A fundamental geological tenet is that as landscapes evolve over graded to geologic time, geologic structures control patterns of topographic distribution in mountainous areas such that terrain underlain by competent rock will be higher than terrain underlain by incompetent rock. This paper shows that in active orogens where markedly weak and markedly strong rocks are juxtaposed along contacts that parallel regional structures, relatively high topography can form where strain is localized in the weak rock. Such a relationship is illustrated by the topography of the central Coast Ranges between the Pacific coastline and the San Andreas fault zone (SAFZ), and along the length of the Gabilan Mesa (the "Gabilan Mesa segment" of the central Coast Ranges). Within the Gabilan Mesa segment, the granitic upper crust of the Salinian terrane is in contact with the accretionary-prism m??lange upper crust of the Nacimiento terrane along the inactive Nacimiento fault zone. A prominent topographic lineament is present along most of this lithologic boundary, approximately 50 to 65. km southwest of the SAFZ, with the higher topography formed in the m??lange on the southwest side of the Nacimiento fault. This paper investigates factors influencing the pattern of topographic development in the Gabilan Mesa segment of the central Coast Ranges by correlating shortening magnitude with the upper-crust compositions of the Salinian and Nacimiento terranes. The fluvial geomorphology of two valleys in the Gabilan Mesa, which is within the Salinian terrane, and alluvial geochronology based on optically-stimulated luminescence (OSL) age estimates, reveal that the magnitude of shortening accommodated by down-to-the-southwest tilting of the mesa since 400ka is less than 1 to 2m. Our results, combined with those of previous studies, indicate that at least 63% to 78% of late-Cenozoic, northeast-southwest directed, upper-crustal shortening across the Gabilan Mesa segment has been accommodated within the Nacimiento terrane. This is significant because perpendicular to orogenic strike the Nacimiento terrane constitutes less than 1/4 of the distance between the coast and the SAFZ, and the other 3/4 (or greater) of the distance between the coast and the SAFZ is underlain by the granitic upper crust of the Salinian terrane. We propose that strain and mountain building are localized within the Nacimiento terrane because it consists predominantly of the relatively weak Franciscan Complex m??lange, and because the upper crust of the Salinian terrane is composed of relatively strong granitic rocks. Our hypothesis is supported by the distribution of post-seismic surface uplift associated with the 2003, 6.5M W San Simeon earthquake, which mimics the topography of the southwestern part of the Gabilan Mesa segment of the central Coast Ranges. ?? 2011 Elsevier B.V.