The effect of bedrock permeability on subsurface stormflow initiation and the hillslope water balance is poorly understood. Previous hillslope hydrological studies at the Panola Mountain Research Watershed (PMRW), Georgia, USA, have assumed that the bedrock underlying the trenched hillslope is effectively impermeable. This paper presents a series of sprinkling experiments where we test the bedrock impermeability hypothesis at the PMRW. Specifically, we quantify the bedrock permeability effects on hillslope subsurface stormflow generation and the hillslope water balance at the PMRW. Five sprinkling experiments were performed by applying 882–1676 mm of rainfall over a ∼5·5 m × 12 m area on the lower hillslope during ∼8 days. In addition to water input and output captured at the trench, we measured transpiration in 14 trees on the slope to close the water balance. Of the 193 mm day−1 applied during the later part of the sprinkling experiments when soil moisture changes were small, <14 mm day−1 was collected at the trench and <4 mm day−1 was transpired by the trees, with residual bedrock leakage of >175 mm day−1 (91%). Bedrock moisture was measured at three locations downslope of the water collection system in the trench. Bedrock moisture responded quickly to precipitation in early spring. Peak tracer breakthrough in response to natural precipitation in the bedrock downslope from the trench was delayed only 2 days relative to peak tracer arrival in subsurface stormflow at the trench. Leakage to bedrock influences subsurface stormflow at the storm time-scale and also the water balance of the hillslope. This has important implications for the age and geochemistry of the water and thus how one models this hillslope and watershed. Copyright © 2006 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.