We provide a first detailed analysis of long-term, annual-resolution demographic trends in a temperate forest. After tracking the fates of 21 338 trees in a network of old-growth forest plots in the Sierra Nevada of California, we found that mortality rate, but not the recruitment rate, increased significantly over the 22 years of measurement (1983–2004). Mortality rates increased in both of two dominant taxonomic groups (Abies and Pinus) and in different forest types (different elevational zones). The increase in overall mortality rate resulted from an increase in tree deaths attributed to stress and biotic causes, and coincided with a temperature-driven increase in an index of drought. Our findings suggest that these forests (and by implication, other water-limited forests) may be sensitive to temperature-driven drought stress, and may be poised for die-back if future climates continue to feature rising temperatures without compensating increases in precipitation.