Riparian vegetation varies according to hydrogeomorphic processes operating across different scales over two didmensions: transversely (across-stream) and longitudinally (parallel to stream). We tested the hypothesis that vegetation patterns reveal the scale and direction of underlying processes. We correlated patterns of dominant woody vegetation with environmental variables at 28 sites located within four geomorphologically distinct regions along the length of the South Alligator River catchment of Kakadu National Park, northern Australia. Across the catchment there existed a strong transverse boundary between upland savanna vegetation and two zones of riparian vegetation: Melaleuca-spp.-dominated closed-forest vegetation along stream channels and mixed open-woodland vegetation adjacent to closed forest. We surmise that there is hierarchic constraint on smaller-scale catchment processes due to fire incursion into the riparian zone and access to water during the dry season. Within the closed-forest zone, vegetation did not vary transversely, but did longitudinally. Riparian woodlands also varied longitudinally, but in the upper reaches varied independently of stream variables. By contrast, in the lower reaches woodland was strongly correlated with stream variables. The observed pattern of weak transverse linkages in headwaters but strong linkages in lower reaches is analogous to models developed for in-stream patterns and processes, particularly the river continuum and flood-pulse concepts.