In the Loess Plateau, China, arable cultivation of slope lands is common and associated with serious soil erosion. Planting trees or grass may control erosion, but planted species may consume more soil water and can threaten long-term ecosystem sustainability. Natural vegetation succession is an alternative ecological solution to restore degraded land, but there is a time cost, given that the establishment of natural vegetation, adequate to prevent soil erosion, is a longer process than planting. The aims of this study were to identify the environmental factors controlling the type of vegetation established on abandoned cropland and to identify candidate species that might be sown soon after abandonment to accelerate vegetation succession and establishment of natural vegetation to prevent soil erosion. A field survey of thirty-three 2 × 2–m plots was carried out in July 2003, recording age since abandonment, vegetation cover, and frequency of species together with major environmental and soil variables. Data were analyzed using correspondence analysis, classification tree analysis, and species response curves. Four vegetation types were identified and the data analysis confirmed the importance of time since abandonment, total P, and soil water in controlling the type of vegetation established. Among the dominant species in the three late-successional vegetation types, the most appropriate candidates for accelerating and directing vegetation succession were King Ranch bluestem (Bothriochloa ischaemum) and Lespedeza davurica (Leguminosae). These species possess combinations of the following characteristics: tolerance of low water and nutrient availability, fibrous root system and strong lateral vegetative spread, and a persistent seed bank.