Russian-thistle (Salsola tragus L.), is a nonnative, C4 photosynthesizing, annual plant that infests disturbed and natural areas in the arid U.S. Southwest. Land managers of natural areas may need to decide whether a S. tragus infestation is potentially harmful and whether it should be actively managed. One factor informing that decision is an understanding of the conditions under which this weed emerges and establishes and how those processes affect where and when infestations occur. We studied S. tragus establishment on aeolian (windblown) sandy soils at Petrified Forest National Park, AZ. Our sites were a previously disturbed sand sheet and a semistabilized sand dune. Measurements in plots on these sites over two growing seasons revealed a similar number of S. tragus seedlings emerging on both sites early in the 2015 growing season. As the season progressed, S. tragus cover (seedling survival and growth) was lower on the sand dune, except for a plot placed entirely on a coppice mound. In 2016, S. tragus seedling emergence and development of cover, measured on plots at both sites, was exceptionally low, as was summer rainfall. A growth chamber assay of seedling emergence from soil and litter samples collected at each site showed emergence was greatest from samples collected where S. tragus litter remained on the soil surface, and otherwise was infrequent. Our study suggests that S. tragus emergence and early establishment are sensitive to low precipitation and that soil-surface microtopography and grass and shrub cover may be determinants of the spatial pattern of infestation on sandy soils. As aeolian sands occur throughout drylands of the U.S. Southwest, deeper understanding of the conditions under which S. tragus seedlings emerge and establish can inform management of this invasive annual in those habitats.