Visiting San Nicolas the Island of the Blue Dolphins

visiting san nicolas

Map of the island © Santa Barbara Botanic Garden

Visiting San Nicolas Island off of the coast of California is no easy feat. There’s really only one way, working for the Navy in some capacity. So, managing to get on a trip with Channel Islands Restoration, an organization that is contracted for environmental restoration on San Nicolas, was a huge opportunity. The following is my trip log for my journey out to the beautiful Island of the Blue Dolphins where I helped support CIR’s amazing work.

(Please note that NONE of the pictures in this post are mine. No photos of the island are allowed without permission from the Navy.  Channel Island Restoration contractors are not allowed to bring cameras of any kind. If you would like to see more of San Nicolas, please look through William T. Reid’s photography over at his blog He has graciously allowed me to include a couple of his photos here.)

The Journey to San Nicolas

visiting san nicolas

Anacapa and Santa Cruz (c) filippo_jean on Flickr (marked for reuse)

Luckily, on the morning that I was flying out to the island, I managed to find the right meeting place. I was immediately greeted by a wonderful group of people. I really have to say, if you are interested in volunteering for the environment of the Channel Islands, I can’t sing the praises of Channel Islands Restoration enough. They are an amazing organization and I am really happy that I managed to get myself out to their trip.

After meeting up with the group, we made our way to the gateway to the base. From there, we drove to the little one-room airport terminal. I had no idea what to expect once we were there, but checking in was little different than when I had flown on the little plane to Vieques. Checking the weight of you and your bags.

A Special Flight

What was more complicated was the plane schedule itself, or rather… getting back and forth, because thick fog and heavy winds are common on San Nicolas. The planes flying out there can’t really deal with either. So, our group ended up waiting several hours in the terminal, along with everyone else on our flight and the one before ours, which had yet to leave.

When we did climb onto the plane, I was delighted to get a single seat next to the window. There were far too many clouds for me to see any of the Channel Islands on the journey. But I was happy to watch the wavering layer of water vapor float by as we got nearer and nearer to this forbidden island. I honestly never thought I would be visiting San Nicolas Island.

Welcome to the Island of the Blue Dolphins

visiting san nicolas

Channel Islands Fox from Wikipedia

As we landed, I got my first view of the desert island, and its characteristic flat mesa where little roads criss-crossed through the dry plant communities. Little buildings popped up here and there, boxy and defined by their utilitarian design. Once we landed, we pilled into a volunteer van and made our way to Nick Town. This is where all of the restaurants, barracks, and hotel rooms are. With a view of the ocean, I found this little Navy village to be inviting, if not vibrant and busy. I was also delighted to find out that the hotel there was extremely comfortable and even luxurious in comparison to many of the places that I stay.

Due to our delay at the airport, we took some time to hit up the little store in town. There I secured a gallon of drinking water and perused the sparsely stocked shelves for a souvenir. I settled on a wide, metal mug with the base logo on it.

Afterwards, we charged up for work by grabbing a cheap lunch at the cafeteria-esque Galley. Massive burritos were on offer and we all tucked in, enjoying the calories after our journey and hoping for it to carry us through the afternoon’s work.

Lending a Hand

visiting san nicolas

Coreopsis gigantea | by John Game (labeled for reuse)

Once we had finished, the lot of us headed out into the field. Channel Islands Restoration carries out work on several of California’s Channel Islands. They raise and plant native plants for a variety of projects seeking to bring the islands closer to their natural state. Many of the Channel Islands were used as ranches in the past, which caused and necessitated major environmental changes.

On this trip, our work was to go through an older planting area to weed out non-native plants (plants that were brought to the islands by American settlers, in this case) and check on temporary irrigation lines. The extra water is meant to give the native plants a foot up as they establish and have to compete with young non-native plants. In the end, it was hoped that this work would a have a two-fold positive impact. (1) It would create a stripe of native plants, and (2) it would stabilize the soil, which is particularly important in the often windy environment San Nicolas.

Learning More About the Plant Community

Luckily for me, it wasn’t back breaking work and we moved relatively fast. I also had the opportunity to work with one of the senior volunteers, who had been out to San Nicolas with Channel Islands Restoration many times before. She was a wonderful teacher, who patiently taught me each of the native plants and their non-native nemeses (which she lovingly referred to as “the bad guys”).

When we had finished for that day, our illustrious and kind volunteer coordinator (seriously, this guy was amazing; I think his job must be so difficult and he wears so many hats- scientist, restorationist, volunteer coordinator/trainer, and tour guide) pilled us all into the van and took us out to see some of the sights.

I wasn’t expecting to get to do this while visiting San Nicolas Island, so needless to say, I was delighted.

Sightseeing on San Nicolas

visiting san nicolas

Tranquility Beach (c) William T. Reid (Used with permission)

We took a road that cross the middle of the island and then curled around to the coast through forests of small trees called Giant Coreopsis. These eventually gave way to dunes and ice plants (non-native) as we came down from the central plateau of San Nicolas and moved towards the ocean. This area had previously been heavily impacted by ranching. At one point, there was hardly a plant left due to overgrazing. This caused the dunes to become wild, without any roots to slow them down.

Things are a bit better now. Without grazing pressure, plants (both native and non-native) have returned and stabilized many areas. Channel Islands Restoration and the Navy has been hard at work giving native plants a chance to come back. It has been a long journey and there is much further to go. But where ranch animals were dominating the landscape not too long ago, tiny Island Foxes now frolic in on an island which is slowly recovering its biodiversity.

San Nicolas is also a very important habitat for marine mammals such as elephant seals, sea lions, and even otters (it’s the only site in southern California that has a population of them after they were nearly hunted to extinction by fur traders). When they are out on the beach, people should keep their distance. These animals are very shy.

The Island Coast

visiting san nicolas

Beautiful San Nicolas Island (c) William T. Reid (Used with permission)

Tranquility Beach, our first stop on our little tour, is a popular place for marine mammals. When we visited, however, it was deserted. So, under the watchful eye of our volunteer coordinator, we wandered out onto the sand. The air and sea were calm as we combed through shells we couldn’t take home, marveling at how beautiful they all were. The only sign that there had been elephant seals all over the beach in earlier weeks were the scraps of their shed fur that they had left behind.

Once we were done there, we continued driving around the island, where we passed through the driest area. I almost felt at home as we navigated down a road surrounded by cholla. We stopped at a loading pier where we stepped out to silently watch the sea lions far down on the beach. They didn’t notice us as we kept quiet, and two young pups frolicked with one another in the surf. It was a beautiful sight.

We topped the night off with a hearty dinner of burgers, salads, sandwiches and cookies at the restaurant in Nick Town. I can’t say how much I appreciated the soft, cozy bed of the hotel room when I finally returned for the night. No computer or phone to distract me from sleeping.

Locking the Keys in the Car

visiting San Nicolas

NOT something that we saw; elephant seals use San Nicolas at some times of the year and no one is allowed to disturb them. From Pixabay.

I took my breakfast in my room the next day, and met with the team for an early morning start on our project. Skilled from the day before, we worked quickly and before lunch we had finished up everything we needed to in the field. So we returned to the nursery where Channel Island Restoration raises the plants that they use for their projects on San Nicolas. We cleaned, and prepped tools for the next project before gathering our things to catch our flight off of the island in the mid-afternoon.

I had a minor heart attack when the keys got locked in our van, along with most people’s luggage. I was really afraid that we would miss our flight, as the small planes did not wait for late comers. Luckily, our volunteer coordinator and the island transportation head had us covered with the spare key. We made it on time to the airport.

But… ten minutes after everyone got checked in, it was announced that we wouldn’t be going anywhere that night. There had been an accident on the runway on the mainland, and the clean up would take some time. We had to settle in for a surprise extra night. Such are the risks one runs when visiting San Nicolas Island and other remote places like it.

Some Things Are Meant to Be

visiting San Nicolas

Rock Crusher from

With my 7-8 hr drive home between me and home, whenever I could get a plane, plus work piling up, I found this a little distressing. But once again, our coordinator came to the rescue. He got us set up at the hotel again, and then took us out to one of the most special places on San Nicolas. Rock Crusher.

There we got to walk among the strange stone structures on the coast, and marvel at the endless break off the island in the ocean. We were all tired, and when we settled down to take in all of the beauty around us, a tiny otter surfaced in the kelp.

It seemed like a sign. Even though we were all stressed out, and weren’t planning to spend an extra night on the island, we were meant to be there. For me, it was a moment of pure beauty in which I found myself bathing in gratitude for the opportunity to be there, in that special, secluded place. I was grateful to have been given the chance to help Channel Island Restoration in their amazing mission, and lucky to have been with such an amazing group of people.

More Information on San Nicolas Island

For amazing photography of San Nicolas (and more) be sure to look through William T. Reid’s Stormbruiser blog!

If you’d like to donate your time or money to the effort to repair the environment of the Channel Islands, please visit Channel Islands Restoration to learn more about all the cool projects that they are working on.

We also have a guide to the Channel Islands chain if you’d like to know more.

visiting san nicolas

visiting san nicolas



Food Finds: Reathrey Sekong and Novel Ice Cream


The Island of the Blue Dolphins: What’s The Big Deal About San Nicolas Island?


  1. What an incredible opportunity! I hope you get to go back and see an elephant seal one day!!

    • waitingforrain28

      That would be great! But hopefully somewhere where I won’t disturb them.

  2. What a beautiful island! It sounds like it was a little tricky to get to and has to be scheduled carefully but that it is worth it! Love how there is so much wildlife on this island!

    • waitingforrain28

      Definitely difficult to get to, but worth it for sure. It was also great to have such a genuine opportunity to lend a helping hand.

  3. Love an island and now I have another to visit, thank you!

    • waitingforrain28

      Islands are my absolute favorite, but this was the hardest to visit so far. It was definitely wonderful to give back while getting visit though.

  4. sue

    Amazing journey and a very special experience (including the bonus night). I’m a little jealous and happy that you wrote about Nicolas Island.

    • waitingforrain28

      Thank you! It is a very special experience to me, in particular because it was also very difficult. So glad I got to help the Channel Islands Restoration non-profit.

  5. Wow that’s a great opportunity you got. Island looks incredible and Serene.

    • waitingforrain28

      Thank you! It was amazing, and definitely serene even though it is being used by the Navy.

  6. San Nicolas island is my favorite place in the world! I’ve spent over a year anchored around that incredible island. I am an underwater and offshore photographer. As a civilian with no affiliation i was invited to island by the CO. It was a great honor and a day that i will never forget..I’ve been to that wreck and it is an awesome place..

    • waitingforrain28

      Wow! That is amazing! I am so jealous. Hahaha. Honestly, getting to visit San Nicolas is one of my most treasured memories, so I can only imagine how cool it was to be invited by the CO. Have you been able to visit San Clemente?


    was stationed there 1976-1978 with the navy
    explored every inch of island, left my name in a cave
    along with names from other explorers from the past
    some from the 1800,s ,love the abalone and lobster
    great place, read lady of the blue dolphins in J.H.S.
    when I was there there were feral cats and 2 ravens
    behind the navy galley, took a lot of pics.

    • waitingforrain28

      Oh wow! Thank you so much for sharing. That must have been a very unique few years- San Nicolas is really a magical place. I bet your pictures are amazing!

  8. Michael

    San Clemente Island as well as San Nicholas Island have been absconded by the federal government, and I don’t like it. There is no reason for an early warning aircraft alert off shore in this day and age. Really, two of the best islands we have offshore. Can’t walk on them, fish unless given permission or camp out and enjoy the island solitude. Nope, this abduction is uncalled for and I as a citizen don’t like it. Maybe they can get the sea lions to wear a mask, but not this old goat.

    • waitingforrain28

      Hey Michael, I honestly wish that these islands were also available and taken care of as public lands for many reasons. I wonder if we will ever see a time where this is the case. Otherwise, these beautiful places will be nearly impossible to see for most folks.

    • George bullen

      As soon as they open up that Islands they’d be trash everywhere people would ruin it

      • waitingforrain28

        Well, I doubt that will happen any time soon, if ever in our lifetimes. But the other islands are very well stewarded by the National Parks and TNC.

  9. Rose Rutkowski

    Thank you for this great article! I am visiting Santa Cruz Island next month and rereading Island of the Blue Dolphins in prep. Your article will help me be more mindful.

    • waitingforrain28

      That’s amazing to hear, Rose! I hope you have a great trip!

  10. Kenneth L BESCOE

    Pulled my sea duty there, 18 months, loved it, lobster, sheep head were great and the diving was unreal.

    • waitingforrain28

      Oh wow! I can’t even imagine. That is such a cool and unique experience.

  11. Veronica D.

    While watching the Hallmark channel they advertised a new Hallmark movie that’s airing tonight call “Navigating Christmas” and it’s about a snowstorm diverting a private plan to Christmas Island, and the name San Nicolas was mentioned. So, I Google searched the name; how awesome to know it’s a real place and from the pictures here, absolutely beautiful ❤️. Thank you for sharing. You were truly blessed to have this most memorable and exciting opportunity!!! 💖

    • waitingforrain28

      I really was! I often feel grateful for having been able to visit such a beautiful and hard-to-reach place.

  12. Veronica D.

    Thank you for your reply. Earlier I wrote about the Hallmark Channel featuring a show & mentioned San Nicholas; I was wrong. The correct location is St. Nicholas Island Lighthouse, two totally different places. Both beautiful and unique.
    Thank you for sharing your amazing experience with us. I’m grateful I found this site because I’ve learned something new and was able to see history and beauty in a remote place. You were truly blessed to have experienced something soòo amazing. Thank you again 💕
    Happy Holidays 😊

  13. Brad Mongeau

    San Nicolas is my favorite place in the world, i’ve spent over a year anchored around the island in my skiff since ’93. I have been doing offshore and underwater photography there for decades and i have a million pictures and stories. In 2016 the Commanding Officer of the island invited me for a visit. A Special Agent with the NCIS came to my house a few days prior, then had me to meet him at Pt Mugu. Lt,CDR Kemp met us at the terminal and took us to breakfast then dropped us off at Cissy Beach. He and i had a blast trekking to the pier before flying out that afternoon. That was a tremendous honor for this old sailor. I made a short video on youtube:

  14. Paul Coville

    I served on San Nicolas Island in the late sixties I loved it.

  15. Micah

    oh this place looks amazing!

  16. Noel

    Was fun to see this! I spent a lot of time out on San Nick 20 some years ago doing archaeological field school and field work. Stayed in the CBQ and worked on a number of different units of a site near the theodolite building near Tule Creek. As well as lab work in the old building NW of Nicktown. Found some fascinating stuff over the years, including an island fox burial.

    Happened upon this searching for some stuff regarding SNI native plants. My partner and I met in field school out there and we collect Eriogonum sp. and have been trying to find a source for Eriogonum grande var. timorum.

    Thanks for the walk down memory lane with these photos!

    • waitingforrain28

      Wow, an island fox burial? That does sound really fascinating!! What a cool and unique experience. And thanks to Stormbruiser for letting me share some of his photos on my site. I wasn’t allow to take any when I visited – sadly!

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