Apatite fission-track analysis of rocks from the Sierra Nevada basement, southern Spain reveals a detailed record of Neogene denudation. This is combined with evidence of the accumulation of clastic sedimentary rocks in the adjacent Granada Basin to provide a comprehensive record of the denudation of the emerging mountain block. Fission-track ages of c. 9–10 and 4 Ma obtained from the basement reveal periods of rapid cooling linked to tectonic denudation of the metamorphic core. The first major pulse of erosion from the Sierra Nevada produced proximal conglomerates in the marine basin and is constrained at c. 7 Ma using Sr-isotope stratigraphy. No major signal of rapid cooling is preserved by the fission-track systems in the basement block associated with this event. Apatite fission-track data from the conglomerates show young ages and short track lengths indicative of reheating. Modelling of the data suggests that heating occurred at around 4 Ma and is linked to movement of hot fluids through the basin. The ability of thermochronometers to record erosional events during the early stages of orogenesis is critically examined and we suggest that in young rising mountain blocks surface processes are incapable of keeping pace with rock uplift, and denudation principally occurs via tectonic processes.