Willow communities dominate mid-elevation riparian areas throughout the Rocky Mountains of North America. However, many willow stands are rapidly declining in aerial cover and individual plants in stature. A poor understanding of the processes that control willow establishment hinders identifying the causes of this decline. We analysed the processes that have facilitated or limited willow establishment over the last half of the 20th century on two large floodplains in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado by addressing two questions: (1) How does hydrologic regime control willow establishment on different fluvial landforms? (2) How might climate-driven variations in hydrologic regime affect future willow establishment? We precisely aged willows on the three most common fluvial landforms, stream point bars, drained beaver ponds, and abandoned channels, and statistically related establishment dates to patterns of annual stream peak flow. The role of peak flow on willow establishment varied significantly by landform. Willow recruitment had occurred nearly every year on point bars. In former beaver complexes, most willows had established following dam breaches, whereas willows had established on abandoned channels for several years following channel avulsion. Establishment on point bars and abandoned channels was driven by peak flows of 2- to 5-year return intervals, whereas in abandoned beaver ponds most establishment was associated with flow events of >5-year return interval. Models of climate change suggest that temperatures will increase and precipitation seasonality will shift over the coming decades in the Rocky Mountains, leading to earlier spring runoff, lower summer and fall flows, decreased snowpack and decreased soil moisture. Such changes are likely to diminish opportunities for willow establishment.