Although Yosemite Valley, USA, catalyzed the modern environmental movement and fueled foundational debates in geomorphology, a century of investigation has failed to definitively determine when it formed. The non-depositional nature of the landscape and homogeneous bedrock have prevented direct geological assessments. Indirect assumptions about the age of downcutting have ranged from pre-Eocene to Pleistocene. Clarity on this issue would not only satisfy public interest but also provide a new constraint for contentious debates about the Cenozoic tectonic and geomorphologic history of the Sierra Nevada in California. Here we use thermochronometric analysis of radiogenic helium in apatite crystals, coupled with numerical models of crustal temperatures beneath evolving topography, to demonstrate significant late Cenozoic deepening of Tenaya Canyon, Yosemite’s northeastern branch. Approximately 40%−90% of the current relief has developed since 10 Ma and most likely since 5 Ma. This coincides with renewed regional tectonism, which is a long-hypothesized but much debated driver of Sierran canyon development. Pleistocene glaciation caused spatially variable incision and valley widening in Yosemite Valley, whereas little contemporaneous erosion occurred in the adjacent upper Tuolumne watershed. Such variations probably arise from glacial erosion’s dependence on opographic focusing of ice discharge into zones of rapid flow, and on the abundance of pre-existing fractures in the substrate. All available data, including those from our study, are consistent with a moderately high and slowly eroding mid-Cenozoic Sierra Nevada followed by significant late Cenozoic incision of some, but not all, west-side canyons. A likely driver of this event was range-crest uplift accompanied by fault-induced beheading of some major drainages, although other mechanisms such as drainage reorganization following volcanic deposition are plausible.

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