Dispersal strategies are important mechanisms underlying the spatial distribution and colonizing ability of all mobile species. In the current study, we use highly polymorphic microsatellite markers to evaluate local dispersal and colonization dynamics of the round goby (Neogobius melanostomus), an aquatic invader expanding its range from lake to river environments in its introduced North American range. Genetic structure, genotype assignment and genetic diversity were compared among 1262 round gobies from 20 river and four lake sites in three Great Lakes tributaries. Our results indicate that a combination of short-distance diffusion and long-distance dispersal, collectively referred to as ‘stratified dispersal’, is facilitating river colonization. Colonization proceeded upstream yearly (approximately 500 m/year; 2005–2009) in one of two temporal replicates while genetic structure was temporally stable. Contiguous dispersal from the lake was observed in all three rivers with a substantial portion of river fish (7.3%) identified as migrants. Genotype assignment indicated a separate introduction occurred upstream of the invasion front in one river. Genetic diversity was similar and relatively high among lake and recently colonized river populations, indicating that founder effects are mitigated through a dual-dispersal strategy. The remarkable success of round goby as an aquatic invader stresses the need for better diffusion models of secondary range expansion for presumably sessile invasive species.