Evidence from woodrat middens and tree rings at Dutch John Mountain (DJM) in northeastern Utah reveal spatiotemporal patterns of pinyon pine (Pinus edulis Engelm.) colonization and expansion in the past millennium. The DJM population, a northern outpost of pinyon, was established by long-distance dispersal (~40 km). Growth of this isolate was markedly episodic and tracked multidecadal variability in precipitation. Initial colonization occurred by AD 1246, but expansion was forestalled by catastrophic drought (1250–1288), which we speculate produced extensive mortality of Utah Juniper (Juniperus osteosperma (Torr.) Little), the dominant tree at DJM for the previous ~8700 years. Pinyon then quickly replaced juniper across DJM during a few wet decades (1330–1339 and 1368–1377). Such alternating decadal-scale droughts and pluvial events play a key role in structuring plant communities at the landscape to regional level. These decadal-length precipitation anomalies tend to be regionally coherent and can synchronize physical and biological processes across large areas. Vegetation forecast models must incorporate these temporal and geographic aspects of climate variability to accurately predict the effects of future climate change.