The Atlas, Eastern Cordillera and Pyrenees are thick-skinned thrust-fold belts formed by tectonic inversion of rift basins in continental settings. A comparison of shortening between them shows a gradation from 20-25% in the central High Atlas, to 25-30% in the Eastern Cordillera, and c. 40% in the Pyrenees. Accordingly, there is a structural variation from interior zones with low structural relief and isolated basement massifs in the first two cases, to an axial culmination of stacked basement thrust sheets in the Pyrenees. This results in marked topographic and drainage variation: the High Atlas and Eastern Cordillera contain axial plateaus dominated by structure-controlled longitudinal rivers and orogen flanks with slope-controlled transverse rivers, whereas the Pyrenees show a two-sided wedge profile dominated by transverse rivers. In spite of singularities exhibited by each orogen, we propose that this spatial variation can be understood as reflecting different degrees of evolution in mountain building. Rapidly incising, transverse rivers are capturing earlier longitudinal streams of the Atlas and Eastern Cordillera, thus reducing their axial plateaux, which will eventually disappear into a transverse-dominated drainage. This pattern of landscape evolution may be characteristic of inversion orogens as they develop from initial stages of inversion to full accretion. © The Geological Society of London 2013.