Headwater streams expand, contract, and disconnect in response to seasonal moisture conditions or those related to individual precipitation events. The fluctuation of the surface flow extent, or active drainage network, reflects catchment storage characteristics and has important impacts on stream ecology; however, the hydrological mechanisms that drive this phenomenon are still uncertain. Here, we present field surveys of the active drainage networks of four headwater streams in Central Idaho's Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness (7–21 km2) spanning the spring and summer months of 2014. We report the total length of the active drainage networks, which varied as a power law function with stream discharge with an average exponent of 0.11 ± 0.03 (range of 0.05–0.20). Generally, these active drainage networks were less responsive to changes in discharge than many streams in past studies. We observed that the locations where surface flow originates, or flowheads, were often stable, and an average of 64% of the change in active drainage network length was explained by downstream discontinuities. Analysis of geologic and geomorphic characteristics of individual watersheds and flowheads suggests that most flowheads below approximately 2200 m are supported by stable flowpaths controlled by bedrock structure. At higher elevations, small accumulation areas and saturation of shallow and conductive soil and colluvium after snowmelt result in more mobile flowhead locations. The dynamics of active drainage networks can help illuminate the spatiotemporal structure of flowpaths supporting surface flow. Copyright © 2016 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.