Abstract The impact of the construction of a large dam on riparian vegetation cover can be multifold. How the riparian vegetation cover changes at different elevation zones in response to the construction of a large dam and the subsequent impound of reservoir water is still an open question. In this study, we used satellite remote sensing data integrated with geographic information system (GIS) to monitor vegetation cover change at different riparian elevation zones on a large spatial scale, taking the Three Gorges Dam in China as an example. Due to the large scale of this newly formed reservoir, it is expected to impact the riparian vegetation canopy both directly and indirectly. We chose to monitor vegetation cover changes along the 100km riparian stretch of river directly upstream of the Three Gorges Dam site, over the construction period of eleven years (2000–2010), using MODIS vegetation indices products, digital elevation model (DEM) data from ASTER, and the time series water level data of the Three Gorges reservoir as the data sources. Results show that non-vegetated area increased in the inundated zone (below 175m), as expected; area of densely vegetated land cover increased within the elevation zone of 175–775m and no change in vegetation cover was observed above 775m in elevation. Regression analysis between the vegetation index data and the reservoir water level shows that increasing water levels have had a negative impact on vegetation cover below 175m, a positive impact on vegetation cover is limited to the region between 175 and 775m, and no significant impact was observed above 775m. MODIS EVI product is less sensitive in mapping non-vegetated land cover change, but more sensitive in mapping vegetated land cover change, caused by the reservoir water level variation; both products are similar in effectively tracking a trend between land cover change in each elevation zone with time or with reservoir water level.