As a result of climate change/variation and its aggravation by human activities over the past several decades, the hydrological conditions in the middle Yellow River in China have dramatically changed, which has led to a sharp decrease of streamflow and the drying up of certain tributaries. This paper simulated and analysed the impact of sediment-trapping dams (STDs, a type of large-sized check dam used to prevent sediment from entering the Yellow River main stem) on hydrological processes, and the study area was located in the 3246 km2 Huangfuchuan River basin. Changes in the hydrological processes were analysed, and periods of natural and disturbed states were defined. Subsequently, the number and distribution of the STDs were determined based on data collected from statistical reports and identified from remote sensing images, and the topological relationships between the STDs and high-resolution river reaches were established. A hydrological model, the digital Yellow River integrated model, was used to simulate the STD impact on the hydrological processes, and the maximum STD impact was evaluated through a comparison between the simulation results with and without the STDs, which revealed that the interception effect of the STDs contributed to the decrease of the streamflow by approximately 39%. This paper also analysed the relationship between the spatial distribution of the STDs and rainfall in the Huangfuchuan River basin and revealed that future soil and water conservation measures should focus on areas with a higher average annual rainfall and higher number of rainstorm hours. © 2015 The Authors Hydrological Processes Published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd.