Precise chemical abrasion–thermal ionization mass spectrometry (CA-TIMS) U-Pb zircon ages in combination with detailed field mapping, 40Ar/39Ar thermochronology, and finite difference thermal modeling in the magmatic lobes of the Tuolumne batholith characterize these 10–60 km2 bodies as shorter-lived, simpler magmatic systems that represent increments of batholith growth. Lobes provide shorter-term records of internal and external processes that are potentially obliterated in the main body of long-lived, composite batholiths. Zircon ages complemented by thermal modeling indicate that lobe-sized magma chambers were present between ∼0.2 and 1 m.y., representing only a small fraction of the total duration of melt presence in the main body. During these shorter intervals, a concentric pattern of normal compositional zoning formed during inward crystallization and widespread zircon recycling in the lobes. Lobes largely evolved as individual magma bodies that did not interact significantly with the main, more complex magma chamber(s). Antecrystic zircons and the range of autocrysts, used to track the extent of interconnected melt, record only a limited range of ages and have contrasting zircon populations to those found in the same units in the main batholith. We consider lobes to either be single batches formed during continuous magma flow or multiple, quickly coalescing pulses that in either case formed separate magma chambers that failed to amalgamate with other compositionally distinct pulses such as those occurring in the central batholith. Zircon age comparisons between all four lobes and the main body imply that growth of the Tuolumne intrusion was not stationary, but that the locus of magmatism shifted both inward and northwestward.