Distributed, continuous hydrologic models promote better understanding of hydrology and enable integrated hydrologic analyses by providing a more detailed picture of water transport processes across the varying landscape. However, such models are not widely used in routine modelling practices, due in part to the extensive data input requirements, computational demands, and complexity of routing algorithms. We developed a two-dimensional continuous hydrologic model, HYSTAR, using a time-area method within a grid-based spatial data model with the goal of providing an alternative way to simulate spatiotemporally varied watershed-scale hydrologic processes. The model calculates the direct runoff hydrograph by coupling a time-area routing scheme with a dynamic rainfall excess sub-model implemented here using a modified curve number method with an hourly time step, explicitly considering downstream ‘reinfiltration’ of routed surface runoff. Soil moisture content is determined at each time interval based on a water balance equation, and overland and channel runoff is routed on time-area maps, representing spatial variation in hydraulic characteristics for each time interval in a storm event. Simulating runoff hydrographs does not depend on unit hydrograph theory or on solution of the Saint Venant equation, yet retains the simplicity of a unit hydrograph approach and the capability of explicitly simulating two-dimensional flow routing. The model provided acceptable performance in predicting daily and monthly runoff for a 6-year period for a watershed in Virginia (USA) using readily available geographic information about the watershed landscape. Spatial and temporal variability in simulated effective runoff depth and time area maps dynamically show the areas of the watershed contributing to the direct runoff hydrograph at the outlet over time, consistent with the variable source area overland flow generation mechanism. The model offers a way to simulate watershed processes and runoff hydrographs using the time-area method, providing a simple, efficient, and sound framework that explicitly represents mechanisms of spatially and temporally varied hydrologic processes. Copyright © 2015 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.