Future extreme precipitation (EP, daily rainfall amount over certain thresholds) is projected to increase with global climate change; however, its effect on groundwater recharge has not been fully explored. This study specifically investigates the spatiotemporal dynamics of groundwater recharge and the effects of extreme precipitation (daily rainfall amount over the 95th percentile, which is tagged by ranking the percentiles in each season for a base period) on groundwater recharge from 1950 to 2010 over the Northern High Plains (NHP) Aquifer using the Soil Water Balance Model. The results show that groundwater recharge significantly (p < 0.05) increased in the eastern NHP from 1950 to 2010, where the highest annual average groundwater recharge occurs compared to the central and the western NHP. In the eastern NHP, 45.1% of the annual precipitation fell as EP, which contributed 56.8% of the annual total groundwater recharge. In the western NHP, 30.9% of the annual precipitation fell as extreme precipitation, which contributed 62.5% of the annual total groundwater recharge. In addition, recharge by extreme precipitation mainly occurred in late spring and early summer, before the maximum evapotranspiration rate, which usually occurs in mid-summer until late fall. A dry site in the western NHP and a wet site in the eastern NHP were analysed to indicate how recharge responds to EP with different precipitation regimes. The maximum daily recharge at the dry site exceeded the wet site when there was EP. When precipitation fell as non-extreme rainfall, most recharge was less than 5 mm at both the dry and wet sites, and the maximum recharge at the dry site became lower than the wet site. This study shows that extreme precipitation plays a significant role in determining groundwater recharge. © 2016 The Authors Hydrological Processes Published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd.