San Nicolas Island is surrounded by broad areas of shallow subtidal habitat, characterized by dynamic kelp forest communities that undergo dramatic and abrupt shifts in community composition. Although these reefs are fished, the physical isolation of the island means that they receive less impact from human activities than most reefs in Southern California, making San Nicolas an ideal place to evaluate alternative theories about the dynamics of these communities. Here we present monitoring data from seven sampling stations surrounding the island, including data on fish, invertebrate, and algal abundance. These data are unusual among subtidal monitoring data sets in that they combine relatively frequent sampling (twice per year) with an exceptionally long time series (since 1980). Other outstanding qualities of the data set are the high taxonomic resolution captured and the monitoring of permanent quadrats and swaths where the history of the community structure at specific locations has been recorded through time. Finally, the data span a period that includes two of the strongest ENSO events on record, a major shift in the Pacific decadal oscillation, and the reintroduction of sea otters to the island in 1987 after at least 150 years of absence. These events provide opportunities to evaluate the effects of bottom‐up forcing, top‐down control, and physical disturbance on shallow rocky reef communities.