The variable source area (VSA) concept provides the underlying paradigm for managing phosphorus losses in runoff in the north-eastern USA. This study sought to elucidate factors controlling runoff along two hillslopes with contrasting soils, including characterizing runoff generation mechanisms and hydrological connectivity. Runoff monitoring plots (2 m × 1 m) were established in various landscape positions. Footslope positions were characterized by the presence of a fragipan that contributed to seasonally perched water tables. In upslope positions without a fragipan, runoff was generated primarily via the infiltration-excess (IE) mechanism (96% of events) and was largely disconnected from downslope runoff. Roughly 80% of total runoff originated from the north footslope landscape position via saturation-excess (SE) (46% of events; 62% of runoff) and IE (54% of events; 38% of runoff) mechanisms. Runoff from the north hillslope was substantially greater than the south hillslope despite their proximity, and apparently was a function of the extent of fragipan representation. Results demonstrate the influence of subsurface soil properties (e.g. fragipan) on surface runoff generation in variable source area hydrology settings, which could be useful for improving the accuracy of existing runoff prediction tools. Published in 2009 by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.