake city.

San Clemente Island is composed chiefly of volcanic rock. It has marine terraces and several canyons, streams, waterfalls, and freshwater pools on its surface.

The island is parallel to the major faults of the California mainland. It is often described as a tilted piece of land rising out of the ocean, a dramatic example of the earth’s crust with a steeper northern side and a more gently sloping southern side.

San Clemente Island promotes environmental education on the Central Coast through lectures and habitat restoration volunteer opportunities. It conducts research and monitoring to identify further habitat restoration efforts. According to, “San Nicolas and San Clemente Islands are owned by the U.S. Navy, and the public is prohibited from landing there, although some charter companies offer diving trips near those islands.”

Today Channel Islands Restoration, a 501(c)(3) non-profit contractor that works to restore habitat on the Channel Islands, including san Clemente Islands, and adjacent mainland through invasive plant management, native plant propagation, and native plant installation.

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