The paleogeographic evolution of the western USA Great Basin from the Late Cretaceous to the Cenozoic is critical to understanding how the Cordillera at this latitude transitioned from Mesozoic shortening to Cenozoic extension. According to a widely applied model, Cenozoic extension was driven by collapse of elevated crust supported by crustal thicknesses that were potentially double the present ~30–35 km. This model is difficult to reconcile with more recent estimates of moderate regional extension (≤ 50%) and the discovery that most high-angle, basin–range faults slipped rapidly ca. 17 Ma, tens of millions of years after crustal thickening occurred. Here we integrate new and existing geochronology and geologic mapping in the Elko area of northeast Nevada, one of the few places in the Great Basin with substantial exposures of Paleogene strata. We improve age control for strata that have been targeted for studies of regional paleoelevation and paleoclimate across this critical time span. In addition, a regional compilation of the ages of material within a network of middle Cenozoic paleodrainages developed across the Great Basin shows that the age of basal paleovalley fill decreases southward roughly synchronous with voluminous ignimbrite flareup volcanism that swept south across the region ca. 45–20 Ma. Integrating these datasets with the regional record of faulting, sedimentation, erosion, and magmatism, we suggest that volcanism was accompanied by an elevation increase that disrupted drainage systems and shifted the continental divide east into central Nevada from its Late Cretaceous location along the Sierra Nevada arc. The north–south Eocene–Oligocene drainage divide defined by mapping of paleovalleys may thus have evolved as a dynamic feature that propagated southward with magmatism. Despite some local faulting, the northern Great Basin became a vast, elevated volcanic tableland that persisted until dissection by Basin and Range faulting that began ca. 21–17 Ma. Based on this more detailed geologic framework, it is unlikely that Basin and Range extension was driven by Cretaceous crustal overthickening; rather, pre-existing crustal structure was just one of several factors that that led to Basin and Range faulting after ca. 17 Ma—in addition to thermal weakening of the crust associated with Cenozoic magmatism, thermally supported elevation, and changing boundary conditions. Because these causal factors evolved long after crustal thickening ended, during final removal and fragmentation of the shallowly subducting Farallon slab, they are compatible with normal (~45–50 km) thickness crust beneath the Great Basin prior to extension and do not require development of a strongly elevated, Altiplano-like region during Mesozoic shortening.