River stages

A river is often divided into three parts or stages and has features that are specific to each stage.

The table below explains the main features of each stage.

StageMain activityMain features
Upper course (steep gradient)Vertical (downward) erosionSource, tributaries, V-shaped valley, interlocking spurs, waterfalls, rapids, gorges
Middle course (gentle gradient)Lateral (sideways) erosion starts, transportationRiver beaches (slip-off slopes), meanders, river cliffs
Lower course (very low gradient)DepositionFloodplains, oxbow lakes, levées, delta, estuary

River landscape

The following three diagrams show various types of river landscape.

Upper course of riverUpper course of riverMiddle course of riverMiddle course of riverLower course of riverLower course of river


Match the following terms to the numbers on the diagrams: river cliff, floodplain, V-shaped valley, source, estuary, interlocking spurs, river beach (slip off slope), oxbow lake, levée, waterfall, meander, gorge.

  1. Source - the point at which the river starts.
  2. Interlocking spurs - where the river winds between ridges.
  3. Gorge - a deep valley caused by the wearing back of a waterfall.
  4. Waterfall - often occur where the river crosses a band of harder rock.
  5. V-shaped valley - produced in the upper course because the river cuts down faster than the surrounding slopes are eroded.
  6. Meander - the river starts to erode from side to side.
  7. River cliff - the river moves faster on the outside of the bend and cuts into the valley side. The erosion undercuts the ground causing it to collapse, leaving a cliff.
  8. River beach (Slip-off slope) - the river moves more slowly on the inside of the bend. It cannot carry the larger pebbles and these are dropped here.
  9. Oxbow lake - during floods the river cuts through the neck of a large meander. The outside bend is left as a shallow lake.
  10. Floodplain - the river is flowing in a very wide, flat valley. When it floods, it spreads over the floodplain.
  11. Levée - during floods the overflowing river is slowed as it leaves its bed. Silt is deposited along the banks first. Over the years the deposits build up into high ridges.
  12. Estuary - the open mouth of the river, where it meets the sea.