Records of past topography connect Earth’s deep interior to the surface, reflecting the distribution of heat and mass, past crustal structure, and plate interactions. Many tectonic reconstructions of the North American Cordillera suggest the presence of an Altiplano-like plateau in the location of the modern Basin and Range, with conflicting timing and mechanisms for the onset of surface-lowering extension and orogen collapse. Here we show, through a paleotopographic profile, that from the Eocene to the Oligocene a high, broad orogen stretched across Nevada, with a distinct crest that divided a continuous westward-draining slope extending to central California from an internally drained eastern Nevada plateau. This paleo-orogen maintained demonstrably higher-than-modern elevations, reaching 3500 m in the late Oligocene. Despite the long-term high gravitational potential energy of the crust supporting this topography, surface-lowering extension did not occur until the transition to a transform margin changed the external kinematic framework of the system. Maximum surface lowering was spatially decoupled from brittle upper crustal extension, requiring a large component of mid-crustal flow.