Since the ‘Grain to Green Program' was launched in 1999 in the Loess Plateau, China, the processes and patterns of ecological change have become important. Through the use of the fractional vegetation cover (FVC) index, this study examines the spatial distribution and temporal change of vegetation cover in the Loess Plateau during 2000–2014. Over this period more than 60% of the Loess Plateau has remained with little vegetation cover (FVC <30%). The spatial distribution pattern shows an overall increase from the NW to SE. Temporally, the vegetation cover exhibits a general trend of improvement. In 2000–2005, 2000–2010 and 2000–2014, the percentages of restored vegetation (vegetation with significantly increased FVC, P<0.05) were 2, 21 and 52%, respectively. The rate of vegetation cover restoration was highly variable among different bioclimatic zones. The expansion of restored vegetation was greater in the N of the Loess Plateau than in the south. Both human restoration activities and climatic fluctuation influenced the vegetation cover change. The ‘Grain to Green Program' emphasised vegetation restoration. Regional precipitation also had clear effects on vegetation cover. The results of this study reveal that vegetation change shows a non-linear process in response to climate and ecological restoration measures, and that the change gradually emerges over time. This study highlights the importance of considering the spatiotemporal variability in vegetation cover during the implementation of restoration programs, which could aid decision-making for the effective and sustainable management of large-scale restoration programs.