River networks define ecological corridors characterised by unidirectional streamflow, which may impose downstream drift to aquatic organisms or affect their movement. Animals and plants manage to persist in riverine ecosystems, though, which in fact harbour high biological diversity. Here, we study metapopulation persistence in river networks analysing stage-structured populations that exploit different dispersal pathways, both along-stream and overland. Using stability analysis, we derive a novel criterion for metapopulation persistence in arbitrarily complex landscapes described as spatial networks. We show how dendritic geometry and overland dispersal can promote population persistence, and that their synergism provides an explanation of the so-called `drift paradox’. We also study the geography of the initial spread of a species and place it in the context of biological invasions. Applications concerning the persistence of stream salamanders in the Shenandoah river, and the spread of two invasive species in the Mississippi-Missouri are also discussed.