The growth history and formation mechanisms of the Cenozoic Tibetan Plateau are the subject of an intense debate with important implications for understanding the kinematics and dynamics of large-scale intracontinental deformation. Better constraints on the uplift and deformation history across the northern plateau are necessary to address how the Tibetan Plateau was constructed. To this end, we present updated field observations coupled with low-temperature thermochronology from the Qaidam basin in the south to the Qilian Shan foreland in the north. Our results show that the region experienced a late Mesozoic cooling event that is interpreted as a result of tectonic deformation prior to the India-Asia collision. Our results also reveal the onset of renewed cooling in the Eocene in the Qilian Shan region along the northern margin of the Tibetan Plateau, which we interpret to indicate the timing of initial thrusting and plateau formation along the plateau margin. The interpreted Eocene thrusting in the Qilian Shan predates Cenozoic thrust belts to the south (e.g., the Eastern Kunlun Range), which supports out-of-sequence rather than northward-migrating thrust belt development. The early Cenozoic deformation exploited the south-dipping early Paleozoic Qilian suture zone as indicated by our field mapping and the existing geophysical data. In the Miocene, strike-slip faulting was initiated along segments of the older Paleozoic suture zones in northern Tibet, which led to the development of the Kunlun and Haiyuan left-slip transpressional systems. Late Miocene deformation and uplift of the Hexi corridor and Longshou Shan directly north of the Qilian Shan thrust belt represent the most recent phase of outward plateau growth.