We report 26Al/10Be based ages of Sierra Nevada caves that constrain detailed late Pliocene and Quaternary river incision histories for five river canyons. Rapid incision of ∼0.2 mm/yr from 2.7 to ca. 1.5 Ma slowed markedly to ∼0.03 mm/yr thereafter, likely reflecting the combined effects of a transient erosional response to Pliocene rock uplift and periodic mantling of riverbeds with glacially derived sediment in the late Quaternary. While ∼400 m of incision has occurred in the past 2.7 m.y., outpacing interfluve erosion and thereby increasing the local relief, canyons as deep as 1.6 km existed prior to that time. These new erosion rates strengthen the case for tectonically driven late Cenozoic uplift.