Understanding mechanisms of exotic species' invasions is essential to managing riparian landscapes throughout the world. In the southwestern USA, the two most dominant invaders of riparian habitats are the exotic tree species tamarisk (Tamarix ramosissima, Tamarix chinensis, and their hybrids) and Russian olive (Elaeagnus angustifolia). These plants were introduced around 1900, and their success may be facilitated by river regulation, river channel changes, and precipitation patterns. We hypothesized that riparian invasion in Canyon de Chelly, Arizona, was initiated by a change point event such as plantings, dam construction, or channel incision and that establishment near a change point was tied to flood events. We aged tamarisk, Russian olive, and native cottonwood trees from study sites in Canyon de Chelly and used tree ring analysis to determine the year of establishment and the elevation of the germination point relative to the channel. We used Bayesian Poisson regression and information theoretics to identify change points and precipitation variables driving annual tree establishment. We found that most tamarisk and Russian olive trees established in the late 1980s, and most cottonwoods established in 1930-1950 and 1980-2000. Regression models indicated that change points occurred in 1983 for Russian olive and 1988 for tamarisk, and precipitation was important for establishment. Although plantings and river regulation probably played a role in tree invasion, our results suggest that these species required precipitation and stream channel change for widespread establishment in Canyon de Chelly. The factors driving riparian invasions may not be those often associated with degraded rivers, such as altered hydrographs and land management changes, thus requiring analyses of the full range of ecological and physical processes. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.