Single-molecule techniques facilitate analysis of mechanical transitions within nucleic acids and proteins. Here, we describe an integrated fluorescence and magnetic tweezers instrument that permits detection of nanometer-scale DNA structural rearrangements together with the application of a wide range of stretching forces to individual DNA molecules. We have analyzed the force-dependent equilibrium and rate constants for telomere DNA G-quadruplex (GQ) folding and unfolding, and have determined the location of the transition state barrier along the well-defined DNA-stretching reaction coordinate. Our results reveal the mechanical unfolding pathway of the telomere DNA GQ is characterized by a short distance (<1 nm) to the transition state for the unfolding reaction. This mechanical unfolding response reflects a critical contribution of long-range interactions to the global stability of the GQ fold, and suggests that telomere-associated proteins need only disrupt a few base pairs to destabilize GQ structures. Comparison of the GQ unfolded state with a single-stranded polyT DNA revealed the unfolded GQ exhibits a compacted non-native conformation reminiscent of the protein molten globule. We expect the capacity to interrogate macromolecular structural transitions with high spatial resolution under conditions of low forces will have broad application in analyses of nucleic acid and protein folding.